Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a bit (ahem) obsessed with AMC’s Mad Men. When a Mad Men season is underway, I’ll gladly spend hours deconstructing character motivation, plot points, whether Don Draper is a sociopath*, and the delights of a well-placed Roger Sterling bon mot with my husband and friends. Beyond the obvious pleasures of well-written dialogue and fully developed characters, I also adore the gorgeous 1960s clothes that seem to tell a story of their own.
Fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo agree: their Mad Style recaps are wonders of semiotic insight. Generously annotated with screen captures from each week’s episode, each Mad Style post takes Mad Men viewing to a sublimely detailed level. TLo, as their fans call them, claim that Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant deploys clothing in the same way a literary novelist consciously uses symbolism, subtext, and foreshadowing. Nothing is by accident.
Sound crazy? Spend some time reading Mad Style and you’ll agree. Three of TLo’s particularly brilliant observations:
- Joan often wears rose-patterned clothing to signify her fluxuating romantic state.
- Don associates the color red as a call back to his troubled childhood in a whorehouse.
- Peggy is often outfitted in Peter Pan collars and plaids, revealing her Catholic upbringing and lack of fashion acumen.
After mulling Mad Style for some time, I realized I used clothing in a similar manner in THE LILY MAID. Which makes sense—after all, my novel is set during Victorian England’s Aesthetic movement, an era when the rational dress movement faced off against the padded pleasures of the bustle.
For example, my protagonist Elizabeth becomes uneasy when she’s confronted with the costume she’s to wear while modeling:
Dulac handed me a long gown sewn of a softly mottled cream-colored linen with pale green ribbons along the shoulders and waist.
I said, “So the Lady of Shalott’s dress was white after all.”
“As far as I could tell. This will do until a better idea comes along.”
… Before I could get too involved with my examination, Mrs. Dulac led me to a windowless antechamber tucked into a corner. She shut the door behind me. “Let me know if you need help with the lacing, Miss Sirini. I fear you’ll need to remove your stays for the gown to drape properly.”
I had not expected this—I’d worn some form of corset since I was twelve. Somehow the costume seemed emblematic of the Dulacs and their easy, bohemian ways. But I refused to be caught short. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine, Mrs. Dulac.”
Beyond fashion signifying class, I also used color: Elizabeth wears grey half-mourning throughout the book until a crucial turning point. Another character dresses in green, the color of absinthe, to signify his decadence. And so on. Though I’m not nearly accomplished a wardrobe stylist as Janie Bryant, I do have one advantage: since I’m writing fiction, my clothing budget is unlimited.
*After last week’s disturbing Fifty Shades of Grey Flannel episode, I think he is. Don Draper: dark, handsome, and eminently messed up.
Photographed outside the Superhero Supply Company in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Photographed at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens last week.
Click on the photo to view larger panorama.
I know where I’m going to be the weekend of June 21st: at the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. I also know what I’ll be doing there, beyond catching up with writer friends and meeting authors whose work I admire: I’ll be moderating a panel entitled “Is Genre a Dirty Word? Literary versus Genre Historical Fiction” with authors Mary Sharratt, Michelle Cameron, Christy English, and Mitchell James Kaplan. I’m excited to explore this fun and provocative subject which, to my mind, has as much to do with publishing constraints as it does marketing considerations.
As part of the ramp up to the HNS conference, novelist and book reviewer Judith Starkston has posted an interview with me on her site. In the interview, I disclose my favorite books and movies, what living or deceased writer I’d most like to meet, and a little about my Next Novel.
Read the full interview here.
Last week, my writer-artist friend Lucy Raubertas convinced me to attend a dance with her. But not just any dance—an 1880-themed ballroom dance given by the New York Nineteenth Century Society. While wearing my Aesthetic Reform-style Victorian tea gown. In public.
You might be wondering what the New York Nineteenth Century Society does—I know I did when I first learned of them. First off, the society aims to unite historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the nineteenth century. Secondly, they promote the study and understanding of life in 19th-century New York City through participatory workshops and lectures open to the public. And balls in period costume.
“We must go to this,” Lucy e-mailed. “Lucy,” I protested. “I’m an HSP introvert. I hide in my studio and gather in gardens. I read and write books. I don’t ballroom dance while wearing a Victorian tea gown.” “Nonsense,” Lucy replied in her graceful soft-spoken way. “It’s the Nineteenth Century Society. It’s 1880-themed, just like in THE LILY MAID. These are your peeps. It will inspired your new novel.”
Those who attended the dance came from a variety of backgrounds; the urban anthropologist in me found their reasons for participation fascinating. I’d estimate about one-third of the costumes were steampunk-inspired. Their wearers considered their adventures in ballroom dancing an expansion on their love of all things Victorian. Others were interested in the historical aspects. One woman’s obsession with sewing period clothing led her into taking nineteenth century dance lessons. However, some were drawn to period dancing through more surprising routes. One dapper gentleman, dressed in a bright green early nineteenth century-style tailcoat, found his way to dance through his involvement with science fiction conferences. Go figure.
While many of the ball attendees were clearly ringers, others (such as myself and Lucy) were decidedly not. Fortunately, the evening began with an hour-long lesson given by period dancing instructor extraordinaire Susan de Guardiola, who gathered all us wallflowers to her with soothing words and precise directions. By the end of Susan’s lesson, we knew how to dance the waltz, polka, and Scottische in various degrees of aptitude.
Or ineptitude. At one point, I fell on my derriere when my skirt tangled about my feet. (Lesson learned: a tea gown with a train is not the best choice for waltzing. Next time, wear a bustle.) Later, we danced various line dances which reminded me of something from Pride and Prejudice sans Mr. Darcy. And I actually had a good time.
So, would I do this again? Perhaps in time.