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.
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.
Snippet Sunday is a monthly meme organized by author Stephanie Dray in which fellow historical authors post six sentence snippets of their novels on Facebook. For fun, I thought I’d post my snippet here as well as on my Facebook author page.
I took a deep breath and looked around the gathering. Charles had once claimed that London society was divided like the Red Sea into As—Aristocrats, Artists, and Anarchists—and Bs—Bourgeois, Bureaucrats, and Benevolents. Of these, all I spied were Artists and Benevolents and a smattering of Fabian Anarchists. Compared to the Artists, the Benevolents were dressed quietly as sparrows, their earnest expressions heavy with good will. As for the Anarchists, I overheard one young man, his ruddy-cheeked face hidden by a rumpled blonde beard, expounding on the dangers of capitalism: “Revolutions are the locomotives of history! Let us begin one tonight!”
During the craziness-from-hell that was last week, I found myself unable to post on this site beyond an image for Wordless Wednesday. I mean, didn’t everything seem slight and superficial in the face of what the people of Boston, Texas, and such were dealing with? Marathon bombings, cities in lock down, earthquakes, shootings, and other horrific examples of how things can go horribly wrong. It’s enough to make any sensitive person want to hide clutching their nearest and dearest.
During this period the only thing that brought me comfort beyond immediate friends and family was working in my garden and reading books. The gardening seems self explanatory: If in doubt, commune with Mother Nature. As for the books, I found myself rereading old favorites—A. S. Byatt’s POSSESSION and Diane Setterfield’s THE THIRTEENTH TALE—and throwing myself into new ones under the aegis of research. At times my compulsive reading felt similar to an ostrich thrusting her head into the sand to avoid conflict: If I can’t see it, it can’t upset me. Yet one of the things I especially love about reading historical fiction and nonfiction is they remind me that Yes, The World Has Always Been Crazy but Life Goes On Anyway. And so it does.
(How about you? How did you deal with last week? I hope with safe aplomb.)
Now that things have semi-settled down—I trust!—I’m allowing myself to venture outside my self-protective shell of Garten-und-Bücher. I’m pleased to announce I’ll be participating in LitWrap’s Works-in-Progress series with an excerpt from THE LILY MAID.
Here are the details:
Our Works-in-Progress reading in December was a smash, and we’re excited to bring it back now that its SPRING – the most optimistic time of year. We miss your faces! Come say hi, have a beer, and if you’re keen, share what you’re working on.
What: Works-in-Progress Reading
When: Thursday April 25, 7 – 9 PM
Where: 61 Local: 61 Bergen Street, New York, NY 11201
Having read at LitWrap’s December event, I can attest that it’s a nice space (make certain to go upstairs to the lovely private room) and a nice crowd. Perhaps I’ll see your face there this time?
Have I mentioned I’m giving an author reading at the Cortelyou Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library next Saturday, April 13 at 3pm? Well, I am. I’ll be talking about the publishing process (minus tears) and reading from DOOMED QUEENS and THE LILY MAID. If I feel bold, I might even include a peak at my new novel underway, a gothic-inspired concoction set in 1850s England and France.
Here are the details:
1305 Cortelyou Rd. at Argyle Rd.
Brooklyn, NY 11226
Subway: Q train to Cortelyou Road
This event is sponsored by Friends of Cortelyou Library. Hope to see you there!
Above photo: Daffodil Hill in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens this spring.