Monday, December 28, 2015

Wrapped in Human Clothing, a Guest post from E.M. Prazeman, contributing author to "Asylum: a collection of short fiction"

In the great television series Castle, character Teddy Farrow in the episode “Inventing the Girl” (third episode, second season) declares that “fashion is what separates us from animals.” He goes on to compare fashion to civilization. Without the delivery and context, it loses a lot of power. If you’re curious, watch the episode. It’s worth your time.

In the hands of another actor, and if it had been written by another writer, they both might have been tempted to use those lines as proof of a fashion designer’s myopic vision of the world and aggrandizement of what is, compared to murder and suffering, a trivial pursuit. Instead, at least to me, it resonated very deeply. It tells a truth about humanity that parades before our eyes every day, though we seldom notice it for what it is except perhaps to mock it when it trips on a catwalk.

Writers rather famously write in pajamas, as they work at home and there seems to be little reason to dress up unless they plan to venture to the grocery store or set aside an hour or two at a fitness club. If they dress differently than when they write at home, that is an admission that social rules matter. Or, if they do show up in pajamas, slippers and a robe, it’s an admission that they don’t care. Or maybe they’re depressed. In an uncaring, gray world, where it’s an effort to brush your teeth, to get out of bed, to keep breathing, changing clothes to suit a social sensibility that doesn’t serve you and may even seem to actively destroy you makes no sense whatsoever.

Perhaps, then, dressing up would be a sign that things are looking up. Or maybe dressing up is that person fighting the good fight against the depression that’s destroying their will to live and be a part of the world. Even if dressing up isn’t that big of an effort, there are both conscious and unconscious elements to what we choose to wear.

Just as dressing up can be something more than practical protection against sun, freezing or windburn, dressing down can be an act of defiance. As much vitriol as sagging attracts, it’s also a symbol of cultural freedom. The cavaliers with their fancy collars laid down across their coats and vests shocked society by showing their necks and refusing to starch the fabric to the point that it stood up to follow a specific form. They embraced controlled chaos, making beauty from a riot of colors and reshaping garments to flow with the human body instead of forcing it into a sometimes bizarre (though often exquisite) collection of geometric shapes. Oh those cavaliers with their notions of free expression, scientific inquiry, never mind their conflicting religious views! Shocking indeed.

Yet today we look at their 17th century portraits and see them as poised, flowery and perhaps a bit stuffy.

They were the saggers of their age, full of defiance and rich with cultural power. Meanwhile the Puritans, who shared the streets with the Cavaliers, also defined themselves with fashion. They wore drab colors as a symbol of their moral superiority.

Yes, fashion matters. It matters personally, socially, and culturally. It doesn’t just matter to the waiter trying to seat people at a fancy restaurant. It matters to the person being seated. Do they fit in? Do they want to fit in? Is their status such that they could be seated at a black tie restaurant in jeans and a dirty t-shirt? Would they do it to prove that they could, or because they didn’t care, or because they actively hated those who took offense at them and wanted to spit in their beholders’ eyes? Or perhaps some famous people make an effort because they don’t want to flaunt their power, or disrespect the public that has given them their wealth, or fear their fame might be transient or taken away from them if they misbehave.

Then there’s the dress up. It’s not just for Halloween. The right clothes, the right shoes, the right makeup can help boost floundering confidence. It might open doors otherwise shut to us, and prove that we’re willing to go out of our way to be a part of a community or workplace. Clothes can also make us invisible, if we choose. We can dress up to blend in, though we might secretly long to wear some flamboyant concoction that reminds us of a carnival, or something that would fit with this excerpt from the brilliant poem by Jenny Joseph:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.

Women who dress up to go out sometimes complain that men suddenly feel free to ogle and make comments or even proposition them. Some men counter with, “well, why did you dress up, then?” That’s a disingenuous question at best, because although it’s implied there isn’t just one answer. Women dress up to impress their dates, or to feel good about themselves, or as a power play to ‘punk out’ or dominate over other women in their group by appearing more desirable. They, therefore, may not necessarily be dressing up to encourage every man who notices them to flirt or drool over them. Any notice outside their intended target group may just be a side effect of their true intention, and is often considered a bother rather than a win. The context matters. The clothing may have layers of meaning as well as fabric, but it’s not that complicated. Those that pay attention to the roles played by fashion understand and can function in more social situations than those who don’t observe and practice.

Fashion isn’t just practical, artful, and socially expressive. It can be magical.

In Impro by Keith Johnstone, the author goes on at length about how masks and costumes can change not only how we’re perceived, but how we perceive ourselves. Clothing can change how we feel, what we think we know, even who we are.

So how could I stop myself from making masks, and clothes, and costumes so important to my characters that it really did matter whether a jester’s makeup was smudged or if his hat matched his mask or if he had time to shave twice a day to maintain the illusion of youth? How could I resist turning clothes and masks into a form of magic?

The answer is, I couldn’t.

Get your copy of Asylum, the anthology of short fiction which includes works by E.M. Prazeman and others from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

You might also be interested in one of E.M. Prazeman's books. Series start Masks would be the logical place to start. Available from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

1 comment:

Judi Moore said...

Just to say, I enjoyed your post.