Archive for category Styles

Read My Attire

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?

I understood what Cher was saying with her Oscar dresses, but I don't get this at all.

I understood what Cher was saying with her Oscar dresses, but I don’t get this at all.

Photo: Cristiano Del Riccio


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When Characters Die

One of the crucial skills an author must develop is knowing which characters to kill off, when, and how. This is important. Fiction is not life, but it reminds us of it. Strongly. Or we wouldn’t spend our time on it. Fictional grief is not real grief, but it does remind us of the real thing, and if an author’s killing of a character isn’t justified (and I’m speaking in terms of story, not morality), we are offended. We are offended, because fictional death must do honor to the real thing, and the real grief that ensues when we lose someone.

In fiction, as in life, we have varying degrees of attachment. If a main character dies, it’s a big deal. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the term “shreddie.” Captain Kirk’s party is transported to planet surface, and there’s Spock, there’s Uhuru…oh, wait, there’s a new ensign or somebody I’ve never seen before. No sooner than we’ve noticed him, ZAP, something kills him, the defeating of which will consume the Enterprise’s efforts for the next hour. The previously unknown crew member is a shreddie. We have no connection to him whatsoever, but the plot required someone to die in the first scene, and we know they can’t kill off a regular cast member.

In murder mysteries, we have of necessity another sort of shreddie, the murder victim. More often than not, the victim is killed early on, and we have no opportunity to get attached. Sometimes, the author goes out of her way to make the character unlikable, or at least unappealing in some way. P.D. James does this with her victims sometimes. In any event, when we pick up a murder mystery, we know what we’re getting into, and we’re not the least surprised if the first character we meet is quickly dispatched.

In the same fashion, we expect characters to be killed in the course of novels about war, espionage, or adventure. These can be characters we like and have gotten to know. It is usually not the main viewpoint character. Usually. In heroic fantasy or heroic space opera, while there may be a sacrifice of one or two “good guys,” the main, number one good guy is expected to survive. But not always.

Sometimes, readers refuse to accept the death of a hero. Famously, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, readers revolted. The author was forced to bring Holmes miraculously back to life. Stephen King fictionalizes a similar situation in Misery, in which fan Annie Wilkes imprisons and assaults novelist Paul Sheldon for killing off favorite character Misery Chastain, eventually forcing him to bring his character back to life.

The reader may not always win these battles, but the reader does have power.

If you do a web search on the subject, you can come up with some sites that ask the questions surrounding the killing of fictional characters. Some give answers as well, when it’s “right” and when it’s “wrong” to do away with a character. I’m not so certain it’s that easy. For every rule given, I can think of an exception.

Successful character-offing is more than rules, and more, even, than art. It is part of the greater conversation between author and reader that storytelling is. Storytelling is a conversation. The responsibility for the successful transmission of a tale is only half the writer’s job. The other half belongs to the reader. Most of the time, readers are happy for the author to direct the conversation, and to go along with the plot, but not always, and certainly not if they feel the author has violated what they feel to be the purpose and the spirit of the work. The character-killing readers resist most, I believe, is the killing of the hero of a series.

Harry Potter cannot die. Neither can Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Adam Dalgliesh, or Superman. They need to outlive everyone, including their authors. They are all supermen, able to hold back the forces of evil that surround us. They have been with us forever, surviving adventure after adventure to start over again in the next installment. They are magic. If they die, the magic dies. We lose hope.

In one wildly irrational corner of our brains, we need to believe that they are there, really there, just in case the wrongness in the world gets to be too much for us. We need to believe it is possible to outsmart death itself, just as they have.

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The Meaning of Being a Nerd. Or a Geek.

Definitions of the terms “nerd” and “geek” show them to be close enough to be synonyms. Both imply a lack of social finesse, the sort of stereotype we’re familiar with in pop culture. The other parts of the respective definitions are as follows (taken from a Google): Nerd–an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession.  Geek–A person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest.

I guess, if you’re a nerd, you have to be good at whatever it is, but if you are a geek, you only have to be enthusiastic. I’ll use them that way for our purpose here. Nerd will denote ability, and Geek, enthusiastic devotion.

Both definitions bring to mind the usual suspects, the computer nerd, the gamer, the science fiction fan.  I would suggest, however, that nerdism and geekism casts a far wider net than that.

Keith Richards is a nerd and a geek. Read his biography, and how he talks about sound, how it changes according to the room, how technology ran amok in the 80’s, with a million microphones and people laying down tracks in separate rooms, and how it detracted from the sound. He says, “You don’t…need a studio, you need a room.” He says elsewhere (could’t find the exact quote) that a musician not only plays an instrument, but plays a space, a room. Never mind the drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, this is a guy who has spent his entire life playing and listening. He is a sound geek and a room acoustics nerd. He is always looking for a new space to make a different sound in.

Turn on Holmes on Homes on HGTV. Mike Holmes neck is as big around as his forehead, and with his Canadian contractor drawl, he may not seem like a nerd. Watch him go through a house, though, and listen to him take the inventory of the previous contractors and inspectors who’ve worked there. Watch him rip apart the wiring, the plumbing, the carpentry. Listen to him insist that it should be done perfectly. Mike Holmes is a construction nerd and a do-it-right geek. How refreshing.

Geeks have passion beyond the ordinary, enough to set them apart. They surprise, annoy, and threaten those who don’t care so much.

I love ’em. I’ve always been drawn to people who are extremely good at something, and who value that something greatly. In the early heyday of public television, in the days before cable, I gravitated to  the televised community college courses shown on our local station. I never took any of the courses, but I watched and admired.

Once upon a time, a writing instructor, the same one who asked me what I wanted most in a novel (see “To Be Transported,” my post from a few weeks ago), asked on another occasion, this time at a post-class get-together, what I wanted from an author. I’d not thought of that question before, but my answer came easily.

I want, above all, for the author to be sincere. Even if I’m not a fan of what is written, and even if it isn’t very good, I can respect the effort and the author if I believe the work came from a sincere place, if I believe the author was a geek for the story. If the story is formulaic, pot-boiler junk cranked out to make a buck, I don’t care. If you have writing skill plus sincerity, then I’m in heaven.

Show me you care. Not about me, but about the thing you are a geek for. Show me your hard-won nerd expertise. And then I’ll think you’re fabulous.



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Forever in Blue Jeans?

The 1979 Neil Diamond song, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” has little to do with anything beyond the title of this post. The song is a paean to the virtues of simple things, like blue jeans, to be preferred over more expensive clothing, as long as one has one’s beloved by one’s side. Well, of course. Except that blue jeans are way, way more than inexpensive clothing in our world-wide culture. Will blue jeans continue to be as popular in the decades and centuries to come as they are today? Will we, as a species, truly and literally be forever in blue jeans?

Let’s start with a bit of history, gleaned from Wikipedia and the Levi-Strauss websites.

Our modern-day jeans date back to the Renaissance, when sailors wore denim trousers that were sold in Genoa, Italy.  “Blue jeans” equals “bleu de Genes.” The word denim comes from “De Nimes,” which implies that the fabric was woven in De Nimes, France. Some fabric came from Dongari Killa, India, hence, “dungaree.” Search these terms for more details on the word derivations.

This coarse fabric was favored for its wearability and durability. The wikipedia article states, “These trousers were laundered by dragging them in nets behind the ship, and the sea water and sun would gradually bleach them to white.” (No doubt they were then sold as “stonewashed” or “distressed,” and then sold for a high price at the local mall.)

From the Renaissance, we jump to the 19th century, and Levi Strauss, who I thought had invented blue jeans for cowboys and the miners of the California Gold Rush. Not true. The company was responsible, however, for the innovation of copper riveting at stress points at the pockets. From then, until the mid 20th century, dungarees or blue jeans were seen as workingman’s wear. Until the mid-1950’s, you were otherwise unlikely to wear blue jeans unless you were a small boy, or were riding a horse.

In the mid-1950’s, teenagers began wearing jeans for casual attire, and with some waxing and waning and waxing again, the fashion made its way through the sixties, when it took off and never went away.

Denim is as durable now as it was in the 15th century. It looks good whether new or old, dark or faded. You have your choice of wide leg, narrow, boot cut, flare, hi-rise, low rise, natural waist. They can be very long (to be worn with high heels), ankle-length, knee-length, or Daisy Dukes, and they can be cut-offs or hemmed. They don’t have to be pants; they can be a skirt or a jacket. Denim can be shredded, feathered, and stained. This is a fabric that looks great no matter what you do to it.

Blue denim of any wash looks good with any other color, even colors normally difficult to pair with blue. I would not normally pair dark blue and black, for instance, but blue jeans with a black leather jacket is a decent outfit almost anywhere. Blue jeans are to clothing as pasta is to food–made up of a seemingly infinite number of shapes and types, and compatible with any sauce or accessory.

It’s hard to see how any of this will go away any time soon. But dare we believe that we will, in the year 2323 (assuming our species and planet is not consumed by Armageddon), be walking about Buenos Aires, Denver, Beijing, or Cairo in blue jeans similar to what we are wearing today? What if we manage to colonize the Solar System? Will we wear blue jeans on Mars?

Obviously Mars, or the Moon habitats would have to be domed and pressurized, because even the most fashionable jeans won’t protect you from the vacuum, extremes in temperature, or from cosmic radiation. But what better to wear while plowing your land allotment on a terraformed Mars than your trusty Levis?

In the end, I don’t believe there is any way to predict fashion, and no matter how ubiquitous blue jeans become, acceptance can mysteriously disappear.

Back in the late ’70s, I had a pair of “dress jeans.” They were dark blue, very wide leg, high-waisted, and ironed to obtain a knife-sharp crease. They were to be worn with big shoes and a dressy blouse. I wore this outfit to a party–the invitation read “casual”– and my husband wore dressy blue jeans too, a less ridiculous male version of the style of the time. We arrived at the party and were surprised to see that everyone was “dressy casual.”  Very dressy casual.  No other jeans in sight. Yes, we felt kinda weird, and yes, I know it was stupid to feel weird, but we were young, and we did.

So perhaps Lt. Uhura ought not have her ice skating costume-ish Star Fleet redone in acid-wash. It may not be the done thing at all, no matter how plausible it would seem right now.

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How Will We Do Our Hair in the Future?

Hair is a problem. We’ve been grooming, preening, and adorning it since before we were human. And when I think of hair in science fiction movies, I can’t help but note that whatever the century being depicted, the actresses’ hairstyles usually reflect the decade in which the movie was made.

In the wonderful Forbidden Planet, Anne Francis, as Altaira, lives in the 23rd century on the planet Altair-4, and sports a lovely mid-50s chin-length coif. This type of do was historically created and maintained with weekly shampoo-and-set sessions at the local beauty parlor, which makes us (if we bother to think about it) wonder how on Altair-4 this girl, who was raised without a mother, ever managed to attain such a style. Oh well, it’s still a great movie.

In Star Trek, (1966-69), Uhura sported a series of iconic sixties styles, including the bouffant shown below. I don’t find this style as jarring, as by the sixties, hairstyles had become more do-it-yourself. Could the bouffant, recur in the 23rd Century? I don’t think so, although Nichelle Nichols wears it well. All in all, though, the hair of the original Star Trek is way less strange than the female crew’s wearing ice skating costumes for uniforms.

By Alien, the female crew had ditched the skating costume for way more believable jumpsuits. Nonetheless, Ripley’s long perm was planted firmly in 1979. I had the same style myself ca. 1983. I don’t think this one is coming back in 2122. The strength of this style was its ease–totally wash ‘n’ wear. We’ve come a long way since then.

Hair arouses all sorts of emotions in us, in a way that make-up, clothing, and jewelry don’t. The musical question asked way back in 1986 by the group Timbuk 3, “Hairstyles and attitudes/Are they connected?/Are the styles we embrace a matter of taste/Or of values rejected?” must be answered with a resounding Yes. Hardly anything about a person’s attire is more likely to offend another than his or her choice of hairstyle. It is said that the Vietnam protesters of the sixties met a negative, sometimes violent, response from authority, because–unlike the civil rights protesters a few years previously–they had unseemly hair. The musical, Hair, rest on this premise. and it keeps getting revived. So that must be true.

So how will we wear our hair in the future? I put the question to a hairsylist.

Ron Matranga of Ronald Edward Salon told me, “Everything old is new again, and the Egyptians started it all.” He told me that Vidal Sassoon went to Egypt to come up with his architectural, asymmetric cuts, which changed everything as far as Ron is concerned. Before then, he says, you would never “cut out the ears,” or cut one side shorter than the other.

In other words, it was the beginning of the end of rigid rules for hair. The mullet, shag, and Mohawk would be along shortly. So how will we wear our hair in the future? However we want, I suppose.

It seems probable that we will be able to have hair wherever we want it, not not have it wherever we don’t want it, and we will notice who has hair in the wrong place, and look upon them with disdain. Strategic hair removal was important to the Egyptians as well. Maybe that was Cleopatra’s secret. I further predict that voluntary total baldness–for those with nicely-shaped heads and balanced features–will remain a valid style choice. If involuntary, hereditary male-pattern baldness is cured, it will then become an option.

I also predict long life and prosperity to all short, natural cuts, whether curly or straight, to ponytails, and to various sorts of braids, whether Heidi-style or cornrow. Ron votes for the bob–I presume he means chin or shoulder length–because it never goes out of style.

For the story set in the future, however, there is no way to get it right. The problem is that we are stuck in the moment with our hair. We will have our moments when we look awful and not know it. We will foist our bad and dated hair on future generations, not only through old yearbooks, but through our entertainment.

A little big, but not the worst future hair by a long shot.

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