Fashion in Fiction

Fashion In Fiction – From Bodices To Bridget Jones

‘Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.’ Bill Cunningham.

I love clothes. Love looking at them, buying them and wearing them – especially when something I’ve bought feels comfortable and looks good. And if it was on sale, I’ve won the trifecta. As I’m a woman, you could say it’s in my genes. (No apologies for the pun). But I know some females who aren’t into fashion – if what they wear is serviceable and covers the appropriate amount of flesh, they’re happy. To me, that’s like saying that food is just fuel for the body.

Clothes make the man, so the saying goes. Although this idea is attributed to Shakespeare, who declared that ‘apparel oft proclaims the man’ (from Hamlet), it was Mark Twain who said with his usual wit, ‘Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’

‘More is more and less is a bore.’ Iris Apfel, 95 year old fashion guru.

You can tell a lot about someone by the clothes they wear, and authors can convey much about their characters with descriptions of the way they dress. Clothes are indicative of class, affluence, mental health, body image and self-esteem.

For example, you could deduce a number of things about a woman who never leaves the house without wearing designer clothes and full make-up – she is obviously someone to whom appearance is very important, probably well-off, vain perhaps to the point of obsession. A man who turns up to a cocktail party in jeans may be a rebel who thumbs his nose at conformity, puts comfort above good taste or doesn’t care what people think of him. Or all three.

‘In difficult times fashion is always outrageous.’ Elsa Schiaparelli.

I’d love to be the sort of person who can dress outrageously and get away with it, but because I don’t have that flair, I channel my inner fashion rebel into my characters. In my suspense novel An Affair With Danger, this is our first introduction to the main female character Frankie, who has just entered a courtroom:

A woman had entered. Tall, a mass of wild reddish-auburn hair that appeared to be exploding from her head. Startling red lips, too much eye make-up. She sashayed down the aisle on her high heels, her jeans and purple breast-hugging top under a denim jacket clinging to her as if they’d been painted on. Skinny except in the chest department.

It seemed as if the whole courtroom was holding its breath watching her. She stared straight ahead with an expression that said, ‘I know you’re all watching me and I don’t give a damn.’

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, not a form of imprisonment.’ Alexander McQueen.

In my romantic comedy novel Perfect Sex Susie, a middle-aged divorcee, has thrust herself back into the dating scene and tussles with Wonderpants and push-up bras to make herself look sexier. I invented the brand name Wonderpants, but it’s another name for the slimming undergarment (now known by the tradename of Spanx) that women wear to keep all their unruly flab under control, enabling them to wear close fitting clothes with no tell-tale bulges. One day after a large lunch, Susie ends up with stomach cramps because the Wonderpants are too tight, and when she gets home she takes action:

I kick off my shoes and lift up my dress, a figure-hugging design in purple and black, bought in a last minute panic especially for our lunch. I wedge my fingers into the top of my Wonderpants, an act which defies the laws of spatial physics as they’re so tight they’ve created a seam in my stomach, and yank them down to my feet. My cramps instantly dissipate and my stomach, bottom and thighs settle back into their comfort zones with a collective sigh of relief.

I pick up the Wonderpants and stride out of my bedroom, down the stairs and out the front door to the garbage bin. I open the lid, toss them in and slam the lid down hard, in case they have any ideas about escaping.

I will confess to wearing a push-up bra but I have never felt the urge to wear Wonderpants, or the equivalent. But I do remember my mother wearing what were called step-ins, the forerunner of Spanx, which were a kind of heavy duty girdle that looked extremely uncomfortable. As a child watching my mother shoehorn her generous body into a pair of step-ins, I reflected that I was in no hurry to grow up, if that was what it entailed. Journalist Frances Whiting has written an amusing article on step-ins and Spanx.

Annie, one of the other characters in Perfect Sex, undertakes a fashion design course, which allows her to design and wear all sorts of weird outfits, including one made from garbage bags.

‘I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour.’ Wednesday Addams.

There have been many famous fashion scenes in fiction: Holly Golightly’s black dress and pearl choker in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Cecilia’s dazzling green evening dress in Atonement, Miss Havisham’s wilted yellow wedding dress in Great Expectations, Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet dress made from curtains in Gone With The Wind.

And it’s not only the women who steal the limelight – there’s Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby in his white flannel suit, silver shirt and gold tie and Alex and his gang from A Clockwork Orange in their memorable ‘pair of black very tight tights with (a) jelly mould...on the crotch... waisty jackets without lapels... with these very big built-up shoulders... off-white cravats (and) flip horrorshow boots for kicking.’  But for sartorial elegance, no man could wear a suit like James Bond.

‘I’m one of those strange beasts who really likes a corset.’ Cate Blanchett.

Bodices played a major role in romances of the Victorian era, as they were invariably ripped off in the heat of the moment, resulting in the term ‘bodice-rippers’. I have read, however, that ripping off a woman’s bodice was not just a matter of popping off a few buttons. Apparently they were laced at the back, very tightly, with several layers of clothing and a corset underneath, so by the time the eager suitor unlaced the bodice and got all her clothes off, like unwrapping a parcel in the party game ‘pass the parcel,’ his passion may have wilted somewhat. But as all good authors know, you never let the facts get in the way of a good roll in the hay.

Fashion in Fiction

‘Hello, Mummy!’ Daniel Cleaver.

For a more contemporary and less glamorous example, who could forget Bridget’s giant panties in Bridget Jones’s Diary? Apparently, Bridget made control pants fashionable – there was reportedly a surge in sales after the movie was released and I have it on good authority (from Kim Kardashian, no less) that ‘big pants’ are in again; the trend now is to wear them under see-through dresses. You might disagree with me, and Bridget Jones probably would, but I don’t think there is a woman in this world who can make big pants look attractive.

Do you have any favourite fashion moments in fiction? Or fashionable characters? I’d love you to contribute your thoughts in the comments box below.

About the Author Robin Storey

Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.

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