Clothes and Romance (ii) 1

For part i, see here.

Something I have become increasingly aware of in the last few years is the huge variety of reasons why women choose to wear what they do. Looking beautiful or glamorous or stylish is not always the highest priority. Very often clothes need to be functional, of course. But even without those constraints there are all kinds of factors which influence the way we dress.

Kate Hewitt‘s lovely book, The Bride’s Awakening, addresses a number of these issues with really impressive insight and sensitivity. Her heroine, Ana, is 5’11”, big boned and curvy. She is massively insecure about her appearance because of a bad experience in a previous relationship. When we first meet her she is at a cocktail party where all the other women are in short, sexy dresses. She is wearing ‘an expensive-looking but essentially shapeless trouser suit’. Throughout the book we learn that she is afraid of looking ridiculous by wearing clothes that are intended for smaller, prettier women. She is afraid of being laughed at by men who could not possibly find her attractive. She is even afraid of going into certain kinds of clothes shop – afraid that they won’t have anything which fits her, afraid that the shop assistants will look down on her with scorn or pity, afraid that if she does manage to squeeze herself into something it will look terrible. So she wears clothes which will protect her from all this. Clothes which give her a professional, almost mannish appearance, but which put up a barrier against anything more personal.

She also wears clothes which are functional for her work out in the vineyards. Dusty trousers and shirts with dirt on the sleeves. I love the scene where she seduces her husband in this outfit – it’s a great way of showing us that he is attracted to Ana, not her clothes.

On her wedding day, Ana wears a dress she knows to be profoundly unflattering to her figure. Round necked, white satin, three layers of ruffles on the skirt. She doesn’t wear it deliberately to look unattractive; she wears it to please the person she loves most in the world – her father. It is her mother’s wedding dress, and since her mother died a few years ago, she and her father have grown incredibly close. She wears the dress because she loves her father and is loyal to him, and that is more important than her own pride in her appearance.

Later on in the book, Ana does summon up the courage to visit a designer boutique. The shop assistant is lovely and incredibly helpful. When Ana puts on the first dress which fits her perfectly and suits her perfectly, it is a really moving moment as she recognises her own beauty for the first time.

There is a counterpoint thread to this in the book, as well. Every time anyone gives (or tries to give) Ana clothes, it works out badly. I love the smackdown she gives when her fiancé tries to put her in a designer dress to take her out to dinner. She’s in charge of what she wears and she’s not going to let him take control of her in that way. And I appreciated the deep spitefulness of the mother-in-law’s gift of a beautiful silk nightgown – three sizes too big for Ana.

Clothes are complicated. Or more accurately, women’s relationships with their clothes can be very complicated. I think what I learn from this is never to judge a woman for what she is wearing. And if you’re a guy, think very, very carefully before buying something for a woman to wear. She’ll always be able to read more into the gesture than you would have believed possible. And finally, you can learn (almost) everything you need to know about life from romance novels.

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Thank you Ros. I’m going to take a cold shower after reading your blog. 😀 You can read more from Ros on Romantic Fiction here.

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