Sunday, April 25, 2021


by Via Berkley

Early in my career as a novelist, I received a critical review of my work complaining that I described, in too much detail, the garments worn by my characters. It may have been fair comment. I was in my twenties at the time, a debut crime novelist. My writing instinct was correct, though, if perhaps not my delivery, and twelve books later, I’d like to explain why:

Furnishing the reader with details of the appearance of characters, and perhaps especially their clothes, makes good storytelling sense. More even than the shape of a face, or a glint in the eye, the cut, quality and state of a character’s garments, their footwear, the state of a suit and the quality of a piece of jewellery reveal important details about the history, social class, financial position, personality and in some cases intent of a character. As a mid-century vintage nerd, occasional dressmaker and former fashion model I am well placed on the details of garments, with my interest being particularly focussed on the time period I am currently writing about—post-WWII—so it is entirely appropriate that I have given my new 1946 PI heroine Billie Walker a keen eye for seams and collars, brooches and brogues. But before you disregard this attention to detail as the skewed interest of a female writer, as that early reviewer did, I’d like to point out that this descriptive technique has form with one Raymond Chandler, creator of one that most enduring and observant character, Phillip Marlowe—not a fashion victim but a hardboiled PI. Chandler’s novels are filled with detailed descriptions of bouncers in pink suspenders, authors in white flannel suits and violet scarves, and even speculation on the fashion choices of a man who furnished an office: “The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him. He probably wore a pimento shirt, mulberry slacks, zebra shoes, and vermilion drawers with his initials on them in a nice Mandarin orange.”

Just feast your eyes on this sartorially splendid scene from The Long Goodbye:

“She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailormade with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were cornflower blue, a rare color, and the lashes were long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter ever will pull a table out for me…”

Marlowe (and his creator) notice the clothes, the hairstyle, the gloves and what they signal about the person wearing them. This is no mere description, not simply the delightful painting of an aesthetic picture, but a type of cheat sheet for every character Marlowe encounters. It’s true that in hard-boiled we are accustomed to descriptions of hard men and femme fatales with faces like angels, but the clothing takes us a necessary step further.

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