The Garment Construction:
”There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they would mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.” ~Virginia Woolf
As we continue our investigation into layering our characters through costuming, we must ask: How do clothes make the man – or in a writer’s case, the characters we are creating?
I’m not sure. I just know that I’ve witnessed this transformation miracle every time I put an actor in costume.
Last Christmas I transformed a present-day football coach into a First Century Wiseman simply by changing what he wore. Casting a novice actor to play the part of the Fourth Wise Man, the one who decided not to follow the star, was a real gamble. But this eager football coach learned his lines quickly. He hit his mark every time. And after much practice, he even managed some convincing vocal inflection. But when I’d step back and watch him walk across the stage, he still looked like a Sherman-tank pacing the sidelines. I wanted a Wiseman who floated regally, one who let the guilt of his decision slump his shoulders and show in his eyes…a sensitive Wiseman.
So I did what all frustrated directors do, I talked to the coach about backstory, subtext, and characterization. I even went so far as to demonstrate exactly how I wanted him to move across the stage, waving my hands and floating with every step. But still the coach tromped across the stage.
Nothing I did seemed to help this stiff tough-guy assume the character of the Wiseman…until I dressed him in his costume. The moment that tunic slid over the coach’s head, his body language changed. And when his body language changed, everything about his performance became believable.
It’s tempting to think looking like a Wiseman made the coach feel like a Wiseman. But when you put a athletic-shorts-kind-of-guy in a dress things change. Specifically, the tunic changed the fluidity of the coach’s movements. And when the coach felt that physical change, the difference between the Wiseman’s character and his suddenly became real to him.
The construction of a costume can either restrict or increase the fluidity of a character’s movements. And it is in the fluidity or rigidity of a person’s body language that we glean the information we need to interpret their character.
Remember Alfred, our uppity Englishman in the cream linen suit? When Kate chose to fashion a light colored, impossible fabric into a suit rather than a billowy shirt, she restricted Alfred’s movements. We’ve all had on garments that bind us across the shoulders. Can you move your arms about freely? Not too easily. Have you ever worn something with shoulder pads? Does it straighten your spine and square your shoulders? Yes. You carry your body differently in a restrictive garment than you do in say your favorite pair of sweats. Therefore, if the garment you’re wearing restricts your body movements you communicate something different than someone slinking around in a blue silk blouse.
With three words—cream linen suit—Kate has told us a little about Alfred’s naiveté, his social status, and the way he carries his body. By simply taking a moment to dress Alfred, she added three layers of believability to his character.
Want your characters to move across the stage like they own it? Dress them in something that will pull in their stomach, straighten their spinal column, and square their shoulders. Want your characters to move in and out of the scene praying no one will notice them? Dress them in something baggy. Want your character to move as if they’re afraid everyone is focusing on their imperfections and flaws? Dress them in something form-fitting, something that exposes every curve and then have them tug at the hem of that short skirt and let their body language communicate to us their discomfort.
If we can parade characters across the stage with believable body language, we give our readers 55% more information to correctly interpret the character before them.
After the holidays, we’ll take up shoes and their effect upon a character’s gait. Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas.