Monday, June 14, 2010

Covers and Coverings

A while ago I posted about a cover I was sure had been inspired by one of Edmund Blair Leighton's paintings. This time I'm not so sure, but I have the impression that Blair Leighton must be quite popular with Harlequin/ Mills & Boon's art department, because they chose his A Favour (left) for the cover of one of their reissues (right).

Take a look at the cover of Barbara Dunlop's The Billionaire's Bidding, below. Do the lighting, the angle of the bride's head, her hair-style, the white objects beside the register, the feather pen, or the position of the groom remind you of anything?
What about this?

It's Blair Leighton's Signing the Register.

A recent call for papers on Literary Dress: Fashioning the Fictional Self states that
Fashion, fabricate, artifice, make-up: all these terms have a double valence. Each term in noun form denotes a prosthetic application of something foreign atop something natural (usually a human body) with the intention of concealing or enhancing the natural item beneath. Each term in verb form, though, carries a connotation of constitution and creation: a sense of literal “becoming,” or even investiture. In some way, these terms gesture towards the ephemeral, frivolous, and the temporary AND towards a sense of ontological making.
The wedding dresses pictured above seem good examples of how an item of dress can communicate to the viewer "a sense of literal 'becoming,'" since the individual wearing it is in the process of being transformed from the single to the married state. It seems, therefore, that clothing can tell the viewer much about the individual. In addition, as Joanne Entwistle has noted,
The social world is a world of dressed bodies. Nakedness is wholly inappropriate in almost all social situations and, even in situations where much naked flesh is exposed (on the beach, at the swimming-pool, even in the bedroom), the bodies that meet there are likely to be adorned, if only by jewellery, or indeed, even perfume. (6)
However, in an anonymous madrigal in Davison's Poetical Rhapsody, 1602, while the poet mentions that his beloved's clothing "doth show her wit" and varies according to the season, he nonetheless finds her unclothed body even more beautiful:
My love in her attire doth show her wit,
It doth so well become her:
For every season she hath dressings fit,
For winter, spring, and summer.
No beauty she doth miss,
When all her robes are on:
But Beauty's self she is
When all her robes are gone. (Carpenter 78)
The last line's reference to the lady's nakedness perhaps provides some subtext when the previous line appears in Georgette Heyer's Venetia (1958). Notice, too, the detailed description of both Lord Damerel's clothing and his body:
Startled, she turned her head, and found that she was being observed by a tall man mounted on a handsome grey horse. He was a stranger, but his voice and his habit proclaimed his condition, and it did not take her more than a very few moments to guess that she must be confronting the Wicked Baron. She regarded him with candid interest, unconsciously affording him an excellent view of her enchanting countenance. His brows rose, and he swung himself out of the saddle, and came towards her, with long, easy strides. She was unacquainted with any men of mode, but although he was dressed like any country gentleman a subtle difference hung about his buckskins and his coat of dandy grey russet. No provincial tailor had fashioned them, and no country beau could have worn them with such careless elegance. He was taller than Venetia had at first supposed, rather loose-limbed, and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance. As he advanced upon her Venetia perceived that he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation. A smile was curling his lips, but Venetia thought she had never seen eyes so cynically bored.
'Well, fair trespasser, you are justly served, aren't you?' he said. 'Stand still!"
She remained obediently motionless while he disentangled her skirt from the brambles. As he straightened himself, he said: 'There you are! But I always exact a forfeit from those who rob me of my blackberries. Let me look at you!'
Before she had recovered from her astonishment at being addressed in such a style he had an arm round her, and with his free hand had pushed back her sunbonnet. In more anger than fright she tried to thrust him away, uttering a furious protest. He paid no heed at all; only his arm tightened round her, something that was not boredom gleamed in his eyes, and he ejaculated: 'But beauty's self she is! ...'
Venetia then found herself being ruthlessly kissed. (31-32)1
It is not only Damerel's clothing which proclaims his status and character, since "no country beau could have worn them with such careless elegance." It is the body inside the clothes which reveals that Damerel is a rake: "he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance," his face is "marked with lines of dissipation" and his eyes are "cynically bored." That it is the body, rather than the clothes, which proclaim the truth about the man is demonstrated by the counter-example of Oswald:
'[...] He is Sir John Denny's son, and the top of his desire is to be mistaken for the Corsair. He combs his hair into wild curls, knots silken handkerchiefs round his neck, and broods over the dark passions in his soul [...] if ever he meets you he will be quite green with jealousy, for you are precisely what he thinks he would like to be - even though you don't study the picturesque in your attire.' (36)
Oswald may dress the part, but he nonetheless fails to give the impression of "A Byronic hero" (36), perhaps because he cannot fabricate the necessary "lines of dissipation," fails to move his body with "swashbuckling arrogance" and does not have "cynically bored" eyes.

Romance heroines, it seems to me, are often remarkably skilled at reading the truth in their heroes' eyes. Sometimes all it takes is a single look and, depending on the circumstances, they can discern cynical boredom, soul-deep anguish, or passionate love. Their bodies are also frequently described as betraying them, or of revealing truths:
'You've no right to decide what I want and what I don't, she said [...]. 'I am the only one who can say that.'
'You are saying it, he whispered. 'Your eyes say it ...' He brushed a fingertip over her lids and lashes and her eyes closed on a reflex. 'Your mouth says it,' Sean said, and lingeringly stroked her lips. 'Your whole body is saying it ...' (Lamb 135)
If romances, both chaste and more explicit, traditionally depict the truth being revealed and spoken wordlessly by bodies, this may explain why, in the context of the genre, scenes of "forced seduction" appear unproblematic to many readers. In real life, verbal consent is required as evidence that any ensuing sexual activity is not sexual assault, or rape. In romances, however, it seems that a heroine's body may apparently speak the truth, giving consent even as the heroine's words seek to deny it. Obviously, this concept is rather troubling if one takes it out of the realm of fiction and considers what its consequences are when applied to real women.

As for the genre itself, if bodies are deemed inherently more truthful than words, could this be at least part of the explanation why the depiction of sexual passion has become more and more central to the novels? Certainly Sylvia Day, co-founder of Passionate Ink, the erotic romance chapter of the Romance Writers of America, has defined this sub-genre as follows:
Erotic Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn’t be removed without damaging the storyline.
Maybe, in many modern romances, the truth is naked, even when the novels don't reflect the naked truth about real relationships?2

1 Heyer was, of course, using the word "ejaculated" in the now rather archaic sense of "say[ing] something quickly and suddenly" (AskOxford).

2 I apologise for the somewhat appalling pun. I wanted to include it, though, because the phrase "naked truth" contrasts with the "dressing up" of facts, and both seem to point to the idea that, as the call for papers suggested, fashion and clothing are often considered to involve the "application of something foreign atop something natural [...] with the intention of concealing or enhancing the natural item beneath."


  1. A lovely and perceptive essay. Thank you very much!

  2. As always, refreshing and thought-provoking.

  3. Thanks for the compliments, Lynne and Madeleine! I'm glad you found the post interesting.

  4. Lovely. You touch on so many interesting things here. Delight in the other. Clothes and what they reveal/disguise.

    A number of romance authors use clothes in interesting ways: Pam Rosenthal and Judith Ivory spring to mind because I've posted on precisely this.

  5. Thanks Tumperkin. I assumed you were referring to this post about Pam Rosenthal's The Edge of Impropriety and this post about Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory's Bliss, and I thought I'd put the links in, so that others can find them more easily.

  6. As others have said, Laura, that is a really perceptive and useful little essay. May I add something that you may have omitted because it is so obvious?
    In the past, a person's clothing enabled others to classify him or her very rapidly as to age and background (including urban/rural), probable occupation, financial standing and social class (and nationality). We forget, when we read about an intrepid gentleman detective dressing up as a manual worker that this was a real and effective disguise. People wore the costume appropriate to their rank: even if members of the privileged classes and their servants were engaged on essentially the same activity, they were visually differentiated by the style and quality of their clothing.
    Even 50 years ago, it was possible to travel on the London Underground and make quite confident guesses about the jobs and status of other passengers, of both sexes, by the clothes they wore. One wouldn't have an earthly chance today, because any and all of us can wear pretty much what we choose. What we choose to wear still says a lot about each of us, of course -- it is still an important social marker, but on an individual basis only. We cannot be slotted into a broad social classification by clothing alone in the way that was perfectly straightforward and self-evident in the past.

  7. Thanks, Tigress. I've seen some of the films produced by British Transport Films and I think you could see the differences in clothing in some of them. I have a feeling that's where I noticed that different types of hats were worn by men of different classes e.g. middle class bowler hats and working-class flat caps.

    I'm not sure that all clothing is now completely devoid of class connotations. Sean O'Grady (in a short article in The Independent comments that

    The decline of the working man has, ironically, left the flat cap to the landed classes, and today the conceptually similar but more exuberant baseball cap, sometimes placed back-to-front, has taken on the role of signifying (usually) lower social status, especially in Burberry trim.

    In other words, the Burberry baseball cap worn like that is considered to be an indication that the wearer is a 'chav'.

  8. Yes, taste and preferences in clothing still have social connotations: the whole 'chav' phenomenon depends on that, and Essex Girls were wearing white stilletos in all weathers even before the term 'chav' had come into circulation. The Burberry element is a fascinating story in itself, because 40 years ago, it was very, very 'county', worn only by the green-welly set, and its appropriation by the more vulgar type of celebrities was extraordinary. It is now, of course, totally declassé.

    The difference is that clothing has really become a matter of personal choice. A person can choose to present him/herself in a certain way. In the past, the rules were so rigid (and clothes so relatively expensive) that there really was little choice. An aristocrat could masquerade as a workman, and though his demeanour, accent etc. would not pass muster face-to-face, from a distance, he would deceive. A farm labourer simply wouldn't be able to dress up as a duke -- where would he get the clothes, and pay for them?

    Prince Harry seems to have a fondness for baseball caps, incidentally. His accent is also a bit Estuary-ish (unlike his older brother, who speaks modern RP). Choices, not rules.