An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the judgements we make based on the way people dress. Even though we know that that’s a very superficial and usually inaccurate way to decide what we think of a person, it’s still something we all do. That’s why for instance people wear suits to job interviews and evening dress to certain events. The way we dress really does affect others’ opinions in real life, and it certainly does in crime fiction too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father Amyas Crale. Crale was a famous artist who was working on a painting of his mistress Elsa Greer when he was poisoned. At the time, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted for the crime. And there was solid evidence against her too. But Carla is convinced that her mother was not guilty. So she asks Poirot to take another look at the case. To do so he interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets their written accounts of what happened. That information gives Poirot the clues he needs to find out the truth about the murder. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the different perceptions people have of the various characters in this story. For instance, Elsa Greer is beautiful and rich, but at the time of the trial, she was regarded as ‘jumped up trash.’ In part it’s because of her role as a ‘homewrecker.’ But that opinion isn’t improved by the fact that Elsa wore trousers at a time when ‘nice young ladies’ wouldn’t have considered it. It’s an interesting reflection of how dress affects people’s opinions.
Any skilled trial lawyer will tell you that dress plays an important role in the impression one makes in a courtroom. So clients are often carefully coached on the kinds of clothes to wear and not wear when they are in court. A lot of legal novels mention this issue. I’ll only bring up a few examples.
In Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly faces a very difficult civil case. Her client Lindy Markov has been served with eviction papers that order her to leave the home she’s shared with her partner Mike for twenty years. What’s more, she’s being removed from her position as an executive vice-president in the company she and Mike built together. It all stems from Mike’s affair with his financial services vice president Rachel Pembroke, and there seems little Lindy can do about it. She was never legally married to Mike, so there is a strong argument that she has no legal claim to any of his assets. And yet, there is also a solid argument that she does. So she and Reilly prepare for a civil trial in which Lindy is suing for her share of the company assets. Part of the preparation for the trial is careful discussion about what Lindy will wear. She can’t give the impression of being rich for obvious reasons. But it’s well known that she and Mike have a successful business, so dressing as though she’s poverty-stricken won’t work either. All their preparation stops mattering though when there’s a shocking event that changes everything. Still, it adds an interesting layer to the story to see how both she and Reilly carefully choose what they’ll wear.
Paris attorney Catherine Monsigny and her client Myriam Villetreix have similar conversations in Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer. Monsigny is a recently-minted attorney who gets a real chance to make a name for herself when Myriam Villetreix is charged with murdering her husband Gaston. Gaston was well-liked in the small town where they lived, so as it is, his widow is not particularly popular. What’s more, she’s a foreigner. And it doesn’t help matters at all that her accusers are Gaston’s wealthy cousins, who have quite a lot of social power. And yet, Myriam says that she is innocent. So she and Catherine get down to work. One of the many conversations they have is about what Myriam will wear for her trial:
‘She chooses the clothes that she will advise Myriam to wear, which will not make her too invisible but won’t make her stand out too much either. She selects a slightly flared caramel-colored skirt with a beige sweater and a pair of gray pants with a white blouse. Myriam will choose.
Myriam chooses the pants and a sweater of her own, which is bright yellow. She won’t change her mind. This is what she is like, who she is’
And it’s very interesting to see the impression both women make in the courtroom.
In Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have just arrived in Melbourne after a long trip from Scotland. That’s when they suffer the most awful loss any couple can: the loss of their nine-week-old son Noah. When Noah goes missing, everyone’s initial reaction is support for the distraught couple. The media makes much of the case and an exhaustive search is made. Little by little though, questions are raised about the disappearance. Before long, both the police and the media begin to wonder whether one or both of Noah’s parents might be responsible. At one point in the novel there’s a trial, and Joanna is scheduled to give testimony. Her lawyer advises her carefully about what to wear and how to conduct herself, but Joanna has her own ideas:
‘Was the red dress a sane decision? Maybe not…But the grey trousers and cream blouse [Joanna’s best friend] Kirsty brought in for her felt all wrong.’
And even Kirsty warns her that
‘You shouldn’t wear that dress. People will hate you.’
Although Joanna’s attire isn’t a main theme of the novel, her choice here is an interesting plot point.
Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of disparate people who share a large Melbourne building called Insula. One of the residents is a woman who goes by her professional name of Mistress Dread. She owns a leather shop and dresses the part. She’s also a skilled seamstress and more than once provides Chapman with clothes. When she’s not on duty, Mistress Dread dresses quite differently as we learn in Earthly Delights:
‘In her tweed skirt and brogues she looked like an English countrywoman out for a ramble – one looked for the Labrador and the green gumboots.’
And yet Mistress Dread knows that dressing and looking a certain way is important in her line of work. She needs to give the impression she wants to give – and so she does.
And that’s the thing about dress. It really can predispose one towards or against a person. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.
Now, may I suggest your next blog stop should be Clothes in Books? It’s a wonderful resource for all things related to clothing and what it says about people, cultures and eras. G’wan – you’ll be glad you did.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man.