I have a fascination for the clothes the characters in my books wear. Fashion and character is something I spend a substantial amount of time researching. Why do I bother? I could easily use that time to do some other more “serious” research; after all, clothes are thought to be fairly trivial items. But they’re not. For me, they’re an essential part of getting the character onto the page.
How Clothes Get Character Onto the Page?
As a writer, I have four main methods of getting the character to come to life in the reader’s mind: dialogue, action, thought and description. If you’ve been to any of my writing courses, you’ll know I don’t love using thought as it’s too claustrophobic. Description can tend towards dullness: hair colour and length, eye colour, height etc. Action and dialogue are, for the most part, essential methods but how can the reader really “see” the character if they have no idea what she is wearing?
But it’s more than that, more than a way to create a sense of the fictive dream. One of my favourite writers, Joan Didion, says that “style is character” and in a recent article about Didion, Claire Luchette wrote, “A shirt is never just a shirt in Didion’s work. It’s a symbol, a message, a sign of life.” Yes, I thought when I read it: that’s exactly it.
Clothes are highly symbolic. Clothes do send a message. And clothes show everyone just what kind of life the character would like everyone to think they are living.
The Clothes in Her Mother’s Secret
There are quite a few key moments in Her Mother’s Secret where I take the time to describe in detail what Leo, the heroine, wears. On one occasion, she wears a dress borrowed from Faye—a woman who hates Leo—to a dinner date with Faye’s brother, a man Leo is wary of and who she thinks has more power than she does. How does it make her feel to go on such a date in a borrowed dress that costs more than Leo will ever earn, and is more revealing than anything she’s ever worn? (It’s the black dress, top right in the picture above)
And those are the kinds of questions I hope that readers ask. That’s why I spend so much time describing the clothes and finding the exact right dress. Because if a reader asks those questions, then they’re getting to know the character more intimately than if I was to tell them how Leo was feeling.
Just the fact that the dress is revealing, when Leo is going out with a man from whom she has much to conceal, tells us an awful lot, without me having to say, “look, pay attention here.” I can trust the reader to work it out, and I think that’s the key to a book that the reader really engages with.
In the picture above, you can see a white dress, in which Leo says she feels like an imposter, as if a facade has been painted over the person she used to be. It’s a day when she shouldn’t feel like an imposter though. You can also see a pink Worth dress that she copies from a magazine and makes up herself to wear to work, and which she has to lend to Faye on one occasion. The dress Leo borrows from Faye in the example I gave above is a genuine Vionnet; the dress Leo lends Faye is a Worth copy. Which makes neither of these dresses just a dress.
Where Do I Find the Dresses?
I now have a pretty extensive collection of books about historical fashion (you can see some of them above) so that’s one place I look. The Met Museum has digitised a lot of its collection and that’s where I found the black Vionnet. The Met (thank God for the Met!) has also digitised a lot of its fashion plates and that’s where I found the pink Worth dress.
Auction houses like Christie’s also sell vintage fashion of the expensive kind and so I look through their online catalogues regularly and that’s where I found the black and white dress in the picture above. The Gazette du Bon Ton was a journal of fashion illustration from 1915-1925; The Smithsonian Museum has digitised those journals and that’s where I found the white dress. The Delineator is a similar journal full of fashion illustration from the 1920s and the Hathi Trust has digitised those. So there’s plenty out there to find, if only you know where to look.
And of course every time I go overseas I spend a bit of time in fashion exhibitions and museums like The Met in New York with its Anna Wintour Costume Centre, or the Palais Galliera in Paris, or the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre. I take photos of every piece of clothing that appeals to me and I look through these photos when I’m writing my books.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the clothes in Her Mother’s Secret!