It’s the Little Things: The Clothes Make the Motion

            Perhaps because I am a performer, I notice how clothing shapes my movements. When I get my Elizabethan doublet fully buttoned up, the tight fit and stiff cloth force me into a straighter, more erect posture. When I tell ghost stories on a cold October night, a jacket allows me much more freedom of movement, particularly for hand gestures, than a cloak does, but the cloak will keep me warmer afterwards – as long as I sit still and don’t shift around too much. There is a physical aspect to clothing that is just as important as the decorative aspect, which a writer can exploit to deep the experience of the world they are creating.

            For example, in her book How To Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, historian Ruth Goodman discusses how changes in men’s fashion in Tudor England contributed to the changes in fighting styles and weapons in the same period. Medieval weapons such as the long sword use a number of guards and attacks that start up high, at shoulder level or above the head. Elizabethan fashion, favoring tight and rigid clothes like my close-fitted doublet, make raising your arms up high rather difficult. The rapier of Shakespeare’s day, however, is mostly held down low, close to the hips, with attacks and defense below shoulder height – all of which is easily accomplished with the clothes of the era. A hundred years later, however, men’s fashion moved to tight pants and stockings, high-heeled shoes, tight coats (as depicted in the movie The Favorite, for example) made the athletic footwork and maneuvering of rapier work difficult, and so rapiers gave way to the small sword, a weapon which relies mostly on precise, elegant movements of the tip of the blade, with almost no movement of the rest of the body.

            Or consider the relationship between styles of clothing and styles of dance. Many years ago I took a workshop from a dancer from New Orleans (whose name I have, alas, since forgotten.) He also started with the physicality of Elizabethan upper class clothing. In addition to pointing out how stiff and tight-fitting it was, he also pointed out the many layers of heavy velvets and brocade over canvas corsets typically weighed about 30 pounds, compared to our modern day 10. All of that limits the dance movements anyone could do. Not surprisingly most dances of the court involved walking and turning in elaborate patterns, in which dancers could look each other in the eye while having a short conversation before the dance sent them on to a new partner. (The dance sequence in the film Shakespeare in Love nicely illustrates this, as does the dance scene in Shakespeare’s own Much Ado About Nothing Act II.1, in which the dance brings two characters together at the front of the stage for a few lines of dialogue, before sending them on and bringing together the next pair.) And because of this, the music of the era is slower and quieter, even the dance music feels measured and sedate, because it is music to walk to. Music of the court and upper classes, that is. But in the streets and villages, common folk danced to faster, livelier tunes. Common folk, however, wore looser clothing, and much less of it, clothing designed to allow for manual labor. Without that constriction and weight of upper class clothes, they could dance in a merrier fashion to faster music. (To compare for yourself, listen to recordings by “early music” groups such as The Baltimore Consort, versus the popular music as played by the group A Reasonable Facsimile.)

            I was thinking about all this while reading Stephanie Maas’ novel Throne of Glass (which also prompted my previous post, “The Problem With Pockets”.) The main character of the novel, Celaena Sardothien, is a female assassin coerced into a series of physical contests and duels. The world of the novel is based on European medieval models, and the woman all wear long and elaborate dresses and gowns. Maas obviously thought about how hard it would be for her character to run and climb and jump and do the all things Celaena would be called upon to do while wearing a skirt. So instead, she has Celaena wear trousers. And while this solves the immediate problem of needing clothes that allow for certain actions, it is also a missed opportunity to further develop both character and world.. What if, instead of turning her character into the equivalent of a modern girl clad in the medieval version of jeans and a tee-shirt, Maas had stopped to think through the limitations a female assassin would actually face while wearing the clothes established for that world. How would Celaena fight if she wore skirts? How would that change the weapons she uses and the styles of fighting she prefers? She is probably not going to use a lot of kicks and jumps when fighting. Would she rely on stealth rather than strength? Strike with poison slipped into a cup? Carry a concealed knife (where would she conceal it? How would she reach it when she needs it?) Thinking through those issues would probably change the character herself, maybe even force a change in the story, push Maas to take the plot in a different direction in order to solve the problems now presented.

            Clothes are part of the world we inhabit. Without thinking about it, we allow them to shape our fighting, our dancing, our music, our relaxing and our working. We adjust to fight the physicality of our clothing. The more characters in stories also adjust and adapt to their clothes and fashion, the more real their world becomes.

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