Why would anyone with any shred of sanity worry about researching clothes for a romantic novel set in the present day? Everyone knows what jeans look like. Everyone has a clue about the difference between polyester and wool. You can use adjectives to get the effect without fussing around the internet. After all, describing someone sliding sensuously out of an expensive silk blouse conveys plenty without having to study Vogue back issues for the last thirty years. I do not need to know the life cycle of the silkworm, the difference between chemical and plant dyes or pattern cutting techniques from 1932.
This is particularly important when you remember the point of research. The reason for research is to stop an author looking like an idiot. Surely the best thing from this point of view is to describe someone wearing a well cut warm woollen coat and not worry if it’s Hermes or Dolce & Gabbana. Okay, I did a little research on that last sentence. I buy my clothes from the supermarket and I have no idea what brands are good for coats. I was thinking about Kurt looking manly in a warm coat over his sweater, t-shirt and jeans, striding in his work boots, so I looked on eBay (other online auction sites are available), sorted by most expensive and picked two names. Looking at some of the fancy coats on there, I can’t see Kurt picking many of them, especially if he’s a motor mechanic. There would be too much of a risk of getting them dirty.
The only reason I can think of to research clothing is if it’s important to the plot. Sane people would say that you don’t start a plot without knowing the background information. However there are far too many authors like me who get ambushed by plots with no idea about the detail and suddenly I’m trying to work out what an accountant does. Besides, I write about werewolves and vampires and I have no personal experience with either of them. If a story is knocking at your attention, you have to write it and research as you go. So let’s think about clothes in a modern day plot. The last time we saw Kurt and Gwendolyn in Machias, Maine, they were bumping into each other as she went to the post office while he was visiting the grave of his ancestor. Why would clothes matter?
Okay, let’s float some ideas. Kurt was visiting the grave of his great-great-grandfather. After Pearl Harbour, Kurt’s grandfather visited that grave before going off to Europe. Kurt’s grandfather had told his grandmother that he had just discovered the secret to a treasure, and that he would share everything when he came back. Perhaps something was hidden on the grave? I’m not sure about that. What would last in a grave? Wonderful things have been dug up on archaeological sites, but they’re the exception. As this article is about researching fashion – what clothing would last on a grave for eighty years?
I thought about belt buckles. Perhaps old Grandpa Kurt scratched some information into a distinctive belt buckle. I had a look on eBay.com and lost a few hours of time. This sent my imagination off in several directions – a benefit of research when writing an actual story but sort of inconvenient here. After a strong cup of tea, I got back on track (more or less).
I had gone with the idea of designer clothes being useful in a plot, but the quick rummage I had showed me that there were far more uses of clothing than that. To my surprise, I found listings for some civil war belts on US eBay.com. A belt buckle would have a chance if it was hidden in a grave, especially if it was buried in a tin or well wrapped in oiled leather. My mind raced – how about… During the Civil War, a ship smuggling gold from the Confederate States to Canada to pay for war materials was shipwrecked on the coast of Maine. I’ve only seen the coast of Maine on Google Maps but it looks like a tricky place to sail. The gold was brought ashore and hidden, but the Confederate sailors died of fevers and injuries before they could retrieve it and take it to their contacts on Nova Scotia. Grandpa Kurt found it, years later, but had to leave for Europe before he could do anything with it. He scratched information on the back of a belt buckle that he found with the gold and left it in the grave, well wrapped up. That sounds like a great adventure.
Meanwhile, Gwendolyn can’t be left out. She’s unpacking a box of books left to the library by an elderly widow. There are some valuable first editions, some trashy novels and a small box. Inside there is a beautiful silk scarf wrapped around a scrimshaw broach. Grandpa Kurt sent back a fancy scarf when he made it to Paris in 1944. It couldn’t be Dolce & Gabbana because, according to their website, they weren’t founded until 1985 and Chanel closed during World War II, apart from perfumes and accessories (which could include scarves, I suppose). Hermes started producing scarves in 1937 which would make the scarf perfect for a soldier to send back to his loved ones in 1944 after the liberation of Paris. And the scrimshaw broach, also thrown up on eBay during the same search, could be a picture of the ship that smuggled the gold, scratched into a walrus tusk and set into a broach. She’d have to return something as expensive as that and, by coincidence, it came from the house that Kurt recently inherited. Little does Gwendolyn know that she’s about to meet up with that handsome hunk she bumped into on the way to the post office – the one she can’t get out of her mind…
And all of that came from looking up some stuff about clothes.
I should add, this shows my bias towards adventure and older things. But there are other ways that clothes can add to the plot. For example, who is the love rival who left the expensive Chanel scarf in Kurt’s pickup truck for Gwendolyn to find? Does Kurt’s Gucci belt mean that he came from wealth and is suddenly poor? Or is he hiding his money? And does the Versace dress that Gwendolyn found in a thrift shop lead to a mystery about a disappearing woman? These examples show that sometimes it’s worth worrying about the details as they can really boost the plot. For now, I think that I’ll stick with the Confederate gold, but who knows what may come up next?
Next time I’m going to talk about the sort of clothes and clothing that could affect the story as Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn chase the dastardly vampire Count Dominic through London and beyond.
You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts