On a summer evening, two girls – sisters – are roller-skating outside their Brooklyn appartment in their nighties.
It’s the opening of Johathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) and an image I have not been able to shake. I love it. I love the shapes that the nighties make in the breeze of the girls’ own exertions, even though these visuals are not described and exist only as my response to Letham’s words.
For me, it’s a great example, a vintage example you might say, of what clothes can do on the page and in the mind of a reader.
The passage recalled for me Daisy, F Scott Fitzgerald’s anti-heroine, in his The Great Gatsby (1925).
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were bouyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.
Closer to home, Jane Austen tends not to dwell on dress, in my memory at least. However, in Pride and Prejudice (1813) the state of Lizzie’s gown when she visits Jane, who has fallen ill at Bingley’s house, Netherfield, is a fabulous character tell for someone who cares more for her sister’s health than for the niceties of social expectation.
Then there’s Katherine, the protagonist of Barbara Trapido’s rich and rewarding Brother of the More Famous Jack, who is placed exactly as a determined bohemian in flight from her mother’s petit bourgeouis world, by her clothes.
I was dressed that day in an outsize purple football jersey which I had worn to my interview with Jacob. I wore it, as was then the fashion, well over half way up my thighs. Pulled over one eye I had a small crocheted string hat which I had made myself.
Some writers don’t handle clothes very well at all. Jonathan Kellerman and Robert B Parker, who both write stories I generally relish, always give their women – their protagonists’ partners – dismal dress sense. These gals always wear jeans that fit like second skins and tight tops. For me this serves only to draw attention to the fact that the writers are middle-aged men.
Perhaps they should take some lessons from the great Raymond Chandler. He doesn’t muck about.
Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right. She lay there on the bed in the lamplight, as naked and glistening as a pearl …
I pulled a shred of tobacco off the edge of my lower lip.
‘That’s nice,’ I said. ‘But I’ve already seen it all. Remember?’
What about you, gentle readers? Do you have any favourite fictional, or non-fictional, writing about clothes? I’d love to know.