Silent language of clothes speaks volumes

SINGAPORE, April 9 (Reuters) - Red high-heels, a bright blue suit, a black leather jacket: the characters in Linda Grant’s new novel “The Clothes on their Backs” wear their hearts, and their minds, on their sleeves.

Linda Grant won the Orange Prize for Fiction for "When I lived in Modern Times", set in Tel Aviv in the last years of the British Mandate. In her latest novel, she unpacks what she calls the depths below the surfaces to take a literary look at a topic that's normally the territory of chick-lit: the psychology of clothes. Reuters/File/HP/WS

Grant won the Orange Prize for Fiction for “When I lived in Modern Times”, set in Tel Aviv in the last years of the British Mandate. In her latest novel, she unpacks what she calls the depths below the surfaces to take a literary look at a topic that’s normally the territory of chick-lit: the psychology of clothes.

Whether they make bold statements or blend in, the clothes we choose are never neutral, and we are always judged on them, Grant told Reuters Life! on a recent visit to Singapore.

Q: The book’s title refers to the experience of refugees, in this case coming to London, with nothing. How do clothes illuminate the characters’ pasts, and why are they so important?

A: “(Holocaust survivor) Sandor was a slave in rags. This explains why as soon as he has any money he’s buying flashy suits and diamond watches and loves luxury goods, loves clothes.

(For) Vivien’s parents, who are also refugees but of a very different type, the clothes you wear are designed not to draw attention to you. Vivien has been dressed in these charity shop hand-me-downs as a way of not drawing attention to her. And really through clothes, (that) she comes to be able to form her own personality, to live, to be in the world.

And you have Eunice, this black woman who’s been treated to the most brutalised racism... Her clothes are what give her dignity... Her clothes are tremendously important in the way that she can hold her head up and feel that she can be treated with dignity.”

Q: What can clothes tell us about the wearer?

A: “We’re always making judgments about people on the basis of what they’re wearing. And I don’t mean that in terms of fashion. I mean does this person look as if they care about how they’re being seen by others, or do they look as if they just don’t care? My motto is ‘you can’t have depths without surfaces’ which is something I think a lot of writers forget. I’m trying to analyse with some seriousness, surfaces.”

Q: So our choice of clothes defines us in others’ eyes, and also our own?

A: “What you’re wearing on any given day can really alter how you feel inside... It’s to do with do I want to wear a dress or do I want to wear trousers? Do I want to feel more feminine? Do I want to feel self-confident, do I want to feel softer? What colour do I want to wear? Do I want to wear red to give me self-confidence? But sometimes if you wear red and you’re feeling a bit weak and feeble, the red can feel that it drowns you.”

Q: Your characters are clothes-conscious but not much concerned about fashion?

A: “When you’re young you just wear what’s in fashion, which is great, it’s wonderful, it’s experimentation. But as you get a bit older and you get a bit more constrained. You”ve got to work in an office -- you know you have to wear office-y clothes. But more interesting is as you get older and you’re confronted by a whole set of other constraints about your changing body, what’s age-appropriate, and trying to work out which is distinctively about yourself... It evolves over the course of your life, expressing something about you. Why do I not wear that? Somehow it’s just not me... You look at something and you go -- no, not for me. Fabulous, but not for me though.”

Q: Do you think women understand the psychology of clothes better than men?

A: “It’s very rare to come across women who say I don’t care what I wear and what I look like. And I think even when they say that they don’t mean it. Or what they mean is they’ve given up, they just don’t think they can find anything that suits them.

I’ve watched with great interest the psychology of these makeover shows, (such as) Trinny and Susannah, and how very much those women want to be transformed. They want to look in the mirror and think they look the best that they can look. They understand how very well clothes can transform you... I think women get and understand what I’m trying to say about clothes, on a deeper level.”

Q: Is it an instinctive link, or something learned?

A: “I don’t think it’s anything to do with social engineering, I don’t think it’s patriarchy, I don’t think it’s socialisation, I don’t think any of those things. .. There is something in the female psyche about dress about clothes. I’ve yet to meet a woman who didn’t put on a new dress that suited her, that didn’t have just a surge of joy. An absolute surge of joy.”

Q: Why does a new dress produce such joy?

A: “It’s such a difficult thing to describe. It’s a feeling of excitement I think. A feeling that nobody will have seen you in this before, they’re going to see you in a new way. There’s something about wearing something which is new. You know that line ‘women do get weary, wearing that shabby old dress, so while she’s weary, try a little tenderness’. It’s like the monotony of eating the same diet all the time. The need for variety, the need for change, the need for alteration. And the sense that when you wear something new you feel the potential for transformation, usually that’s not fulfilled.”

Q: What about men?

A: “I think men are changing... (But) I think a lot of men are panicky about clothes. They don’t know how to shop. They actually don’t know what to do when they go into a shop... A man says ‘I want to buy a shirt’. He walks straight into the shop and goes straight over to the shirts. He sees a bunch of shirts. He vaguely sees one which might be alright for him, which fits. He takes it to the counter, buys it, pays for it and then he goes home. And if it doesn’t fit he might have to take it back.”

Q: While women?

A: “A woman says I want to buy a top and she will go and she will look at 20 tops, all the tops, and she’ll try on six or seven tops. And she’ll go to three or four different shops. And she will understand that she could spend the entire afternoon buying this top. This is an exercise. And you want to spend as much time as you possible can to get the right one. I think it’s the difference between hunters and gatherers... I do meet women who don’t enjoy shopping. But if you ask, “Do you not care about what you wear?” They say, “Oh yes, I do”.”

Editing by Sophie Hardach