We 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.