Dress, Voice, Style, Image*

Image ObsessionIn Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch travels from New York City, where she’s been living, to her family’s home in Maycomb, Alabama. When she arrives, her Aunt Alexandra asks her,

‘‘Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?’
Later in the conversation, Alexandra goes on,

‘’I do wish this time you’d try to dress better while you’re home. Folks in town get the wrong impression of you. They think you are – ah – slumming.’’

The debate over how Jean Louise ‘should’ dress and look highlights a very important social reality. There is often a great deal of pressure on people to dress in certain ways, look certain ways, and so on. That’s possibly even more the case with today’s social media. But it’s been going on for a very, very long time. Image isn’t just important for those on television or those who are considered ‘celebrities.’ There’s pressure even on ‘regular people’ too (e.g. ‘I can’t wear that! People might see me.’ ‘Wait, let me put my makeup on first. I can’t go out looking like this!’).

On the one hand, it makes sense to do certain ‘image’ things, such as wearing clean clothing, combing one’s hair, and so on. Like anything else, though, there’s definitely such a thing as too much pressure. There are all sorts of real-life stories of the negative consequences of that pressure, and we see it in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning by train and ferry from France to London. He meets a fellow passenger, a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. At one point, they’re about to reach the Calais station, and she hastily touches up her powder and lip salve. When he comments that she doesn’t need all of that, she says,

‘‘My dear boy! I’ve got to do it. All the girls do. Think I want to look like a little frump just up from the country?’’

It’s an interesting look at the pressure to look a certain way. When the train pulls into the station, Hastings takes his leave of Cinderella, assuming he probably won’t see her again. What he doesn’t know is that he’ll get caught up in a strange case of murder – and that Cinderella will make another appearance…

There’s a darker, more biting look at this phenomenon 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 to take advantage of lower taxes and good schools. When the flurry of moving is over, they settle in and all goes well enough at first. Stepford seems to be the perfect small town. Things go even better when Joanna makes a new friend Bobbie Markowe. Unlike a lot of the other women in town, Bobbie is down-to-earth, dresses casually, and isn’t preoccupied with the appearance of her home. It’s not long before both women begin to notice some odd things going on in town. For one thing, most of the other women in town seem obsessed with looking perfect (even in the grocery store) and keeping their homes immaculate. At first Bobbie and Joanna joke about it, but it’s not long before Bobbie becomes suspicious that something’s going on. And when Bobbie starts to behave the same way, Joanna becomes convinced that there’s something sinister beneath Stepford’s surface. Walter isn’t much help in the matter. When Joanna tells him about her concerns, he says,

‘’If Bobbie’s taking an interest in her appearance, it’s about time. It wouldn’t hurt you to look in a mirror once in a while.’…
‘Do you want me to change,’ she asked him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’d just like you to put on a little lipstick once in a while.’’

Among other things, this novel offers an interesting social commentary.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little tells the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. When her brother Bill falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora tries to get along with her for Bill’s sake. But right from the beginning, it’s difficult. At first, she thinks it’s just because she and Bill are close, and she’s not happy admitting to herself she doesn’t want to ‘share’ him with someone else. Besides, Alice is beautiful, with exactly the right clothes, while Lora isn’t exactly a fashion plate. But little by little, she begins to have real suspicions about Alice. Nonetheless, when Bill and Alice marry, Lora continues to try to get along with her new sister-in-law. Alice quickly becomes a social leader in their circle. She’s the one with the perfect hair, makeup, parties and hors d’oeuvres. But the more Lora finds out about Alice, the more she sees that Alice has a dark side. At the same time as she’s repelled by that, Lora is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder. When it looks as though Alice might be implicated, Lora has to decide what she’ll do.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman owns a Melbourne bakery of which she’s justly proud. She depends on her employees, and she cares about them. For instance, her two shop assistants, Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge are both determined to have television careers. To that end, they eat as little as they can, to make sure they stay thin. And they’re very concerned about what they wear and how they look. In Devil’s Food, their obsession goes a little too far, when they’re both sickened by diet tea that turns out to have been poisoned. At one point, Chapman and her friend Meroe are trying to help the two girls after they’ve been poisoned. Chapman’s trying to find anything among their possessions that might have been responsible. As she’s looking through their things, she finds that,

‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company…Foundations enough to build a small Greek temple…and eye pencils to supply Ancient Egypt for a dynasty.’

In the end, Chapman and Meroe do discover both the source of the poison and the person responsible for it. And in the process, we learn just how much effort Kylie and Goss go to in order to look ‘just right.’

In case you think this pressure applies just to women, that’s actually not true. Men, too, are often pressured. We see that, for instance, in Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has more or less let himself go since his divorce. His sister insists that he get his life back together and, mostly because of her, he signs up for auditions at Auckland’s Regent’s Theatre for the upcoming show Ladies’ Night. He gets a job with the stage crew and preparations begin. The dancers in the show get ready for their performances with workouts and training at a local gym called Intensity. When Dennis solves a printer problem for the gym’s owner Cathy, she invites him to join the dancers’ workouts as a way to get into shape. He reluctantly agrees, and starts the regimen. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears, and is later found dead. It turns out, too, that there is more than one possible motive, as Vincenzo was involved in some lucrative ‘side businesses,’ with some dubious people. What’s more, he had a reputation as a ladies’ man who wasn’t particularly fussy about the marital status of his partners. As the story unfolds, we learn about the dangerous side of trying for ‘the perfect body,’ and the balance needed to stay in shape in a healthy, but not obsessive, way.

There is an undeniable pressure to look and dress a certain way, and it’s not helped by media and other popular images. In real life, it can have disastrous consequences. It can in crime fiction as well.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rainbow High.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bev Robitai, Harper Lee, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Megan Abbott

22 responses to “Dress, Voice, Style, Image*

  1. Fascinating to see how crime fiction looks at a subtle form of pressure to conform. I have been agonising over whether to get the Harper Lee for fear of what I might find – will you be reviewing it (or have I missed that)?

  2. Slightly off topic, but your post reminded me of the lovely bit in Camilla Lackberg’s ‘The Ice Princess’ before Patrik and Erica get together. Patrik is on his way over to her house and first we see from her point of view as she rushes madly about changing her clothes, brushing her hair, putting on makeup – then when she opens the door the viewpoint shifts to him and we see him admiring her as one of these women who’s so good-looking she doesn’t need to try! 😉

    • Oh, I adore that scene, FictionFan! It’s funny without being too silly, and it’s authentic. I don’t really think it’s off-topic either. As she’s scrabbling to get ready, Erica keeps thinking of the message she wants to send with what she’s wearing, and that’s part of why she keeps rejecting one outfit after the other. It’s great and I’m so glad you reminded me of it. 🙂

  3. Very interesting topic, Margot. Cinderella is my favorite part of Murder on the Links. I want to read a lot of the other books that you mentioned.

    • I love the Cinderella character too, Tracy! Isn’t she great? If you do get the chance to take a peek at some of the other titles here, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  4. Kathy D.

    I’m so glad that two of my favorite characters, Corinna Chap
    man and Ruth Galloway, flout convention and do not conform to what women should do or how they should appear — regarding weight, dress, jewelry, make-up, etc.
    And I’m also thankful that three independent women appeared in crime fiction in the aftermath of the U.S. women’s movement — V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone. They certainly do not conform as to what women’s jobs should be, facing danger all the time; appearance, clothing, make-up, jewelry, etc. They’re independent, feisty, smart and courageous, good role models.
    My generation got Nancy Drew and young women after me got these three brave fictional role models..
    And, yes, I, too, will not read Go Set a Watchman. At a time after the racist killing of 9 parishioners in Charleston, S.C., continuing displays of the Confederate flag and protests by Black activists against police brutality, I don’t think we need this book. We need more people to follow
    Atticus Finch’s original example of being principled, but even more so now.
    Also, I’ve read critiques of the book which question its “discovery” and publication, which have dissuaded me from reading it.
    But there is a new Sara Paretsky book out, bound to be good. And so many more good books to read.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, that there are several characters (Ruth Galloway, Corinna Champan and V.I Warshawski among others) who don’t feel particular social pressure to conform to a social image of how they ‘should’ look. One positive consequence of that is that we are seeing fictional characters who call those conventions into question. And that means we don’t adapt them without thinking. You’re right, too, that there are a lot of wonderful books out there. I wish I had time for them all.

  5. Patti Abbott

    Still undecided about the Harper Lee. Probably not because I am sure I will come away wondering who wrote TKAM.

  6. I know the film version of the Agatha Christie novel ‘Evil Under the Sun’ (with Peter Ustinov as Poirot) is not too close to the original story, but I will never forget that scene when a previously dowdy and insipid character comes down the stairs utterly transformed and super-elegant… and we then understand a great deal of the story and just who is evil. (Trying to avoid spoilers here). It made a huge impression on me as a child, I watched that scene over and over again until I quite wore out our video-player.

    • Ah, yes, I remember that scene, Marina Sofia. It isn’t too close to the original story, but you’re quite right: that scene really does make an impression. And it’s that image that does it, I think. It’s not hard to see why you felt you had to watch it again and again.

  7. Margot, dress at various socioeconomic levels plays an important role in “Sister Carrie” (1990) by Theodore Dreiser. Clothes are central to this bold novel set in Chicago and the realisation of 18-year old Caroline “Sister Carrie” Meeber’s American dream.

    • Thank you, Prashant. That’s one I hadn’t thought to include in this post, but you’re absolutely right. It’s a terrific example of the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure there is to dress and look a certain way.

  8. A very interesting post, Margot. This concern for fashion seems to be more prominent in “older” crime fiction than in more contemporary crime fiction. Do you think so?

    • That’s an interesting question, Carol, actually. I don’t know that it was more prominent, as there are a lot of contemporary novels where dressing and looking a certain way matter. But I do agree that the way it comes out is quite different in older crime fiction. Perhaps it’s because the way one’s ‘supposed to’ look and dress has, perhaps changed?

      • Yes. I’m also thinking that very often the women in older crime fiction were often either femme fatales or victims. (Even Miss Marple was fashion conscious.) But once women began being the protagonists (often as detectives) they had this I don’t give a damn attitude about everything, including fitting in.

  9. Col

    I only have Levin’s book from the examples given above. I did enjoy the film, time for the prose…

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