Fashion-rich books you should be reading this summer

I love to read about clothes in novels – those evocative sartorial descriptions that burrow images into memory. They craft an atmosphere, enhance plot, and can even create characters whole-cloth. In literary, socalled ‘summer novels,’ clothing can also further enhance the distinct pleasures of escapism, conjuring a vicarious closet.

Fashion in fiction is a precise vocabulary that can’t be evoked by a recitation of brands; there has to be just the right sort – and the right amount – of detail. Getting it right is as difficult as unobtrusive costume design in cinema – and as difficult as writing sex well – adding a layer of meaning without being distracting.

A handful of new beach-bag-worthy books offer a good recipe for summer reverie. But first, a look back a few seasons to Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, a period novel about murder and dysfunctional marriages in the musky, claustrophobic vacation playground of Cape Cod. Our narrator, Nick, feels the worn wood of the floating dock shed its tiny splinters through the back of her yellow bathing suit, the scratchy sounds of a Count Basie album wafting down to the water from the house. Her swimsuit is decidedly racy, given the novel’s 1945 setting, cut higher at the thighs in the era’s ‘French’ style. Nick notes these details, and relishes the stir it causes in the small community.

Intensified individualism is one of the themes of this 2012 novel and, as Klaussmann told me recently, the swimsuit becomes a symbol of Nick not fitting in, and over time of her rebelling about not fitting in. “I’m fascinated by clothing,” Klaussmann enthuses over the phone from her family summer home that, like the setting of her first novel, is on Martha’s Vineyard. “You’re putting on your personality for the day, almost like armour. It is such a transformative item, and it holds a lot of power.”

photo: blue bridesmaid dresses

Pithy, pitch-perfect descriptions embellish the characters in Klaussmann’s newest book, Villa America, a historical novel based on the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the sybarite American ex-pats who, in the 1920s, are credited with ‘inventing’ summering on the Riviera. Much of the book is set around the Murphys’ summers and parties at their villa on Cap d’Antibes, with mention of guests and friends like the Scott Fitzgeralds (the Murphys are the model for the Divers in Tender is the Night) and the Hemingways. Attending the bullfights at Pamplona, Ernest encourages Sara to don every diamond she owns. Klaussmann writes a glitteringly beautiful scene before turning it on its head; what results is not a critique of wealth and materialism as Sara removes and locks her finery away after the events of that night. “It’s that the diamonds and the jewellery come to represent something else – a falsity and betrayal.”

In the same way as she sought to evoke the Murphys’ distinct speech patterns and turns of phrase by consulting their private papers and archives of correspondence between them and friends, Klaussmann also pored over photographs, looking at what sort of clothes they wore and how they posed. “One of the most important elements of setting a character and story in motion is knowing them physically,” she says.

“Part of this is also playing a fantasy dress-up of my own, in my head,” Klaussmann admits. “If I were this type of person, what would I wear?” Villa America includes the detail of a duchess whose eccentric way of wearing pearls inexplicably moved Sara (“that small touch, that tiny, frivolous fragment of creativity”). Sara herself dons a floorlength, silver-beaded chiffon gown with generous draped sleeves and a sash that emphasizes her elegance: “When she ran her hand through her hair, the tips of the sleeves dropped down her arm to her shoulder in a lovely fluid movement.” As Klaussman sees it, “Clothing represents the inward spirituality of people.”

Witness the vivid scene in Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty: At a concert in sweltering Casablanca, the local society women seated in the front rows are immaculately coiffed and overdressed. They smell of expensive perfume and, incongruously, wear furs; onstage Patti Smith is singing in her usual faded baggy blue jeans, white blouse and man’s blazer.

As in 19th century novels of class, a pair of pumps can speak volumes about social status in the tangle of sartorial semiotics. Everybody Rise, which comes out this month, opens with a bossy mother decrying a pair of her daughter’s unacceptably worn-down pearl stud earrings. “They’re starting to look like molars,” author Stephanie Clifford writes of the parvenue Evelyn’s accessories. In the book, she attempts to climb into and up among the old-money New York set as a recruiter for a social networking start-up aimed at Mrs. Astor’s fabled Four Hundred, aptly called People Like Us. Everything she wears is wrong, and it’s downhill from there.

In The Rocks, a decades-spanning drama set at a resort in Mallorca, author Peter Nichols describe guests as being dressed in ugly but efficient English holiday mufti in order to contrast the more elegant character of the locals. InSummerlong, another recent favourite, Dean Bakopoulos marks the mise-enscene through clothing that, as the summer wears on, is one increasingly emboldened by characters in skimpier outfits. The Midwestern protagonist inventories the locals at the start of swimsuit season: “Claire does her best to ignore the lifeguards in red trunks and sporty bikinis, all impossibly sexy and young, something about their skin suggesting a glow, a pressure, as if they might burst into flame or light at any second.”

Earlier in Tigers in Red Weather, before scandalizing the locals in her yellow swimsuit, Nick silently enumerates the contents of her suitcase – a laundry list of blouses, silk lingerie and a pair of gabardine pants that she calls “her Katharine Hepburn trousers.” Even fictional players create characters out of their clothes. As costume historian James Laver put it, “Clothes are inevitable. They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible.”

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