Clean Shirt, White Shoes*

Clothes and JudgementsAn 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Helen Fitzgerald, Kerry Greenwood, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Sylvie Granotier

35 responses to “Clean Shirt, White Shoes*

  1. I love the Perri O’Shaunessy series. There are many details about cases that you wouldn’t see in other legal mysteries, and a defense attorney’s responsibilities and life. How to dress to create the proper impression is just one of the important decisions to be made.

    • Barbara – You’ve hit on one of the really positive aspects of that series. Readers do get an ‘inside look’ at trial preparations and the attorney/client relationship. And yes, dress is definitely a part of that.

  2. Thanks, Margot, for the shoutout! And of course this is a subject dear to my heart. I’ve just blogged on a Margery Allingham story where the heroine is a lady doctor: her housekeeper and her senior partner both make it clear to her that she shouldn’t be meeting patients or potential suitors wearing trousers – this is the early 1950s. Her partner tells her to go and change into a ‘Christian skirt’ – he is semi-joking but not entirely. It seems that it’s all right to wear slacks in her own house when off-duty, but not otherwise.

    • Moira -It’s my pleasure to mention your blog. I loved that post of yours! That’s exactly the post that made me think of this one, so thanks for it. It’s interesting isn’t it how certain clothes give certain impressions. And what’s at least as interesting is that our views of what people’s clothes mean changes over time. Just fascinating!

  3. That’s definitely a real life issue in the courtroom these days. How many times do we see the scruffy accused’s booking photo and then note the spiffy, well-groomed and -dressed defendant during hearings and trials?

    • Pat – It’s true isn’t it? Defendants almost always look much more carefully groomed and dressed in court than they do in booking ‘photos. And it makes sense when you think of the impression scruffiness makes on people.

  4. kathy d.

    This is making me remember having to wear a skirt to high school, even when it was freezing, snowing, sleeting, etc. I guess women have come a long way in having won the right to wear slacks to school. But to the workplace? I don’t think it’s always acceptable.
    This reminds me of a young friend, who is a defense attorney, working for a non-profit agency. I saw her one day wearing such high heels I was astounded. I asked her about it — her reply: You should see the shoes the prosecutors wear!
    Enough said.

    • Kathy – I think you’re right that there are still some places where it’s not considered acceptable for women to wear trousers or men to go without a tie. Some workplace environments are like that, as you say.
      And I love that attorney’s response! It says so much in so few words.

  5. Margot: In the Anglo tradition lawyers wear black gowns, waist coats, wing tip collar shirts and tabs around the neck. Thankfully in Canada there are no wigs. Beyond tradition and creating a formal atmosphere for court the gowns take away distinctions between lawyers. No one can make assumptions about the lawyers from their clothes because all are dressed the same.

    When I discuss with clients and witnesses what to wear for court I simply recommend comfortable dress clothing. I do not want anyone either too focused on their clothing or distracted by clothing they do not normally wear.

    • Bill – That’s an interesting point about wearing gowns. I hadn’t thought about that. It reminds me just a little of traditional academic regalia.
      And you make a well-taken point in your clothing recommendation too. One doesn’t make the optimum impression when one’s shifting around in uncomfortable clothes or when one’s too distracted by what one’s wearing.

    • Hi Bill, I was in court recently (in Quebec) and found the robes to be somewhat for or against. The tall, dramatic sweeps work so well to make a point, whereas the stumpy lawyers seem rather cherub like in their intensity. It was all quite entertaining, either way.
      (We were advised to dress professionally which is a stretch for me. Hmmm yoga pants with an oxford button down 😉 )

  6. On the subject of clothes – can you tell me what are “kitten heels”, I have come across this in several crime fiction works, I think it might be an American expression?

  7. Very interesting! And I do remember coming across the reference to women wearing trousers in “5 Little Pigs”–made me smile. My mother told me at her Southern girls’ college in the late-60s, she had to wear a full-length raincoat if she wore trousers on campus…that was the rule at the time, for modesty’s sake. 🙂

    • Elizabeth – How interesting about that dress code your mother had – a full-length raincoat? That’s a great mental picture, but I know the requirement wasn’t uncommon. A lot of schools had dress codes like that for a very long time. So did a lot of companies. You just didn’t wear trousers outside the house if you were a woman.

  8. Dress codes and the messages your clothes and appearance send out. Oh I can recall so well being told never to go out without gloves and a little hat. How I hated that. Mother wouldn’t be seen dead without her matching shoes and bag and her gloves on and full make-up; even to go to the store. I like to try and guess a character’s personality from their clothes and try to put a tiny hint in my stories too. Years ago I trained in Image and Style so I would know what the stylists were on about when ‘dressing’ my artists and it was amazing how someone’s whole demeanour and personality would alter when dressed in various outfits. Posture changed and confidence levels altered. Imagine how someone could disguise themselves and commit a crime dressed completely differently to their normal attire…although today with all the facial recognition and body language software, it might not be so easy. But back in the day….well, we’ve all read those stories and loved them. Interesting.

    • Jane – Oh, that’s so interesting that you have a bit of a background in Image and Style. I’ll bet that really does make it easier for you to ‘dress’ your characters. And you’re right; the way clothes make a person feel really does affect the way that person moves and acts. Perhaps with facial recognition and DNA and so on it’s not as easy to get away with a disguise as it was, but it’s easy to see how dressing a certain way affects the way one holds oneself, moves and so on.
      I had to chuckle too at your comments on how we were told to dress when young. Times have certainly changed haven’t they?

      • Times have certainly changed. I cannot recall the last time I wore gloves or a hat. DNA and facial recognition will certainly make it harder, but I am sure the determined criminal will get round it soon enough…those committing a premeditated murder/crime will. The spur-of-the-moment criminal/murderer might not be so lucky. Just look how Columbo came across….and yet he was shrewd and intelligent. We can fool people with what we wear. So interesting and so important. Glad you laughed.

        • Jane – You know, you have a very well-taken point. Columbo does dress to a make a particular impression doesn’t he? He adopts that rumpled look to put people at their ease and to give them the sense that he’s a bit bumbling. But of course as you say, he is not…

  9. Margot – Another fascinating topic for a post … I just can’t resist being contrarian and think of examples where the detective especially is a rumpled dresser, a bit of a cliché but an effective one nonetheless. One of my favorites is the Columbo-esque detective in the film Les Diaboliques.

    • Bryan – I don’t mind in the least bit if you want to be contrarian. And there are a whole lot of examples of sleuths, witnesses and so on who go for the rumpled look. I love the Columbo example as well as Les Diaboliques. Moving to more modern detectives, I think Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg is a bit like that too. He certainly isn’t overly concerned about his clothes.

  10. Interesting post. I try not to make too many assumptions based on people’s dress especially when it comes to crime writers. People are often not what I’d imagined based on their books and it can be a shock. Naming no names of course….

  11. Oh god, I hope this isn’t a guy thing – I am nearly always hopeless at noticing such things though I remember Marlowe’s blue attire from the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep and the odd pipe and maybe deerstalker here and there – but otherwise … eek!

  12. Oh my gosh, I cannot believe that Elizabeth Spann Craig had the story about the “Southern girls’ college in the late-60s”. That is absolutely true, although what I remember… it was a long time ago you know … was that we could not wear slacks on campus but we would put on shorts underneath a full length raincoat to walk to the post office. And I was not at a girls college. That changed at my university shortly thereafter, but still, I just can’t imagine the thinking that comes up with these ideas.

    • Tracy – Oh, that’s so interesting that you have that shared history. Today we think those restrictions make no sense, but at the tiime, it was what society perceived as acceptable for ‘nice young ladies.’ Thanks for sharing your experience.

  13. I often wonder why detectives in books wear proper suits and those in the movies usually wear informals. I have noticed this both in early and modern crime fiction. I think crime fiction writers like to “dress up” their sleuths partly because it has been a tradition. A suit would be inadvisable in India’s tropical climate where police investigators usually wear plain shirts and trousers and leather shoes, and go about their work in mufti (in civilian attire, or incognito). Indians normally don’t wear suits unless it is for formal events, occasions, and meetings—it’s too hot and sultry.

    • Prashant – In classic and Golden Age detective novels (and plenty of modern ones too), a lot of police sleuths do wear suits. Of course, PI sleuths and amateurs don’t as much but you’re right that there are plenty of suited sleuths out there. That’s an interesting point. But I would imagine that culture and climate do play a major role in what police detectives wear. As you say, in India it’s simply too hot to wear a suit most of the time. And in places with rough terrain or a frigid climate, I’d guess the police detectives don’t go around in suits either.

  14. Col

    It’s hard not to make judgements based on appearances. Possibly regional accents can also make people quick to decide on a person’s character. There’s a bit of snobbery around how people sound, a North/South thing over here, as well as perceptions about eg Brummies, Scousers, Mancs,Geordies etc etc

    • Col – You’re quite right that people make judgements based on regional accent. People do that here all the time too. Accent and dialect are absolutely fascinating and they’re part of the overall sense one gets of a person. Thanks for adding that layer to this discussion.

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