Who Cares What They’re Wearing on Main Street or Saville Row*

Dressmakers and TailorsAn excellent post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about dress shops. We may not see so many of the old-fashioned dressmaker establishments any more, but there’s something about having a dress or a suit custom-fitted. Clothes that are tailored to the individual fit like nothing else, and a good tailor or dress shop professional can help you choose exactly the right clothes for your body type, physical appearance, age and lifestyle.

Because custom-fitted clothes are individually altered, tailors and dress shops can be very good contexts for getting to know fictional characters. For one thing, readers can get a sense of a character’s personality. For another, such shops can be really effective contexts for character interactions and for giving a glimpse of a particular era or segment of society. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield and has been content enough. When her employer dies, Katherine finds to her shock that she has inherited Mrs. Harfield’s entire fortune. She begins to make plans for her future, and one of her first stops is a well-regarded dressmaker’s:
 

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.’’

 

As you can imagine, the dressmaker is delighted at the prospect of matching Katherine with just the right clothes for her, and it works very well. In fact, in more than one place in the novel, remarks are made about how well-dressed she is. Katherine’s next stop is a trip to visit a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin, who lives in Nice. That’s how she comes to be on the famous Blue Train when another passenger, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, is strangled. Since she was the last person known to speak to the victim, Katherine gets involved in the investigation, and so does Hercule Poirot, who was also a passenger on the fateful trip. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Three Act Tragedy…

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI sleuth Russell Quant certainly takes care of his appearance, but he has neither the time nor the budget to keep himself in the finest of fashion. That’s why he so relies on his ‘wonderpants,’ a pair of simple but attractive black pants that don’t wrinkle and look good for just about every occasion. But Quant’s friend and mentor Anthony Gatt has a different attitude. Gatt is a clothing expert and owner of a very upmarket chain of men’s clothing stores. At one point in Flight of Aquavit, Quant pays a visit to Gatt’s flagship store. Here’s Gatt’s reaction to what Quant’s wearing:
 

So boring I could pass out,’ Anthony said with a convincing yawn as he held forth a pair of pants he’d grabbed seemingly from thin air. How does he do that? ‘Diesel Kulter black leather straight-legs or…’ Poof! Another pair! ‘…Theory Tristan surf indigo stretch cotton jeans. I imagine you’ll prefer the jeans even though a man with such wonderfully long legs and shapely posterior should go with leather, because so few can.”
 

It’s easy to see that Gatt not only knows his business, but he’s also skilled at matching clothes to a person’s lifestyle and body shape.

A tailor shop plays a vital role in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In that novel, Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police is faced with a very puzzling case. The torso of an unidentified man has been found in an unused chicken coop. There are very few clues as the man’s identity, so even missing person reports aren’t very helpful. But there is one piece of evidence: a small bit of cloth. Grace’s second-in-command Glenn Branson has the idea of taking the cloth to a tailor he knows, Gresham Blake, to see if he can help identify it. His idea proves to be a good one, as Blake points the team towards the possible source of the cloth. In the end, that information helps to identify the victim.

In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig‘s) Hickory Smoked Homicide, Memphis restaurant owner Lulu Taylor gets involved in a murder case when her daughter-in-law Sara becomes a suspect. Socialite and beauty-contest coach Tristan Pembroke is killed during a charity event at her home. Since she and Sara had a very public argument shortly before the murder, Sara is naturally ‘of interest’ to the police. But Lulu knows her daughter-in-law is innocent. So she looks into the matter. One branch of the trail leads to Dee Dee’s Daring Dress Shoppe, where Lulu’s been buying her clothes for a long time, and where many beauty pageant contestants have also shopped. So Lulu brings her friend Cherry Hayes to the shop to look for information. The pretext is that Cherry wants a new look, and needs Dee Dee’s help to match clothes to her appearance. Meanwhile Lulu will try to find out what she wants to know. The plan works, as Cherry makes much of wanting exactly the right new look. Dee Dee of course wants the business, and doesn’t approve anyway of Cherry’s flamboyant style. So Cherry succeeds in distracting her. It’s an interesting scene for a few reasons, one of which is that it gives us a look at modern customer service in dress shops.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, which introduces us to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. She is accustomed to wearing trousers or track pants, and she’ll tell you herself that she’s overweight and comfortable with that – no overly expensive clothes needed or really desired. But she has a particularly good experience when she gets the chance to wear a custom-made dress. She and her new partner Daniel Cohen are looking into a series of deaths and near-deaths from heroin overdose. The trail seems to lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines. But it’s not the sort of place you visit dressed in just anything. So, in order to gain admission, Corinna gets help from her friend, clothing-shop owner Pat, who’s better known by her professional name Mistress Dread. Pat/Mistress Dread designs and creates a completely new look for Corinna. The dress fits perfectly and gives Corinna a very different perspective on her physical appearance. Daniel seems to appreciate it too…

And that’s the thing about tailors and dressmakers. They can make you feel completely different about the way you look. And their shops are good places to find out information. Which examples have I forgotten?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Want to know more about clothes, dress shops and what it all says about us? You want Clothes in Books on your blog roll. It’s the source for sartorial splendour in fiction.

ps. The ‘photo is of the dress my daughter wore to her prom. We got it at an upmarket dress shop where my daughter had her first (and hopefully, not only) experience at having clothes crafted just for her. Trust me, she stunned in it.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kerry Greenwood, Peter James, Riley Adams

20 responses to “Who Cares What They’re Wearing on Main Street or Saville Row*

  1. Thank you, Margot, I’m honoured to have inspired such a lovely post. One of my favourites is Christianna Brand’s Death in High Heels, which is set in a couture dess shop, and has very funny scenes among the assistants.

    • Oh, a pleasure, Moira. Trust me, I appreciate the inspiration. And your suggestion of Death in High Heels, which I really should have put in there. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  2. It happened to me once. My dad befriended a Uruguayan fashion designer after his family ce to Melbourne as refugees. His name was Tomàs Gomez and the same year his dress won Gown of the Year, he made me a frock for my Year 12 formal. A dress to die for!

  3. Very interesting, Margot. I can remember movies with such shopping or tailoring scenes, but not books. I do remember that scene from The Mystery of the Blue Train.

  4. Kathy D.

    Your daughter has great taste! Hope she had as great a time as that dress merited.
    Never happened to me, but it must be quite an experience for a young woman.

    • She did have a very good time, Kathy. And I knew she enjoyed the experience of having her dress custom-fitted and so on. It can be fun to be pampered like that.

  5. Kathy D.

    So, will the dress be posted in the COMN museum?

  6. Col

    Probably not my area of expertise! 🙂

  7. What a lovely experience Margot for you and your daughter – and enjoyed the post 🙂

  8. I’d love to have something made to measure. The title of the post made me laugh. I live on Main Street!

  9. This is an interesting topic, mostly because I recently complained about a suspense novel I was reading. The author spent a lot of time describing what each character was wearing in great detail, and I felt it disrupted the pacing of the story. If the clothes are very important to the plot (as perhaps with a mystery about the garment district of New York or a fashion model on the job, then brief mentions of the significant items might work. More than that, for me, is distracting.

    • Pat – I think you make a well-taken point. The main point of a crime novel (well, any novel really) is the plot and characters. Anything that detracts from the plot/characters can be a distraction for the reader. Sometimes, custom-fitted clothes add depth to a character or contribute to a plot. When they don’t, the author needs to be very careful how and to what extent that information is included.

  10. One of the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King has a lengthy scene in which the heroine, given proper access to her inheritance, shops with abandon. She is one who is unconvinced of the effectiveness of couture until she experiences it. 🙂

    Also I just read “The Book Stops Here” by Kate Carlisle. The heroine gets a new and very stylish neighbor who spends a morning “shopping” in her own closet for an outfit for the heroine to wear to a posh party. More revelations.

    • ChaCha1 – Oh, I like those examples. Thanks! And you’re right that Mary Russell isn’t typically drawn in by haute couture. Just shows you that anyone can fall prey 😉

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