Art Influences

Katherine Longshore 3 Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In another life, when I was a freshman and sophomore at college, I studied to be a costume designer.  We began with fabric. We learned about texture, how fabrics look beneath harsh stage lights. We learned how they capture light, how they absorb it, how they reflect it. We learned how fabrics drape, where they fold, whether they crease. I learned to love the gossamer shadow of sheer silk, the nonreflective bulk of wool felt, the sumptuous hang of rich damask.

We spent weeks studying the flow of fashion history. We watched skirts lengthen, widen, and shorten and almost disappear. We followed the constriction of the female form as bodices were stiffened and caged and eventually created from slats of whalebone that pressed the organs inward and upward and contributed to the myth that women are weak and feeble and faint at the slightest provocation. We learned that men have not always had it easy in the fashion world. That trends once tightened toes into long curling tips of shoes that once made walking difficult and running near impossible. We delighted in the fact that fashion has always tried to heighten or minimize certain aspects of the anatomy in both sexes. Wide hips, huge bums, broad shoulders.

We learned how to draw figures. But more importantly we learned how to clothe those figures. My renderings were never particularly adept. I never learned how to draw face that I liked, how to draw hands, or how to create a figure that wasn't wisp thin. But I learned how to fill in shadow to produce a fold and how to indicate a seam.

We were taught that color and shape and texture and movement all unknowingly contribute to an audience's perception of the character. Bellatrix LeStrange would never wear pink chiffon. Juliet shouldn't wear black crepe in her opening scene. Holden Caulfield is not the sort who would dress in yellow tweed. When a character steps onto the stage in a crimson satin evening gown with a plunging neckline, you assume certain characteristics about her. When the main character opens the upstage center door to reveal a man and top coat tails, you expect a certain manner, and speech, and movement.

It's the same with the character in a novel. We have to know how a character moves, how he acts under intense light. We have to know her history, how tightly she's laced, what she does to accentuate the positive and diminish the negative. As a writer, we can leave certain aspects of the character up to the imagination of a reader. We don't have to provide every clue about her hands, or every detail of her face. But we need to ensure that the reader’s first impression of the character is accurate. We have to lay enough of a foundation to be able to build an entire novel based around it.

Costume design is an art.  It is one that I admire immensely when I see a play or watch a movie. And what my short time as costume designer taught me is invaluable to my writing.  I’m very fortunate that I write about a time period in which costume played an important part of daily life, because I can venture back into my former life, and submerge myself again in silk and damask, in fine embroidery and intricate lace, and in the way color reflects personality.


Costuming is something I have never paid much attention to, but seeing it from your point of view in this post, I know now I'll be watching not only faces & gestures, but costumes as well.

And doing a little more thinking about what my characters are wearing. :)

Costume design and writing, my two great loves! I can't wait to read your books, Katy!!

Thanks, Beth! I think costumes tend to be more important in historical novels (and films) because they help set the scene. But I've noticed terrific (and important) costume details in dystopian, paranormal and contemporary novels, too. They can add that extra touch of insight.

And Kristen, I certainly hope my costumes live up to expectations!

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