Last month, I went with friends to see three excellent exhibits at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, one of which was a roomful of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s pin collection.
The story of Albright’s pins begins with a meeting with Iraqi officials. Before the meeting, she was criticized and labelled in the Iraqi press as an “unparalleled serpent.” To the subsequent meeting, she chose to wear a golden snake lapel pin. That was easy to read. Other pins in the exhibition included a spaceship (complete with descending aliens) to wear when negotiations took a weird turn. Others were serious, to express solidarity with victims of violence or tragedy.
Many of us attempt to send messages with what we wear, whether consciously or unconsciously, but few, probably, are as conscious and direct with what they wear as Secretary Albright was with her pins. Some of us notice clothes, jewelry, and shoes a lot; some, not at all. Some are good at symbols; some are blind to them.
As a fiction writer and creator of characters, I see Madeleine Albright’s pins as inspiration for making my characters send their own signals. Merely to think about what a character wears, how they wear it, and why, opens a range of possibilities for communicating with readers. Many writers know and practice costume design. In historical romantic fiction, many paragraphs are devoted to costume design. In other fiction, the author doesn’t bother much with it, and I can’t remember what anyone was wearing.
But what an opportunity! Running over fictional examples of costume-as-character-developer, I can think of 1) Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker hat, 2) “Suit up!” Barney in How I Met Your Mother, 3) Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet drapery dress (and Carol Burnett’s hilarious spoof thereof), and dozens of others. But what to do if all your characters are in uniform? One way is show how a particular character wears the costume. The original Star Trek featured Captain Kirk as quite the ladies’ man. I remember one scene in which he is wrapping up a tryst, shall we say. For less than one second after the commercial break, we see a fully-uniformed Kirk sitting on the side of the bed, adjusting his uniform pant leg over his boot. Pant leg over boot. That’s all we saw, but that action indicated previous action.
In my current project, which is set about eighty years in the future, I’ve paid attention so far to the clothing of only two of my characters. The first is a woman who cares deeply about expensive, sexy clothing, with a particular love for vintage manufactured clothing, that is, non-3D-printed clothing. The second, her mother, is inspired by a line in the Leonard Cohen song, “Closing Time.” She’s a hundred (actually 103), and she’s wearing something tight (but she looks pretty good). The majority of characters are nuns, serving in a religion I am making up. I have a lot of freedom to invent clothing, freedom I’m not certain how to exercise. These nuns did not come to the convent to worry about what they look like. Nonetheless, I do not want generic nun clothes. I will need character-revelaing descriptions of characters who don’t care too much how they look, and are wearing utilitarian, comfortable garb they can work in.
But there’s still room to play. There’s fit. Is one character’s uniform too loose or too tight? Has she altered it in someway to make it more attractive or comfortable? Can there be a wardrobe malfunction? Certainly our clothing will be “smart” by 2094, with temp controls and radiation protection, won’t it? And how do the characters feel in their clothing? Isn’t how we feel in our clothing the most important thing of all?
Photo: Cristiano Del Riccio