I always scour the library sale rack; one can never tell what treasures might be unearthed there. Over the years I have accumulated many: children’s picture primers from the 1930s, an ancient trig book, field guides and early edition classics for my children. Recently, my unearthing exhumed a book called Balenciaga by Marie-Andrée Jouve.
Anyone who knows me might be surprised that I would purchase, much less be thrilled and a little bit breathless by my discovery. For me, and in terms of my body, fashion is something other people subscribe to. My style fits somewhere in the realm of 14-year-old-boy-chic (baggy pants, dark t-shirt, hooded sweatshirt, black Converse). Comfort is queen, and cheap is the ruling class. I buy my clothes at thrift stores, and not in some fabulous cut-up-prom-dress-and-anything-with-glitter kind of way. I will never own a Kelly bag, a Hermes scarf, or shoes by Manolo Blahnik. If I did, I wouldn’t know how to wear them.
The word Balenciaga on my tongue. Those chic fashion models in feather caps and capes that pouf about their bodies like black roses. I once subscribed to Harper’s Bazaar for a year, and not to read the celebrity interviews. The images and words of fashion—opaque, pearls, chiffon, jacquard. I sometimes want to live inside the pages of Anthropologie catalogues, where some clever team of writers has given whimsical names to the clothing: “Cascading tulle cardigan, Floating lace blouse, Blushing faille dress. Iced rosettes clutch. Swirling villages dress. Tinseled links necklace. Plumed peacock cape.”
For me, fashion and language are intrinsically linked. I write fiction, and I rarely tell a story that doesn’t in some way incorporate fabric or accessories. A vintage beaded handbag for a woman concerned about her appearance. Kitten heel shoes for a school girl in a Cinderella inspired story. I once read that the clothes we choose to wear are poems we are telling about our Selves, and I think of this when I create my characters too. A girl in a gingham skirt sipping hot cocoa by the fire. A woman with bare feet and a thin white sweater-dress of fine spun cotton on the porch. These images already invoke character.
With my Balenciaga book in hand, I need only to turn to the back pages to enrich my couture vocabulary. “Tiny black velvet pillbox with pink ostrich feather. Evening ensemble in pink taffeta. Negligee of bright pink satin shantung.” The models are not all beautiful, nor are they all young (although they are all thin). There is a world in this book and it is a world of character and language. You don’t have to have a love for fashion to see that.
And so I place my Balenciaga book in the shelves above my writing desk. I know I will turn to it again and again. Not as a primer on how to dress, on how to be fabulous, on how to look. But as a resource to give texture to my writing, a patch of grosgrain here; there, an organdie rose.