You Only See What She Wants You to See*

Assumptions and ImpressionsWe humans are bombarded with so much stimuli that it’s nearly impossible to sort it all out. So, we make judgements and assumptions about people based on just a few salient cues. Sometimes those judgements are absolutely right, and sometimes they aren’t. Either way, we can’t really avoid making them, as very often we just don’t have the time to sift through all of the cues about a person at once. So we focus on one or two really salient cues, such as clothes. Lawyers know this, so some of them coach their clients as to the kind of clothes to wear when they appear in court. People use clothes to make impressions in other situations, too.

Crime-fictional sleuths, criminals and other characters know the impact of people’s overall impressions and assumptions and they take advantage of it. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, will know that he uses changes of clothes in several stories. As one example, in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, he adopts the clothing and manner of a workman. He’s trying to stop a blackmailer, and he knows that simply going to the man’s home and demanding the incriminating evidence isn’t going to work. So instead, he uses his ‘workman’s guise’ to strike up a friendship with a housemaid, and gets the information he needs.

Several characters in Agatha Christie’s novels use clothing and clothing styles to make exactly the impression they want. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, Katherine Grey learns that, after ten years of serving as a paid companion, she has inherited a large amount of money from her now-deceased employer. Although she’s a practical person, Katherine wants the chance to travel, and she wants to make the right impression. So she visits a famous dressmaker and orders a new wardrobe. She then decides to accept an invitation to visit a distant cousin who now lives in Nice. That visit ends up drawing her into a case of murder and theft, when a fellow passenger on the train she’s taking is killed. Katherine’s new look isn’t a disguise, as everyone knows her identity, and that she’s been a paid companion. But her clothes do give the ‘right’ impression for the Riviera. Of course, Christie fans will also know that in several stories, the killer uses a disguise, or at least different clothing, to ‘fade into the background’ or to avoid being ‘spotted.’ But no spoilers here!

Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Inspector Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte knows the value of making the right impression, and of having people make the assumptions about him that he wants. So he sometimes chooses clothes and bearing that will suit that purpose. For instance, in Death of a Swagman, he’s been called to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of a stockman named George Kendell. Boney knows that he won’t easily find out what happened if he goes into the town wearing an official uniform and showing a badge. So, he dresses differently and arranges to get himself arrested for vagrancy. He’s given ten days’ jail time, and ordered to paint the fence at the police station. He dresses and acts the part, so at first, almost everyone assumes that he’s an itinerant stockman passing through town, hoping for a few days of work. And that’s just the impression he wants to make, so that he can get people to talk to him.

Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn is the coroner for Shrewsbury, so she and her team investigate whenever there is an unnatural death. And that’s exactly what they find in River Deep, when the body of a man is washed out of a basement after the River Severn overflows its banks. As the team check the missing persons records to try to identify the dead man, they learn of a disappearance that might be a match. At first it looks as though the identification is settled – until it turns out that these are two different men. Now Gunn and the team have a much more complicated case to solve. Part of the trail leads to an exclusive day spa, so Gunn decides to make an appointment and go there. In order not to be of any particular notice, she chooses very different clothes to what she usually wears, and a different way of doing her hair. This lets her craft the image she wants to craft, so that the staff at the spa make the assumptions about her that she wants: that she’s an upper-middle-class woman with money to spend, and certainly not a coroner…

As I mentioned earlier, lawyers know that the assumptions juries and judges make about their clients can matter very much. In higher profile cases, where the media is involved, there’s also the matter of a client’s public image, and the assumptions that that very public ‘court’ will make. So, some attorneys work with their clients and suggest certain kinds of dress. We see examples of this in many novels; I’ll just mention two. In both Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry and Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, there’s a plot thread that involves a character who’s on trial. In the former, it’s Joanna Lindsay; in the latter, the defendant is Myriam Villetreix. There are many differences between the cases, but both have become very public. And in both cases, the defendant has already gotten an awful lot of negative attention in the press. It’s going to be very important for both women to make as good an impression as they can when they’re in court. So each gets advice about what to wear. And in the case of The Paris Lawyer, we learn that it’s not just clients who go through this. Myriam Villetreix’s attorney, Catherine Monsigny, wants to be taken seriously as a competent and capable attorney. So she’s quite careful about the way she dresses, too.

Of course, it’s not just clothing that causes people to make assumptions. Many, many other factors go into that split-second decision people make about what you’re like and what to assume about you. Sometimes those decisions end up being correct, and sometimes not. Either way, they’re interesting.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cameo’s Back and Forth.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helen Fitzgerald, Priscilla Masters, Sylvie Granotier

26 responses to “You Only See What She Wants You to See*

  1. The street-survivor in me could hint that assumptions are the opposite of understanding the real thing, henceforth a form of failure society is much too fond of.

    Luckily I chose to instead focus on my benevolent host, and her once more thrilling article. It is a compliment, though symbolic due my own abstinence, when I state that I miss you in our roleplaying groups. And I would tweak Cthulhu into a ‘real’ crime fiction without tentacled nemesis and weird magic to mind-play through several ideas.

    I consider many of your thoughts worthy, and I am worried that not some thousands more visit this site, as you do outmatch certain detective clubs with both, your competence and your enthusiasm!

    Please forgive my babbling, I recently scored a less-minor success vs my PTSD, and I managed to negotiate a temporal cease-fire, so I won some weeks without new threats of jail or another urban homeless ordeal. If I could afford champaign I would offer you ‘cheers’, dear Margot.

    • Thank you for the kind words, André. You bring up a really interesting point about how quickly one learns to make assumptions when one has to be streetwise. Sometimes those few seconds (or less) when one’s sizing up another person can mean, quite literally, life or death. So living on the streets means learning to hone those assumptions.

      • Yes, honing and admitting to oneself that it needs less than a fortnight ‘off the streets’ for that instinct to erode again…

        But it does serve crime fiction, as seeing the real bad guy, and writing that bad guy, can both benefit from thrilling the readers by choice of words… 😉

        I appreciate your works, and I consider several of them worthy lessons beyond the obvious topic (may depend on skill level though, I was a bit of a chaotic & sloppy type).

  2. I have not read any stories by Arthur Conan Doyle but I plan to change that. I have noticed the costume changes in the movies though.

  3. A subject close to my own heart, of course, Margot. I’ve read a fair bit of Ethel Lina White recently, and she is an author who is very good on clothes and their implications – from the hotel guests abroad who must wear smart clothes to keep up England’s image (!!), to the maid who copies the employers’ clothes, and the posh young women who all look the same. She really knew her stuff…

    • Oh, thanks for the suggestion, Moira! I may have to try her work; it certainly sounds like a great example of this sort of use of clothes to make just the right impression. And yes, I did think of you as I was writing this post…

  4. No examples from me today, but I do remember from my only experience of jury duty that the accused turned up looking very smart, and it was quite hard to imagine him having mugged an old lady. However, he changed his plea to guilty half way through and then we discovered he had a record as long as his arm. Gave me a real insight into the importance of clothes in setting an impression…

    • Oh, that is interesting, FictionFan! And my guess is, that sort of reaction is not uncommon among jurors. Must have been a real dose of reality to learn what the guy’s past was like, and his plea. It really is interesting what impressions people can make with the way they dress and hold themselves.

  5. I’ve often wondered whether juries are really fooled by someone wearing a suit to court because everyone knows that’s what their lawyer has told them to do so, but I suppose it avoids the risk of someone wearing something that would get an adverse reaction. I do notice that when the newspaper’s report a trial after the age of the suspect and reason the next paragraph often states what is worn which goes to show it matters enough to tell us all about it. What we wear can give subtle messages too – at my place of work those who are most ambitious tend to dress more smartly than those who have reached their level (excluding the very top management) which I find fascinating… Great post and just to get it back to books there is a lot about what the ‘boy’ in The Wicked Boy wears – more aspirational clothing!

    • That is really interesting, Cleo, that you see that pattern of dress where you work. It goes to show that we do send messages when we dress. Some are obvious, and some are less so, but dress does send signals. And you’re right about dress in court. People must pay attention to what someone wears in court, because lawyers continue to advise it, and as you say, newspapers report on it. And I think we do generally make assumptions based on what people are wearing, even if we’re not entirely aware of doing so.

  6. Fascinating post, as always, although I have no additional examples to add. I always thought people must be foolish to be so influenced by appearance, but I’m not immune to it either. There is one Christie example in Evil Under the Sun that I particularly love (in the film too, the one with Peter Ustinov as Poirot).

    • Thank you Marina Sofia. I think we’re all susceptible to that sort of influence, even we think it’s silly. And I’m glad you brought up Evil Under the Sun. I know the example you mean, and it’s fantastic. I thought of mentioning it, but saying anything much about it would have given away spoilers.

  7. Margot, your post reminded me of the old saying something along the lines ‘the clothes make the man (or woman).’ The way a person dresses does tend to give us a quick vision of who they are (even though it’s sometimes wrong). I think back on a murder trial I covered years ago. The defendant had long hair, a messy beard and wore jeans and a tee shirt when arrested (it was how he looked everyday). But in court, he wore a suit, was clean shaven and had a nice haircut. Thankfully the jurors saw past that and he was found guilty of murdering two men in cold blood.

    • Oh, what a story, Mason! And what a clear example of the way people change their dress and so on, so that others will make the right assumptions. We really do make those ‘snap judgements’ about people, so it does make sense that that guy would have made such a major dress/hair change. Interesting that the jury paid more attention to the evidence than to his dress.

  8. Those of us in the psychotherapy line know how important this is. Of course individual therapists have their own style but we try to send a message that is inviting (warm colours) but not threatening (nothing provocative or gang like). We also have to be detectives and read what ever clues we get. I always pay attention to whether the clothes of the person say they are clinging to a certain time in their life, a refusal to grow up, or to state a message that is incongruent with the truth about them. I love descriptions of clothes in books – even though I am no fashionista I love READING about clothes.

    • Thanks, Jan, for your perspective. I hadn’t really thought about clothes in the therapy setting, but they really do matter, of course. You don’t want, as you say, to be threatening, and you do want to be inviting and welcoming. But at the same time, I’d guess therapists do their best work when they dress in a way that’s comfortable for them. I especially hadn’t thought of what clients’ clothes say about them that they may or may not be ready to talk about in session. But I can sure see how that would be telling. So much to think about, for which thanks.

  9. And certain dress can add an intriguing layer to characterization, too. Titles escape me at the moment, but I also do this in my own work.

    • You’re quite right, Sue. Dress can tell us an awful lot about a character, and changes in dress can say a lot about character evolution and character development.

  10. Margot, for me, clothes are all about visual appeal, which is why I notice them more in films than in books. I particularly like the tipping of the hat, both classy and gentlemanly. I can’t imagine a sleuth without a hat and suit.

    • That’s really interesting, Prashant, that you notice clothing more in films. Of course, it’s not surprising since film is so visual. And I know exactly what you mean about that classy tip of the hat. Something you don’t see in real life very often, or at least I don’t.

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