I have long been a huge fan of Margaret Atwood's work; I read The Handmaid's Tale in two evenings on the 18th floor of a hideous, now demolished, high rise in Dalston, where I was squatting while interning at fashion magazines. The colour coding of segregated caste systems in a futuristic dystopian Americana was so vivid, that I couldn't fail to be mesmerised. I have since read all of her novels, so when my friend Zoe Hood, who works at her publishing company's publicity department, mentioned that she was to talk at The V&A on Fashion and Fiction, I charmed Zoe in to ensuring that my name was on the list.
Rosie Goldsmith hosted the event, a neat coincidence, as we had sat next to each other for 40 minutes lost in revery, at the opening of Savage Beauty the day before. I love The V&A, it has to rank as my favourite museum and felt terribly lucky to have been invited to both. A series of photos across Margaret's life were projected behind them, glimpses of her homemade dresses and prom night smiles. Atwood pertinently explained, there are writers who describe clothes as a method in showing what a character wants to project, or thinks of themself, or our secret thoughts of someone we meet and what they are wearing. Charles Dickens, she mentioned in tangent, was more interested in describing furniture, unless the clothing, such as Scrooge's, was symbolic. Henry James, by contrast would describe the clothes, such as the pastel umbrella in The Ambassadors, to add tone to the descriptive currency. Given her youthful dreams of being a fashion designer, Margaret does use clothes to explain a part of a person's self presentation: to create a total image from which we, the reader, can imagine the set, the scene, the characters. Uniforms, such as those in The Handmaid's Tale, with it's mandated social divisions, used historically based costumes as the basis for their style, from circa the 1850's, with the universal colour coding of red for passion aka Mary Magdalene, blue for purity, as with the Virgin Mary, as a visual basis for control. She cited German POWs in Canada wearing red in WW2, since this would be highly visible in an escape attempt across the vast snow plains.
For her later novel, Alias Grace, Atwood looked at real clothes, pattern books and early fashion magazines, as well as contemporary literature, such as Edith Wharton, who writes of New Yorker society ladies, buying couture in Paris, to then store back in NYC for a year, until it felt current, rather than extraordinary, since this was considered, not quite respectable. However while it was easy to access references to outer garments, underwear was harder to research, and to remember that the red of heavy flannel petticoats – again that symbolic fallen woman colour – would have been more prevalent in North America, where temperatures could reach -40.
Margaret Atwood was so utterly precise, clearly a sharply researched and intelligent writer: someone who imagines, prescribes and creates internally complete universes. I came away from the talk feeling slightly humbled by her combination of ready wit and sharp intellect. The series of lectures is set to continue in the Autumn. If like me you are interested in both facets of the title, I would highly recommend booking tickets for the next of the Fashion and Fiction.