Linda Grant chooses the best-dressed women in fiction, those "whose clothes say as much about the wearer as their narrative fate" ...
Who is the best-dressed person in fiction? I’m not talking about novelists, who don’t leave the house enough to need an extensive wardrobe, but their characters.
Literature has its sartorially lazy authors – such as Jane Austen, who never bothers to describe what anyone is wearing – but other writers understand that in the imaginary world of the novel, they are not just the set designer, but also the costume department. How they dress their characters sends messages about them to both the world they inhabit, and to the reader.
Even some of the earliest writers understood the power of a bit of colour-coding. In the 14th-century religious allegory “Piers the Ploughman”, the author William Langland signals the morality of his characters by swathing Lady Holy Church in pure, unspotted linen, whereas the naughtily rich Lady Meed, dressed in red with bands of gem-studded gold lace, is clearly a scarlet woman. By the time you get to the realist Chaucer and his parade of well-dressed pilgrims, clothes go further and delin-eate the niceties of the medieval class system: no accident that the Wife of Bath wears crimson stockings, new shoes and a head-dress weighing a full 10lb.
From the Wyf’s splendour on, literature has been full of characters dressed to impress themselves on the readers’ consciousness. In “Women in Love”, D.H. Lawrence’s insistence on Gudrun’s coloured stockings is a screaming reminder of his rage at her sexual liberation. In almost all of Jean Rhys’s novels the hunger for fashion and for new clothes, the shame of threadbare underwear, saturates the soul of her alienated female characters. Audrey Hepburn may get all the credit for the LBD-and-pearls look in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, but it was Truman Capote who clothed his Holly Golightly in “a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker”.
I have my particular favourites, though: three women (well, one half-woman) whose clothes are as vivid as if they’d just fallen out of the cupboard; and, what’s more, whose clothes say as much about the wearer as their narrative fate.
The first is Dorothea Brooke, heroine of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. The key to her character is provided on the first page with a description of her personal style, which, in the Victorian age of the Indian paisley shawl, the leg o’mutton sleeve and the bustle, tends to self-denying monochrome. Is she a plain girl, then? Not quite. Dorothea has the “kind of beauty…[that] seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress”. Sleeves without frills and flounces show off her finely formed hands and wrists, and her overall style, Eliot writes, gave her “the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible”. You get the feeling that if Coco Chanel or Miuccia Prada had been born a century or so earlier, they might have given Dorothea clothes for free. Both designers’ love of basic black seems to have been derived from a rigorous intellectualism (Prada is a former Marxist); yet their clothes can only be worn by those with a really good figure. Their paradoxically luxurious minimalism would have ideally suited Miss Brooke’s concealed vanity.
The second is from Proust. His subject was modernism, the coming of the new century, from perhaps the first literary description of a telephone call to the first descriptions of a radical change in dress. “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” might be regarded as a difficult book, full of hunt-the-verb, chase-the-clause sentences – but once you get past the madeleines and hawthorns in bloom it’s full of frocks. Supreme among its many well-dressed characters is the super-rich, self-indulgent and recognisably avant-garde Duchesse de Guermantes, a heroine who acts as a defining moment in the literary history of couture. The duchess was probably not the first fictional character to be described as wearing a particular designer (the House of Worth figures in several 19th-century novels), but she is almost certainly the first to be so closely associated with one particular name: Fortuny. Fortuny’s sinuous, pleated creations of the turn of the last century, made famous by Isadora Duncan, were a revolution in the liberation of the female body and Proust has de Guermantes in them all the time. For him, her garments — whether grey crepe de chine, or silk embroidered with red and yellow flames — are not casual decoration, but “a given, poetical reality like that of the weather”.
My final candidate is Virginia Woolf’s eponymous Orlando, who, in the space of a paragraph, can change her dress four times, from spring cotton, to grey taffeta, to peach bloom and then finally wine-coloured brocade as she attempts to find the right gown to go with her pearls. Dressed in pointed slippers and with an emerald ring on her finger, at the final moment — when she is about to ring the bell for her servants — she decides to tear it all off and wear the “neat black silk knickerbockers of an ordinary nobleman” instead. There are few fictional characters – or indeed real ones – who can be best-dressed in both genders.