filed under Her Mother's Secret, How To Write A Book.

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! 

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11 Responses to “Fashion and Character: Why It’s Important to Write About Clothes”

  1. Kali

    Oh my goodness the synchronicities!! Using clothing to imagine a character’s subjectivities is my university thesis.

    Reply
  2. Tam Francis

    This is wonderful. I too, use clothing in my books. My critique group doesn’t quite get it and often questions me on it, but they’re not my target audience. Based on your picture and this post, I’m inspired to read your books! Well done.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks Tam! I say, stick to your guns and keep the clothes in there! It’s definitely something my readers comment on, but in a positive way. Perhaps you can train your critique group to become more appreciative!

      Reply
  3. Karin

    What an excellent blog. I really like your analysis of the dresses that Leo wore in the book and how they give a glimpse of Leo’s identity and her state of mind.
    I just finished reading the book and absolutely fell in love with Leo and her determination to succeed against the odds particularly in such a dominating patriarchial society and the social norms that were present at the time. After reading your blog I would have loved to see the pictures of Leo in the dresses in the book. It would add another dimension to your writing.
    I am however waiting in hope to find out in the next instalment (if there is going to be one) about how all involved continue with their relationships and what gets in the way of those relationships.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Karin, I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the blog series. I hadn’t planned to continue the series as I was worried I might be boring everyone, but maybe I will come back to it in a couple of weeks and write about a couple more elements from the book.

      Reply
  4. Sarah

    I love this insight into your fashion choices, I’ll have to revisit A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald. I can’t wait to get into Her Mother’s Secret and enjoy all the wonderful fashion. Also thank you for all those wonderful links. I think. Perhaps my word count thanks you less…

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Lol – yes, those links are fabulous places in which to lose hours of your time. But if it’s research, then it counts as writing doesn’t it?! And thank you – I hope you enjoy Her Mother’s Secret.

      Reply
  5. Amber Seah

    Fantastic post! This is just the sort of helpful research information I am looking for, and I love the detail about the dresses. I am not a fashion person and would totally have missed the point about Leo’s borrowed/lent dresses.

    I’m bookmarking this page.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks Amber! I think it’s good to go with something that you enjoy researching. I love clothes so I really enjoy the research but you could easily use something else to do the same kind of work that the clothes do. Good luck with it!

      Reply

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