It’s not manners, it’s clothes; how to maketh a man or woman vintage stylie

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.

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8 comments on “It’s not manners, it’s clothes; how to maketh a man or woman vintage stylie
  1. lovely, I knew I could rely on you to bring a touch of class to proceedings.. 🙂 x

  2. scannermum says:

    What a great piece of writing and such a pleasant way to stumble upon a new blog that I shall enjoy reading from now on. Perhaps being tagged occasionally isn’t too bad after all…(although I know what you mean about retaining control of your own blog!)

  3. zencherry says:

    Oh but I love a good descriptive dressing of a character as long as it doesn’t run on for pages. The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice – 2 of my fav novels btw.
    Love your blog Cathy. I do, I do! 😀

  4. So grateful for these responses. Thanks to all three of you. Cathy x

  5. Hello cathy, I really like this blog, and it made me realise that I have barely mentioned the attire of many of my characters. Something that I am going to fix immediately! As for clothing related writing that I love it immediately brought to mind Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal when Barbara describes Sheba’s outfit the first time she arrived at the school:

    “Sheba’s outfits tend to be very complicated – lots of floaty layers. I know she was wearing purple shoes. And there was definitely a long skirt involved, because I remember thinking it was in imminent danger of becoming entangled in her bicycle spoke. When she dismounted – with a lithe, rather irritating, little skip – I saw that the skirt was made of some diaphanous material. Fey was the word that swam into my mind. Fey person, I thought.”

    I think it’s great how that sums up so much about both characters really early on in the book.

  6. Amanda that’s so interesting and it goes straight to another thing I was thinking about characters and clothes which is that often a great way to get stuff in about what people are wearing is to make them interact with their world, which is exactly what ZH does here!! I was thinking of flowing robes getting caught on door handles, and hems that have come down or jeans that are wet in the rain or whatever.
    I agree about the foreshadowing too. It’s a really noticeable hallmark of literary writing that authors sort of doodle their main theme all the way through the book, with prefiguring and echoing and so on.
    Thanks so much for this – really gpt me thinking. Cathy xxx

  7. I hardly ever mention what my characters are wearing, unless the item of clothing is being used in a piece of action or to pinpoint an emotion (usually sexual).

    I find it frustrating when other authors bang on in their descriptions about the clothes they’ve dressed their characters in. I’m not interested in the colour of her skirt (unless she’s about to blend in with the lawn and consequentally the character accidentally get mown by a giant motorised lawn mower). Describing the clothes your characters are wearing is (for the reader, me) like being 7 and turning up at a playdate where all the other 7 year olds are parading their sequinned boob-jobbed Barbie dolls. (Note: I only ever had Sindy and she far preferred Jodpurs and a jumper). Sure, those Barbies looked great, but I’d like to see them showjumping on a Sindy horse.

    So, leave it to the imagination I say. And if you have to mention clothes, let them be clothes with purpose.

  8. Nic you just can’t come on here and mince your words in this mealy-mouthed way. Say what you mean. Come on. 🙂

    I sort of agree and I sort of disagree with you (how’s that for mealy-mouthed?). On the one hand too much description can be dull and cause a loss of pace but on the other, just look at F Scott Fitzgerald. I love the way he uses clothes and curtains in that bit from Gatsby.

    I think it’s because I know I’m not F Scott Fitzgerald (no really I’m not) that I don’t try to do it much myself. But clothes can be a good way to make the environment real around a character (as I commented above).

    BTW I had a Sacha doll. She was black and considered very avant garde even in North London in the 1970s. She was largely naked for most of my childhood.

    Thanks for taking the time. The assignment must be going well. *Raises eyebrows and then frowns*


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