The idea for this spectacular green dress originated in Ian McEwan's novel. I've always had a weakness for scenes in novels that describe pretty clothes--and I don't mean ostentatious chick-lit name-dropping, but an appreciation for color and style and the effect that clothes have on the characters. If the book is set in the past and describes dresses which I could never hope to buy at the department store--and if it mentions several dresses in the same scene--so much the better. Atonement hits all of these buttons. Cecilia, after some events earlier in the day that left her rather shaken, is trying to choose a dress that will give her confidence during a small dinner party. But the task is more difficult than she imagined:
On two occasions within half an hour, Cecilia stepped out of her bedroom, caught sight of herself in the gilt-framed mirror at the top of the stairs and, immediately dissatisfied, returned to her wardrobe to reconsider. Her first resort was a black crêpe de chine dress which, according to the dressing table mirror, bestowed by means of clever cutting a certain severity of form. Its air of invulnerability was heightened by the darkness of her eyes. Rather than offset the effect with a string of pearls, she reached in a moment's inspiration for a necklace of pure jet. [...]For the sake of brevity, I left out some passages that delve further into Cecilia's state of mind, but even shortened, this is great writing-- combining sensuous description, sociological observation (changing fashions) and character development. But to me this scene has always seemed an echo of one of my other favorite clothes-in-literature scenes: Scarlett O'Hara trying to choose a dress for the Twelve Oaks barbecue near the beginning of Gone with the Wind.
But the public gaze of the stairway mirror as she hurried toward it revealed a woman on her way to a funeral, an austere, joyless woman moreover, whose black carapace had affinities with some form of matchbox-dwelling insect. A stag beetle! It was her future self, at eighty-five, in widow's weeds. She did not linger--she turned on her heel, which was also black, and returned to her room. [...]
She stepped out of the black crêpe dress where it fell to the floor, and stood in her heels and underwear, surveying the possibilities on the wardrobe racks, mindful of the passing minutes. [...]
She ran a hand along the few feet of personal history, her brief chronicle of taste. Here were the flapper dresses of her teenage years, ludicrous, limp, sexless things they looked now, and though one bore wine stains and another a burn hole from her first cigarette, she could not bring herself to turn them out. Here was a dress with the first timid hint of shoulder pads, and others followed more assertively, muscular older sisters throwing off the boyish years, rediscovering waistlines and curves, dropping their hemlines with self-sufficient disregard for the hopes of men. Her latest and best piece, bought to celebrate the end of finals, before she knew about her miserable third, was the figure-hugging dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck. Too dressy to have its first outing at home. She ran her hand further back and brought out a moiré silk dress with a pleated bodice and scalloped hem--a safe choice since the pink was muted and musty enough for eveing wear. The triple mirror thought so too. [...]
Perhaps there was now a harsher light at the top of the stairs, for she had never had this difficulty with the mirror there before. Even as she approached from a distance of forty feet, she saw that it was not going to let her pass; the pink was in fact innocently pale, the waistline was too high, the dress flared like an eight-year-old's party frock. All it needed was rabbit buttons. [...] It would not help her state of mind to go down looking like, or believing she looked like, Shirley Temple.
More in resignation than irritation or panic, she returned to her room. [...] She knew what she had to do and she had known it all along. She owned only one outfit that she genuinely liked, and that was the one she should wear. She let the pink dress fall on top of the black and, stepping contemptuously through the pile, reached for the gown, her green backless post-finals gown. As she pulled it on she approved of the firm caress of the bias cut through the silk of her petticoat, and she felt sleekly impregnable, slippery and secure; it was a mermaid who rose to meet her in her own full-length mirror.
What dress would best set off her charms and make her most irresistible to Ashley? Since eight o'clock she had been trying on and rejecting dresses, and now she stood dejected and irritable in lace pantalets, linen corset cover and three billowing lace and linen petticoats. Discarded garments lay about her on the floor, the bed, the chairs, in bright heaps of color and straying ribbons.
The rose organdie with long pink sash was becoming, but she had worn it last summer when Melanie visited Twelve Oaks and she'd be sure to remember it. And might be catty enough to mention it. The black bombazine, with its puffed sleeves and princess lace collar, set off her white skin superbly, but it did make her look a trifle elderly. Scarlett peered anxiously in the mirror at her sixteen-year-old face as if expecting to see wrinkles and sagging chin muscles. It would never do to appear sedate and elderly before Melanie's sweet youthfulness. The lavender barred muslin was beautiful with those wide insets of lace and net about the hem, but it had never suited her type. It would suit Carreen's delicate profile and wishy-washy expression perfectly, but Scarlett felt that it made her look like a schoolgirl. It would never do to appear schoolgirlish beside Melanie's poised self. The green plaid taffeta, frothing with flounces and each flounce edged in green velvet ribbon, was most becoming, in fact her favorite dress, for it darkened her eyes to emerald. But there was unmistakably a grease spot on the front of the basque. Of course, her brooch could be pinned over the spot, but perhaps Melanie had sharp eyes. There remained varicolored cotton dresses which Scarlett felt were not festive enough for the occasion, ball dresses and the green sprigged muslin she had worn yesterday. But it was an afternoon dress. It was not suitable for a barbecue, for it had only tiny puffed sleeves and the neck was low enough for a dancing dress. But there was nothing else to do but wear it. After all she was not ashamed of her neck and arms and bosom, even if it was not correct to show them in the morning.
Cecilia and Scarlett run into similar problems: a black dress that ages them, a pastel dress that makes them look babyish, dresses rendered unwearable by cigarette burns or grease spots. And the dress they finally end up choosing, the one that makes them feel the most confident, also happens to be green in color and slightly too formal and sexy in style. I just noticed that my bookshelf has Ian McEwan shelved right next to Margaret Mitchell--as if the two books were communing with each other.
Indeed, Gone With the Wind is a treasure trove of clothing descriptions: besides this, there's the dainty gowns at the Confederate ball contrasting with Scarlett's black mourning attire, the famous dress that she makes for herself out of curtains, the scandalously low-cut gown that Rhett forces her to wear to Ashley and Melanie's party... But it often seems like the most renowned novelists consider their characters' clothing frivolous, and leave the extended descriptions of dresses to girly romance novelists like Mitchell. That's why I love it so much when someone like McEwan uses his talented pen to describe what his characters are wearing--he not only has a good eye for clothing styles, he understands that they can tell so much about the person wearing them.
Photo of Keira Knightley from dailymail.co.uk. Photo of Vivien Leigh from dressaday.com; see also the accompanying blog post