Monday 19 September 2011

Characterisation by Clothes? Theresa Breslin

It was one of those serendipity moments.

Seated by chance at a Society of Authors dinner with Naomi Tarrant, Head of the Costume Museum in Edinburgh, I had a wonderful conversation which made me think seriously on the importance of clothes in characterisation.

I was writing REMEMBRANCE
my book about youth in World War One, and wanted to know if it was true that the name of a new colour known as “munitions blue” had come into use then because of the blue overalls designed for women munitions workers to wear. We went on to discuss the huge change in fashion that took place during the first World War.

I commented on the raising of hemlines from which I managed to get a lighter note into a section of the book - quite difficult to do when writing about that War. Naomi said that it wasn’t the raising of hemlines that she thought made a significant difference in women’s lives but the widening of skirts. She asked me to consider how a modern woman is forced to walk if her skirt is constrained, for example wearing a long tight dress to a formal occasion. We take smaller steps, we move gingerly up and down stairs, off and on pavements etc, and, she pointed out, often you lean on someone’s arm (usually a man’s). Think of suddenly being able to walk along widely and freely pacing your steps. Good grief, you might actually run! Think of what happens inside your head when you’re doing this, of actions you can take and the many varying decisions you might make, and how this helped change women’s views and attitudes.

My aunt who worked as a land girl in World War Two said the very best part of it was that she got to wear trousers which meant that as an adult she could once again do a handstand in public! It was something she’d loved doing as a child but had to give up when she got older and wore stockings and suspenders with dresses and skirts.
As a writer I reveal character via their deeds and words - a story is character in action. In real life a person’s true character should not be defined by clothes, “A man’s a man, for a’ that” said Robert Burns. My more recent historical books have been set further back in time where clothes were seen to define a person in all sorts of ways.

THE NOSTRADAMUS PROPHECY takes place in sixteenth century France during the Regency of Catherine de’ Medici and the Saint Bartholomew Day massacre. In it the heroine, Mélisande, daughter of the court minstrel is forced to flee and disguises herself as a young man in order to escape. Partly this was the dictates of the plot as she would be safer and attract less comment if she travelled as a boy rather than a girl, but it did allow for some interesting developments.
Trying to climbing into cart with the other servant boys leaving the castle Mélisande shrinks away from their jostling and slapping of each other in the kind of rough play to which she’s totally unaccustomed.
 But then, terrified at being left behind, she copies their ways and grabs the arm of the boy nearest to her and shoves herself rudely in among the group. Although she knows she’s pursued and is in fear of her life she begins to recognise the freedom the disguise gives her: the access to knowledge, the ability to go where she pleases, to listen to conversations she wouldn’t normally hear. In order to speak to Nostradamus, the famous soothsayer and discover whether his prophecy about the Angel of Death refers to her own family, she travels to his home in Salon in the south of France. Here, in her guise of a young man, she flirts with the girl selling apples in the market. When the apple seller blushes and gives her the apple for nothing Mélisande is gratified by the power her new role affords her.

This is challenging for the writer. The character behaves differently from before, because, within the story, she has to act as a boy. But during this period her mindset would alter and thus her character accordingly. Therefore so should her reactions to future circumstances and situations.

As my story progressed the ramifications of the girl as a boy grew greater. The Governor of Salon, Lord Thierry, hears Mélisande playing her mandolin on a street corner. He appreciates musical talent and is moved by and attracted to the young player…

Theresa Breslin’s latest historical novel, PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION, has been shortlisted for the Young Quill Award & the Scottish Children’s Book Award, and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards.


adele said...

This is fascinating, Theresa. All the magazines now are bemoaning the fact that as pencil skirts are de rigeur for what they call A/W 11, we are all going to have to walk in tiny steps again. Ho hum. Not me, I don't think. But it's true that costume changes the way you walk and comport yourself entirely. That's why you have to have so many rehearsals in costume when you're in a play. And of course Beryl Reid famously said she started with SHOES. Once she had the character's shoes right, the rest of the person appeared as if by magic.

H.M. Castor said...

Yes, Adele, I saw an interview with Beryl Reid in which she said that, too! Fascinating to consider the similarities between what actors and writers do when preparing to 'play' a role... I love this post, Theresa, and envy you your conversation at that dinner! It's so interesting that the hobbling effect of skirts was even more significant than the modesty issue. I imagine that poorer women always wore skirts that were easier to move in simply because they had to work... am I right about that? Even then, though, the weight of the skirts, esp when rain-soaked, must have been really inconvenient.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, *when* it's actually warm, skirts allow more air to circulate. I found this during re-enactment where I wore trousers to portray a late Roman solider. After drill, I'd rush back to my tent and thankfully change back into my lose peplos/dress!

Whereas the chaps stayed in their trousers and sweltered. They could have just worn a tunic, but "If we wanted to be the Ermine Street Guard and be early Roman, we wouldn't have joined a Late Roman group!" was the reply :)


Theresa Breslin said...

I think it was Freya Stark who said that all a woman needed to explore the world was a good serviceable skirt. I was really glad I'd brought one with me on a recent trip to Uzbekistan when not only did the desert lack toilets but also handy bushes to squat behind! If you want to hear Ralph Fiennes comment on clothes making character then follow the link and hear him tell how he felt when donning the SS uniform in Schindler's List. It seems the Nazis employed theatre designers to create their uniform to make both wearer and observer aware of their power. Theresa

Leslie Wilson said...

As a kid, I would have lived in what were then called 'trews' if I hadn't been obliged to wear skirts to school. But a good wide skirt is, I agree, an excellent thing in warm weather. The hobble skirt must have been frightful. I remember reading Melanie Klein,writing in the '40s, suggesting there was something neurotic about feeling constrained by a corset..H'mmm.
If one looks at '60s clothes, one immediately notices how stiff they look. I can remember the scratchiness of 'best clothes' in my childhood. You're right, clothes are incredibly important, especially to women.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Theresa I found this post so inspiring that I went back to rewrite a scene where my 12-year-old half-breed detective dresses in tight corset, puffy crinoline skirt, (relatively) high-heel boots and a poke bonnet. And in honour of Michelle Lovric I made the fabric bombazine!

Theresa Breslin said...

Oh Caroline, now I feel a terrible responsibility! But judging by the response of the audience and the comments I heard at your EBF event then this series is going to be terrifically popular.

Anonymous said...

Oh, so true. In her memoir Period Piece, my great-aunt Gwen Raverat quotes her aunt (born 1843) talking how much more liberating the crinolines of the 1850s and 60s were - all that space under a wide, flexible hoop - compared to the layers of heavy, petticoats of early Victoriana, AND the skirts with bustles of the late 19th century when Gwen was young. I haven't yet used that in a novel, but I shall...

And sometimes I think that all historical novelists should spend several days in a properly constructed corset. That's when you realise a) why bosoms heave (it's the only bit of you which can expand to take in air) and b) why women were always fainting (the expansion is never enough). Rousseau thought that girls and women were physically incabable of running, because he'd never seen one do it. QED.