We all know how important clothing is in real life. It functions as a primary means of nonverbal communication to inform a watching world about who we are. Clothing can reveal—or sometimes conceal—gender, class, occupation, age, economic status, and group affiliation among other things. How often have you heard people define themselves or others in terms of their clothing? An actress describes herself as a “jeans and tee shirt kind of girl,” and the public understands a great deal about how she sees herself, or at least how she wants the public to believe she sees herself. One man mocks another for being a “Brooks Brothers type,” and we draw conclusions about both the mocker and the object of his mockery.
Clothing figures in our art too. Think about the part clothing plays in our understanding of the peasants in Bruegel’s “The Wedding Dance” or the repressed colors of Degas’s “The Bellelli Family." Consider the visual images that are evoked by naming characters from literature. If I mention Guinevere, the Wife of Bath, Fitzwilliam Darcy, or Jay Gatsby, I dare say particular details of clothing form part of the mental picture you have of these characters. Critics and fans alike almost inevitably refer to costume design as part of the appeal of period movies, and from seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick writing about the sweetly flowing “liquefaction” of Julia’s clothes to Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1999 penning a tribute to an old, silver-buttoned shirt that has served as a blanket for lovers and a birthing bed for a cat, poets and songwriters have been inspired by clothing.
Clothing is important in romance fiction too. Janice Radway in Reading the Romance (1984) concluded that the attention devoted to clothing in romance fiction reinforced feminine stereotypes and functioned as a link between the heroine and the female reader caught up in a world of “housewifery, shopping trips, homemade wardrobes, and reliance on magazines like Family Circle and Good Housekeeping for tips about replicating Vogue couture on a tight budget.” In her essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-vision the Real,” Jennifer Crusie challenges Radway:
Pardon me while I put aside my home-sewing and delay my shopping trip so I can slap this argument up side the head with my Family Circle. . . . Women are preoccupied with details like clothing and environment because most of us are mistresses of unspoken communication. Women can usually tell more about someone from looking at her or him than from listening because, as everybody as far back as Aristotle has known, character is not speech but action. And the way people present themselves and their environments is action. In particular, the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning. Women (and observant men) know that God truly is in the details, and so is a lot of truth.
As I reread Crusie’s essay, nodding emphatically in agreement with her argument, I was reminded of scenes in favorite novels in which the author uses details of the heroine’s clothing to reveal character and move the narrative.
1. In Born in Ice (1994) by Nora Roberts, Maggie Concannon uses a dress in her battle against her own fears as she faces the opening of the exhibition of her art at Rogan Sweeney’s gallery, and if she knocks Rogan off his man-in-control feet in the process, it adds to the sweetness.
She’d chosen black, unrelieved and unadorned. The dress took all its style from the body it covered. It draped from throat to ankle, but no one would call it prim, not with the glossy black buttons that swirled the length of it, the buttons that she’d left daringly open to the swell of her breasts, and up to the top of one slim thigh.
She looked fearless, defiant and completely in control.
2. In First Lady by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Cornelia Litchfield Case happily leaves behind the designer wardrobe of the most famous woman in the United States and transforms herself into Nell Kelly, a woman “blissfully, sublimely ordinary” with a change in hair color and “cheap white tennis shoes, navy shorts, and an oversized yellow top with a row of ducks marching across it.”
3. Francesca Bonnard, the courtesan heroine of Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase, uses night clothes to win a skirmish in her ongoing battle with agent extraordinaire James Cordier and to set herself apart from virtuous women in their “frumpy, cotton nightdresses.”
Pink silk ribbons tied the deep neckline closed. A pink silk ribbon drawstring tied under her breasts. Over the nightdress she wore a silk dressing gown of a paler shade, closer to the color of cram. In contrast to the simple shift, this was trimmed with miles of ruffles and lace and shimmering embroidery dotted with seed pearls.
4. The consummation of the marriage of convenience that takes place between the heiress Millicent Graves and Earl Fitzhugh takes place eight years into the marriage and more than two hundred pages into Ravishing the Heiress by Sherry Thomas. Beginning with the three ivory buttons on Millie’s long kidskin gloves that Fitz pops one by one, continuing with the jeweled hairpins that he extracts, and moving on to his countess’s elaborate ball gown, Thomas uses details of Millie’s clothing to prolong the scene and heighten the sexual tension and perhaps suggest a metaphor for their marriage.
The buttons on her back gave away as if before a Mongol horde. The small cap sleeves at her shoulders sagged. He pushed them down, his hands lingering on the inside of her elbows.
The skirt of the ball gown was a monument of ruching and pleating. It contained so much understructure that even with the bodice of the gown hanging limply in defeat, it still stood upright on its own, stalwartly defending her virtue with silk ramparts and chiffon moats.
He simply lifted her bodily and—good Lord—did he kick her magnificent and costly ball gown out of the way?
5. In Can’t Buy Me Love by Molly O’Keefe, Tara Jean Sweet dons a carefully constructed costume to persuade hockey star Luc Baker that she is a gold digger in hot pursuit of his estranged father’s money.
Bimbo Barbie wore red silk that ran, slick and smooth like a crimson oil spill, over a whole host of impressive curves and valleys. There was a big pile of blond hair on top of her head, with long curls sweeping her cheeks and the tops of her shoulders.
Luc takes one look and concludes that she is “a glorified puck bunny . . . a mercenary. A whore.”
6. The ton eagerly adopted a newspaper’s epithet of “the Ugly Duchess” for Theodora Saxby upon her marriage to the handsome James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, in The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James. When she makes her first appearance in London after she has transformed herself, her clothing makes a triumphant announcement.
It was a pearly pink silk taffeta shot with threads of silver. He breasts were scarcely covered, and from there the gown fell straight to the ground in a hauntingly beautiful sweep of cloth.
The pièce de résistance of her costume was a formal cape that gleamed under the light, soft and lustrous, almost as if it were made of fur.
The inside was lined with a gorgeous rosy silk, and the outside . . .
I’m sure there are many other examples of clothing revealing character and advancing plot. Which do you find most memorable?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.