Friday, June 03, 2011

Last Seen Wearing

Frankie here, ending a lovely week’s vacation in Portland, Maine. I really needed this. I enjoy traveling with other people, but there is something liberating about traveling alone and doing whatever one feels like doing . . . like sitting in a coffee shop for an hour looking out the window at people passing on the street. I saw a fascinating exchange involving a homeless man and a young couple that gave me a great idea. I think this may be a real idea (as opposed to a brilliant idea that evaporates). So I’m heading back to Albany, promising myself that I will spend more time being on vacation at home . . . taking time to do whatever occurs to me. If only I could take the view of the harbor from my hotel room window back with me . . .

But what I wanted to talk about today is characters and clothing. Do clothes make the man or the woman? I’m working on an academic project about clothing and crime in American culture -- which brings me quite naturally to crime fiction. I’ve been re-watching classic crime films and flipping through the mystery novels on my bookshelves to see what characters are wearing before settling down to do all this properly with coding sheets in hand.

Certainly, clothing choices in crime fiction are influenced by genre (e.g., noir tough guys in trenchcoats and femme fatales in high heels). But then it becomes a matter of individualizing the character, defining his or her personality. Remember the Columbo episode when his wife replaced his battered, wrinkled raincoat with a new one? I haven’t tracked it down yet, but as I recall the lieutenant looked buttoned-up and uncomfortable. He kept forgetting the new raincoat whenever he took it off. His brilliant mind – or at least his concentration – was affected by this major change in his wardrobe.

That brings me to what happens when a writer dresses his or her character. Of course, the writer needs to take into account basics such as sex and age. The writer also may think – as he ponders the character’s lifestyle – that class, race/ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation are relevant. Then there is the matter of the character’s eccentricities, superstitions, and aspirations. Add to that occupational dress codes, the region of the country, the season of the year, and the day of the week (casual Friday at the office or church on Sunday?). And then there’s the matter of whether the character is a slob, obsessively neat, absent-minded (forgot to pick up his cleaning), has children (too busy getting them dressed to worry about what she’s going to wear), color-blind (always wears black and white to avoid mistakes), frugal (shops at consignment stores or Goodwill or sews leather patches over the elbows of his jacket), overweight (clothes never fit over belly), allergic (always wears natural fibers or itching because her husband did the laundry with the wrong detergent)..

Once I started thinking about this, I wondered how I or any other writer manages to get our characters dressed – or undressed. What does the character wear to bed? Nothing? One of her husband’s shirts? A couple who wear matching pajamas? A woman who wears a black silk negligee even when she’s alone?

What occurred to me is that if I spend more time looking in my characters’ closets and thinking about their clothing, I probably will find all kinds of interesting backstories. For example, in real life, I have a rabbit fur jacket that my mother (now deceased) gave me because she bought it and then never wore it. I’ve had that rabbit fur jacket for years. I’ve packed it for three different moves. It’s hanging in my closet right now. I can’t wear it (for both ethical and aesthetic reasons), but I also can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Do my characters have stories like that about the clothing, shoes, jewelry in their closets? I suspect they do.

What about your characters? What’s in their wardrobes? Does he need to shop for socks? Wear boxers or briefs? Does she have a bathing suit that she’d need to lose 30 pounds to ever fit into again?

And by the way if you have recommendations of books and movies in which writers make particularly effective use of clothing, please send them along.


H. L. Banks said...

What an intersting academic project to be working on and your example of Columbo and his raincoat really underlines the importance of clothes and character. Hope you are able to share some of your work with us.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thank you! Yes, I am having fun, and I'd be happy to share any tidbits that I come across that might be of interest. Actually, at some point, the project is going to produce a book, but that takes time.

Donis Casey said...

Frankie, I have the same problem as you with one of my mother's coats. My father gave her a cashmere coat in 1962 that she loved. I got it when she died and even though it's falling apart I can't bring myself to part with it. Same with some mini skirts and dresses she made for me in the 60s. I couldn't get into them with a shoehorn. I need to find a clothing museum to donate them to.
Carolyn Hart has a series character who is a vain, fashion-conscious ghost who comes back to earth to help people and spends half her time materializing new outfits and admiring herself in the mirror. I thought that was an interesting idea.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Donis, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who is sentimental. Actually, a clothing museum sounds like a great idea. I wonder if they take rabbit fur jackets.

Thanks for the Carolyn Hart tip. I love the idea of a fashion-conscious ghost. Goes on my list.

Annikka Woods said...

I'm a fantasy writer, so clothing plays a huge role in defining my characters. An entire race/culture can be defined by what they wear, how they wear it, and the significance (religious/regional/occupational) behind it. I found creating my races was a lot of fun when it came to the clothes because my imagination came up with some WEIRD ideas. And a few of them even worked.

This is an interesting project and I hope you find several examples for your project.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Annikka. I should have lots of examples once I settle in and start working down the list of classic crime/detective novels, award winners, fashion mysteries (i.e., mystery with protagonists who are involved with fashion/clothing).

It will be as interesting, too, to have a closer look at the authors who say little about clothing. It's much easier for a mystery/detective writer to do that than fantasy writers engaged in world-building where attention to details (such as clothing and food) is so essential. Much easier for a mystery writer to say, "He pulled on his jeans and reached for his keys" and not have readers rise up in protest because they feel something is missing in the way of description.