Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fashion Not Frivolity in the Novels of Agatha Christie

Procrastination post alert!  I know that in response to some of my previous posts relating to the fashions appearing in the tv adaptations of Agatha Christie's Marple and Poirot novels, there was doubt as to whether in fact fashion and clothing were really as important to Christie's original stories as the filmed versions (or my clothing-obsessed posts about them) made them out to be.  After having read several of Christie's novels, I would like to state, as an entree into a few screencaps I was able to get from the trailer video for the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express airing, that in fact, clothing actually does figure fairly prominently in Christie's texts.

For one thing, fashion plays a key role in setting up characterization; as is the case in both fiction and life, the outer trappings of a person are often a poor basis of judging the inner qualities of a person, but, as Christie often reveals, details of appearance can sometimes reveal things even when people are not willing to verbally tell the truth.  

I give you an example of the centrality of clothing in Agatha Christie's works from the fashion-obsessed description given of a couple riding on the train with Poirot in the novel, Murder on the Orient Express:  "The woman opposite [Poirot] was a mere girl--twenty at a guess.  A tight-fitting little black coat and skirt, a white satin blouse, small chic black toque perched at the fashionable outrageous angle.  She had a beautiful foreign-looking face, dead white skin, large brown eyes, jet black hair. She was smoking a cigarette in a long holder.  Her manicured hands had deep red nails.  She wore one emerald set in platinum."  Now, being that Poirot is overtly described as being incredibly meticulous and even "dandified" when it comes to the details of his own dress and appearance, it is not surprising he should be so fastidious about the finer points of his travelling companions' clothes.  However, without giving anything away, I will simply state that such textual details do play more than a frivolous role in the narrative structure, characterization, and dare I say themes of the text.

I would also argue that Christie's descriptions of characters' clothing serve to both reflect the workings of the class-obsessed world in which she lived and wrote, and subtly critique it.  Brief explanation:What's interesting is that most, if not all, of Christie's novels are set amongst the wealthy.  Her detectives are successful because they are sort of removed from the glitz and glitter (as well as the marital strifes--probably not a coincidence neither Marple nor Poirot are married, though both seem to present some very wise ideas about love). By being social outsiders of sorts, they are perhaps even better able to avoid being dazzled by the showy details of every dazzling frock and blindingly big jewel flashed about by the wealthy.  However, in order to highlight the workings of the class system, its excesses, its deceptions, and the rather marginalized places which her Marple and Poirot occupy within it, the novelist (and indeed the film-maker) must rely quite heavily on the characters' wardrobes.  All in all, my point is that, by overlooking the function and importance of clothing in Christie's novels one might miss they way they seem to be a central part of the novelist's representation of--and possibly wry but subtle social critique of--the English class system of the early 20th century.  Okay, bearing all this in mind, you can bet I'll be especially keen to see how the tv version of Murder on the Orient Express translates Christie's textual descriptions of clothing into actual costumes.  They'd better be good ;) Here's a sneak peek, which suggests they shall:


Dustjacket Attic said...

Oh I agree she gave a very good visual description of characters.

I only wish the producers of the TV series would stick to her plots instead of making up different endings or quite different personality traits for characters as they have been apt to do these last few years.

What a great post,

Charlotte said...

What an interesting post! Great topic, and I love those Poirot costumes!

xx Charlotte
Tuppence Ha'penny

Amanda said...

I adore the costumes in the Christie adaptations! The costumes are fabulous and definitely add to the characterizations. What would Poirot be without his clothing perfectionism and obsessive mustache grooming? He would not be the same Hercule at all.

Best Wishes,

Porcelina said...

Love this post!
Miss P xx

Sea Witch said...

Adore Agatha Cristi novels, have been reading them since I was a little girl (decades and decades and decades ago..okay and decades). Actually watched a new Law & Order last evening where Jeff Goldblum's character and story line moved like an Agatha Cristi novel. Great storyline, wonderful old mansion and clothes and a crazy but passionate woman who lived in a different time in her mind. Marvelous story telling. Sea Witch

Bella said...

I can not wait to see this! I am so excited. I just love Agatha Christie's books and the films. I hope they are able to finish off the last few Poirot stories. It all depends on the TV powers that be, of course, but it would be terrible to come this close and leave just a few not filmed. One of my favorite Poirot movies is The Hollow. Have you seen it? The character Henrietta - her clothes are to die for. I just love, love, love her style. There's this shawl she wears in one scene with these fabulous wideleg pants - simply gorgeous!

Heather said...

I was gifted an almost complete collection of Agatha Christie works that I've slowly been making my way through. I made the conscious decision not to read them in order and so I very much am aware of when they books where written due to her descriptions. This was an excellent post and incidentally Murder on the Orient Express is my favourite so far and in Poirot Investigates, his dandified appearance is described to heights I can't describe without plagerizing! Love your blog!!!

garofit said...

Very interesting post, and quite different from the impression - perhaps not substantial enough - I was able to make for myself. Not being an fan of detective stories I have only read the Murder on the Orient Express, and in something of a less than great translation too. For that reason I am happy to concede that I may be wrong in my view of poorer than expected fashion representation in Christie's story, that compared to the TV production. No doubt fashion does play a role beyond the frivolous for being a valuable clue in establishing facts about the characters, and for that purpose there is enough fashion in Christie's story - and probably as much as in any other detective novels. Of course, due to the formality of the clothing in the era, Agatha's fashion has the fulfilled potential of being a very rich source for deduction (as opposed if you like to contemporary detective stories).
Still for me the fashion was not descriptive enough, the details not registered to the level of my expectations: greedily I wanted to be flooded with deco details. It does suggest, but it doesn't "show". I guess I must remember that at the end of the day we are not talking about the likes of Dickens or Balzac - and even there there was plenty of room for imagination.
I am still amazed and treasure the vision of the TV producers who, for me, made Poirot a deco dream (ok, somewhat modernist in places :))

And I have to disagree with the first poster. While normally I would be dead against a tv production butchering literature and rewriting stories, in this instance I have very much enjoyed having the company of Hastings and Japp for a little bit longer than planned by Agatha, and my thanks would have to go to ITV for that (and of course to those brilliant actors who did a wonderful job of it). Those older episodes of Poirot couldn't be better if I dreamt them myself. :)

MarieBayArea said...

thank you Baroness for such an interesting post and for adding to my sartorial and literary education.

Kerrie said...

Would you like to submit your post to the next edition of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival? Submit it here.

Kate said...

Ooo now I am even more excited for Murder on the Orient Express :) Great post.

Andi B. Goode said...

Oh, yes, it's definitely important (I'm probably now contradicting myself - I do that a lot ;]). Though, I will admit, I barely ever pay attention to the finer details (at least, I never recall them) - I speed through the books so quickly, hoping to find out whodunnit. ;] And then I never remember that either anyway. Oh dear.
The TV show still does take a bit of liberty - some novels were written much later but adapted as set in an earlier period (clearly to keep continuity within the series). Marple first appears in the 20s, or 30s, I think but all of the Marple series is quite obviously set post-war...but when they change the identity of one of the murderer's and put in Marple where she oughtn't be, I suppose one can make allowances. ;]
-Andi x

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Anonymous said...

LFun! Looking forward to it. I think the attention to detail in costuming has not been as good for the later episodes (movies) as the earlier ones, but will still eagerly tune in.

BaronessVonVintage said...

Dustjacket: you make a good point. Christie's costume (and character descriptions) were often distinct. While the costumes on the episodes are often amazing, they may be a switch from the ones Christie described, leading one to wonder WHY did the series writers and producers make these changes? Is it something to do with the difference in medium (from print to screen)? Why, as Andi points out, are the Marple books set in a completely different era? Why completely change the identity of the murderer when translating from book to screen? I enjoy the books and episodes much more if I treat them as distinct things, but I expect the possibility of being confused or disappointed by the filmed version of Murder on the Orient Express. Even from the trailers, I'm wondering who the heck the well-dressed blonde woman is supposed to be. I'm in the midst of the novel all the young women I'm encountering in the cast of characters are dark haired.

Heather, A box set is the ultimate gift idea!!

Bella: YES! Henrietta's ensembles bowled me over!

Sea Witch: isn't neat when you can see Christie's influence on modern detective stories/shows? Very cool! I love Jeff Goldblum, as well ;)

garofit: fantastic comments! You've got me thinking about some fascinating subjects so thanks! I see your point. Christie sometimes scrimps on the details: example: "Her clothes, though perfectly plain, had that indefinable air of 'cut' about them which spoke of Paris." Obviously Christie was writing to an audience she assumed was well-versed in which "cut" spoke of Paris, but modern readers like me would love to know more specific details. Great point to make. To me, the style of Christie's novels reflect the spirit of her age...the pace of life increased, people travelled more (the age of cruises and exotic train trips)...her novels seem more in tune with this roaring age, in the way they hurry us along through dazzle, excitement, intrigue.

As for Christie's novels suggesting but not showing, I think a fun (and very early book) which has some divine deco clothing descriptions is The Man in the Brown Suit. There are some short but fun fashion descriptions that might give you (at least momentarily) moments of what you are looking for! Here are a couple of juicy morsels: "Jeanne brought the peignoir, an exquisite wisp of corn-coloured chiffon and ermine. Nadina slipped into it, and sat smiling to herself, whilst one long white hand beat a slow tattoo on the glass of the dressing table." "I contemplated my hat sadly before putting it on. It had originally been what I call a 'Mary' hat, meaning by the kind of hat a housemaid ought to wear on her day out--but doesn't! A limp thing of black straw with a suitably depressed brim. With the inspiration of genius, I had kicked it once, punched it twice, dented in the crown and affixed to it a thing like a cubist's dream of a jazz carrot."

Long comment short, I definitely agree that Christie's allusions to clothing can sometimes be sparse and vague. They are there, though, and it seems that fashion, in the world of Christie, has narrative function.

garofit said...

That's great Baroness! The Man in the Brown Suit seems more like it, thanks for the suggestion and the quotations - that was one tasty sample :)

BaronessVonVintage said...

Hehe...glad you liked, garofit! that line "like a cubist's dream of a jazz carrot" is one of my favourite phrases! SO descriptive (and amusing). I must forewarn that I adored the first part of The Man in the Brown Suit much more than its sappy, sentimental later parts (this is likely why the book hasn't been turned to film?--it goes from detective novel to romance. But I guess Christie was early in her career, trying things out, not yet settling into her later formulae?

AnneToronto1 said...

Those silks and satins, textures, leathers, gloves and hats, tiny cloches, big brims, felt fedoras, lace, tea frocks, vivid red lips, gardens, castles ... my favorite part of Agatha Christie DVDs. Hope you are ok your link in my blog review? Even found "gentlemans gazette" blog on Poirot & Hastings styles. Your choice of photos and descriptions are most enjoyable.

You mention previous posts, but "search" couldn't find them. Could you give direct links? Thanks and hope for more on this delightful subject. Helps make our colonial Canada and climate bearable, dreaming of beauty and elegant Europe, past.