So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.


‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’


Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:


‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 


And here’s the ‘after’ description:


‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 


The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:


‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.


Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:


‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’


With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:


‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’


The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’


‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’


This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan

20 responses to “So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. It made me aware of writers I want to read as research for my novel but also provided excellent examples of descriptions. 🙂

  2. I LOVE the Corina Chapman series although it is definitely not Kerry Greenwood’s most popular series.

    As far as clothes go whether we like it or not or whether it is fair or not, clothes really do “make the man” or woman. I think that is what spurs the popularity of the makeover shows on tv. Depending upon how you are dressed you can be treated differently, receive better (or worse) service, form relationships, etc. I don’t know if it is the fact that most people exude more self confidence when dressed well or whether people treat you differently and so you feel more self confident – like a chicken and egg question.

    Interesting post – loved all the book references.

    • AGC – Thanks for the kind words. I agree completely that the way we dress has a lot to do with the way others treat us. I think that may be part of the reason people do decide to go for a different look or way of dressing. You make an interesting point too that if we dress in a way that makes us feel more self-confident, we show that self-confidence. And that in turn affects the way we’re treated, which in turn affects our way of dressing, holding ourselves and so on. Each affects the other.
      And I love the Corinna Chapman series too.

  3. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and I think the Guest Blogger will be very pleased too. Makeovers of all kinds are dear to my heart, and an absolute mainstay of Clothes in Books, and your examples are splendid….

  4. An intriguing post, Margot. A person can blend into a crowd or stand out depending on their wardrobe. it reminds me of stories where the killer blended into the crowd to watch officers investigate the crime scene.

    • Mason – Oh, that’s a well-taken point that I hadn’t thought of when I wrote this post. Killers too can change their appearance so they blend in. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  5. Great post, Margot! I loved the description from ‘Blood Lines’ – It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood – so original and works so well with the title of the book. And the desciption of Erica preparing for her date reminds me to get round to reading ‘The Ice Princess’ sooner rather than later.

    • FictionFan – Thanks for the kind words. And i’m very glad you enjoyed the post. I think Greenwood does a great job of integrating both really effective description and wit in her work. It’s part of the reason I like this series as much as I do. And as to The Ice Princess, this one’s a little more ‘edgy’ than some of the others in the series. It’s an excellent crime novel in my opinion, and I do enjoy the way the relationship between Erica and Patrik develops. All full of the awkwardness and fun of falling in love. I hope you’ll like it if you get the chance to read it.

  6. That’s such an interesting observation, Margot. It’s so true that we picture a protagonist (or an author) a certain way, including their hair and clothes. When there’s a big change, it’s almost a shock. It would be like picturing Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty in a sexy evening gown and high heels. 😀

    • Pat – LOL! Yes, I think I’d find it just about impossible to picture Stella that way. We do really get used to people looking and dressing in a certain way don’t we? And when that changes, for any reason, it can be disconcerting.

  7. That was a good post at Clothes in Books. And in The Ice Princess, I remember that scene and it felt so normal, like a real woman worrying about the impression she would make. Stepford Wives, however, I don’t know if I could read. After seeing the movie. Even though I am sure the book is probably better.

    • Tracy – Wasn’t it a great post? And I agree with you about that scene in The Ice Princess. It just made Erica seem a lot more…real. It’s funny, too. Oh, and about The Stepford Wives? In my opinion the book’s better than either film.

  8. Col

    Don’t you usually have married men making an effort with their appearance when they are playing away? Can’t recall any examples off-hand, though.

    • Col – Right you are. There are a lot of examples of novels where men who are playing away from home take pains with their appearance because of that. I’m thinking for instance of Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead and Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters, among many others. I even read a short story once in which a man had slightly different appearances for each of his three wives…

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