|Hats: the spike of life.|
Photo via my Pinterest
|Anja Rubick in 2010 Vogue Paris|
I believed that fashion photography only depicted women doing useless things like staring blankly off into the distance with her mouth hanging open, or clutching a garish handbag while balancing on insensible shoes or allowing themselves to be draped with exotic animals. To me, these photos represented a collection of tangible evidence of the stupidity and susceptibility of some women (and men). I thought fashion and the pursuit of outward style detracted from the "real" work that being done elsewhere.
Recently, however, I have completely changed my mind about how I view the art of adornment and I've come to view style as an important--if not indispensable-- element of culture.
|Collegiate cuties from 1949, Wellesley College. |
Life magazine, photos by Nina Leen.
For several years in my early 20s, I amassed a collection of drab, ill-fitting clothing that I thought I needed in order to look "professional" in my job. When I left that job to pursue a Masters degree, one of my first acts was ridding myself of all of those hideous pieces. But, alas! I was now a starving grad student living on student loans and earnings from my part-time Spanish teaching position at the university--how was I to replenish my closet?
I had never given much thought to my style and had no idea what I was going to do about my dismal clothing situation (I couldn't very well go around nude). So I did what any academic would do: I began the process of intensive research.
Initially, my objective was practical: I needed clothes fast and cheap. I began reading personal style blogs, fashion blogs, books on Western fashion history... I scoured the Internet for answers on how to get good quality clothing inexpensively. What I found surprised me.
|1940s ladies' fashion|
|1940's ad for ladies' hats - I love how|
the shadow of the brims "foreshadows"
the return of the wide brim!
Photo via my Pinterest.
For me, some of the most delicious descriptions of fashion come from Raymond Chandler (perhaps because of my love of WWII-era fashion). He constructs a character by attending to the details of their outfits, while showing how they move around in their clothes. He also makes it obvious that what a character is wearing is an important part of the plot-- with their clothes, a character could be attempting to deceive or reveal themselves to Philip Marlowe (and subsequently you)...
"She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off, so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. They seemed to be arranged to stare at."
|Raymond Chandler had style.|
Photo from Life magazine.
"She was so platinumed that her hair shone like a silver fruit bowl. She wore a green knitted dress with a broad white collar turned over it. There was a sharp-angled glossy bag at her feet."
[All quotes from Chandler's 1939 novel The Big Sleep.]
These moments in literature, in which an author hovers over a character and looks at them, are an essential part of what makes a rich and compelling narrative--and more importantly, it is at the heart of literature's purpose. James Wood remarks on this in his book How Fiction Works (2008): "Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice..." The act of noticing is crucial in writing and reading literature.
Visual details in a narrative are not just metaphors for who or how a character is, then, but rather they form part of the overall aesthetic metaphor of a novel as a whole. Ursula K. Le Guin notes in her introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness that a writer is essentially a painter that uses words as their palette: "The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words." (Sigh. I love her for writing that.)
|Marlene Dietrich, 1940s.|
Photo via my Pinterest.
So to my formerly-frumpy self, I say may you be forgiven, for you knew not why you dressed. To delight in a style of one's own and the bright possibilities of dressing oneself every morning is not a vapid pursuit, rather it is to participate in an important process of noticing. Furthermore, in literature, noticing provides the method by which a writer can say "in words what cannot be said in words."
Paying attention to the outward details of a real person or a fictional character is an art. I make my own little efforts to notice the styles of others, now, and to for-heaven's-sake match my gloves with my hat, handbag, and brooch.
What is your style? What author writes your favorite descriptions of their characters' style?
This post was partly inspired by the recently opened exhibit of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo's wardrobe, 58 years after her death. If I could go to Mexico right now and see this exhibit, I would. Instead, I'll content myself for now with this sneak-peak video of the exhibition:
Until next time, my fair petticoat rufflers!