Dressing Up

Oscar de la Renta

Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective, Exhibit at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, May 2016

Dressing up in real life is not something I find especially gratifying, but in my mind, I love it. I adore the idea of breezy blue dresses and guys in tuxedos. I can easily picture smooth, polished people swirling around a dance floor, confident and graceful, with a live band in the background and colored lights flitting over bare arms and white collars.

I can’t be alone. When I think of all the YA novels with fancy dresses on the covers, I know they’re tapping into our secret princess wishes. For whatever reasons, our culture inculcates a deep need to feel special and magical, and the right dress can create a transformation, just like it did for Cinderella when her fairy godmother waved a wand. If we can look special, just for a night, people will see our true inner beauty and value us as we deserve. It’s a fine dream.

Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Kiss

Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Kiss

In real life, even everyday clothes have power. They suit us or they don’t. They lend us a veneer of respectability, prop up our impersonations, or make us feel hopelessly out of place. They’re comfortable or not, costly or not, stylish or not. Garb can threaten, or it can assert innocence and courage, as we’ve seen in photos of protests this month. Clothes matter, in short. They speak.

It helps to recollect this when dressing characters in fiction. I used color carefully in Birthmarked, clothing the female servants of the enclave in red dresses. The elite wore shades of white. Gaia and her friends from outside the wall wore blue, green, and natural hues that spoke of the wasteland and a freer if poorer life. In the third book of the Vault of Dreamers series, clothes have a more subtle role, but they still match status and occupation. They get dirty, wet, and bloodstained. I need to feel what they’re like on the bodies I inhabit, and they help make the book world real to me.

Writing is a lot like dressing up. So is reading, I suppose. They both help us imagine what life is like in another person’s outfit. They let us know we don’t suffer alone, and they give us a chance to dance.

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