Clothes maketh the character?



HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I am trying to decide whether we should tell the fabulous Catriona McPherson that we had cast her as a brilliant and avant-garde Lady Macbeth in the alt-Shakespeare version of the play with...who did we decide? John Cleese or David Tennant as Macbeth?

To go on about it, the absolute cheering and applause that accompanied that crazy suggestion—who suggested it, anyway?—proves only that she’s one of the most hilarious and clever and talented people on the planet. Who, indeed, could absolutely do anything. Even a funny Lady Macbeth.

But we applaud today in her role as herself, the nationally bestselling and multi-award winning author of some of our very very favorite books And to our great delight, she keeps writing more! Including the brand new A GINGERBREAD HOUSE.

But today she’s writing about something completely different than writing: Fashion.

And as it turns out, it is not that different.


 Clothes maketh the character?

             By Catriona McPherson

I write a series set in the 30s, where the clothes are a joy to research and describe. (I made myself laugh out loud, writing a scene where my detective is wearing such a soigné gown that she has to eat her supper standing up at the mantelpiece.)

I also write a series set in present-day California with a Fabulous Gay Best Friend, who is a. deeply immersed in fashion and b. without boundaries. (I’m unapologetic about this character, by the way: you might call him a cliché but I know he’s based on my childhood FGBF, Alex, and hardly exaggerated at all.)

But clothes are not usually a major theme in my contemporary psychological thrillers. Until now, in A Gingerbread House.

We meet Ivy Stone en route to an animal welfare meeting on a cold night in February. She’s wearing her warm coat, short boots, and sheepskin mittens. When she gets inside the venue, her concern is how to take her coat off unobtrusively, without joggling anyone. If she doesn’t try, she’s in deeper trouble. She might sweat visibly. And she might catch cold when she goes back out. I do describe Ivy’s character in terms other than clothes as well, but I’m not sure I needed to.

Martine McAllister is a free-lance grant-writer, working at home, for herself. She has made the one black suit she wears to meetings last for years, with careful storage and the expensive dry-cleaning option. Which is not to say she doesn’t care about her appearance. She’s proud of the fact that she can tuck a fitted shirt into the waistband of her pencil skirt and let the world see the body her gym membership buys her. At a genealogy club event, she silently judges the other people her age: the men who think leaving their football tops untucked hides their beer guts; the women who think the draping on the front of their cold-shoulder tops is flattering.

When Laura Wade is invited to a party, there’s a lot to think about. She’s forty and reluctantly single. She thinks costume jewelry, fun for youngsters, is humiliating at her age. She has bought herself a pair of diamond stud earrings but she worries that any diamonds she wears just make that ring finger look even emptier. And she can’t wear her twenty-first-birthday pearls to parties anymore. That’s pitiful. They’re only good for jeans and cardi days now. What she does know is that her dress will be colourful. She won’t signal to the world that she’s given up. She won’t be caught dead in anything black and little.

When a man (okay the one I married but he still counts) read the draft of this, he said “I have known you for a hundred and eighty years, Catriona. And you’re not exactly reserved. But I still can’t wrap my head round what it’s like to be a woman.” I think that was a compliment.

So I want to check with the JR extended family.

 Even though I over-react on paper for a living, this is what it’s like to be a woman, isn’t it? Whether you’re the judger or the judged, the draper or the gym-babe, this really is the world we still live in, fret over, plan for, seethe about . . .

My heroine-protagonist lives slightly outside it, though. Tash Dodd is the heir to a transportation empire built by her dad, Big Garry. BG Solutions, BG Connections and BG Europe have branded polo-shirts and sweat-shirts and Tash lives in them. Paired with stretchy jeans that are comfortable while driving a van. It was strange to write a character who had none of herself invested in how she looked or what she wore. It forced me to pay much closer attention to all her other attributes in order to find the core of who she was. (Can you tell I’m a pantser?)

Without giving anything away, the clothes in this book are not only emblems of character, however. They’re also directly responsible for the second biggest twist. I’m really proud of it and I know my female ancestors would be too. No more hints though.

Then there was the wardrobe moment I threw in just for fun, because it happened in real life and it still makes me laugh. At a book festival in Kirkcudbright one time, the bookseller told me to go over to the tent and ask her husband where my signing stock was. “I’ve never met your husband,” I said. “He’s an off-duty copper,” she said back. I went to the tent and there he was, hilariously enough. “Officer Chadband?” I asked him. He rolled his eyes and said, “God’s sake! I’ve told her to stop doing that.” Tee-hee.

So, in A Gingerbread House, I have Tash think “I need to speak to a polis” and look over her shoulder from where she’s sitting at a bar, only to spot a burly man in a Kangol golf jersey and well-pressed jeans, right there for her to go and talk to.

So that’s my Edith Head impersonation, as it pertains to A Gingerbread House. I’ve learned that clothes don’t have to be fabulous to be a ton of fun to write.

That said, some of my top booksy clothes (or clothesy books) are fabulous with a capital “Dahhhhling”. (Nancy Mitford is probably my go-to clothes writer.) Who are yours, Jungle Reds? I’d love to find out if we share favourites.

And of course, if you clue me into something brand-new . . . there’s always room on the TBR shelf for more.

HANK: Cold shoulder tops. GOT to be the worst fashion thing ever. But that’s just me. Fashion in books—well, The Devil Wears Prada, certainly! And Gatsby, with his beautiful shirts. What about you, Reds and readers? Has an outfit ever telegraphed exactly who a character is?

National-bestselling and multi-award-winning author, Catriona McPherson, was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating in 2010. She writes historical detective stories set in the old country in the 1930s, featuring gently-born lady sleuth Dandy Gilver. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the comic Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry but affectionate look at California life. She also writes a strand of contemporary psychological thrillers. A GINGERBREAD HOUSE is the latest of these. Kirkus said, “a disturbing tale of madness and fortitude that grabs the attention form page 1”.

Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA, Society of Authors, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime.

Older Post Newer Post