Monday, July 21, 2008

Reading About Leisure Suits and Clothing from the Past

I love books in a series. They are rather comforting, like returning to the familiarity of a favorite restaurant or catching up with an old friend. For the most part, there are the same characters in the same setting, with the same problems, and the curiosity of what’s been going on in their lives is too great to ignore.

Invariably, I choose series of prolific authors, so I get to spend quite a while with the main players, and feel like I know them quite well. I mourn a series coming to an end; it’s saying goodbye to someone without their hearing, and then wondering what has become of them. Unfortunately, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series came to a premature end with his passing, so there’s a definite sadness in knowing that the personal sagas will never reach closure…Until Sue Grafton reaches the end of her alphabet-based private eye series, and Dianne Mott Davidson concludes her story about her caterer/detective character, I’ll be OK.

From my teen years, I’ve had to reads series books in order, on the surmise that being out of order would not make sense. But with my current favorite, I am stumped. Robert Parker’s Spencer series must include 30 books, but do you think I can find a chronological list of publication anywhere? I’ve taken to checking every book in local libraries for its release date and borrowing the oldest ones, but I’m still not reading in sequence. It’s unsettling. One way I know where I am is by his wonderful and ongoing descriptions of characters’ clothing. In fact, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of reading older books-learning about how they appreciated current styles.

In the 1976 installment I finished last night, there were no fewer than 6 references to maens’ leisure suits. Maroon checked, pale blue, and white linen were some of the colors. Apparently they were best worn with shirts that had long lapels and open necklines, on some occasions with white belts and white shoes. Hmmm…I have vague recollections of my dad having one leisure suit, but it was a sober, conservative beige. And I don’t think anyone ever had the chance to see any of his chest hair. Another principal player was noted as wearing a white leather cape with a hood. Does anyone out there ever remembering men wearing such a thing 30 years ago? In Mr. Parker’s later editions (which I read before becoming aware of the multitude of his works), he expounded a great deal on his male friend’s love/hate relationship with clothes. The man scorned preppy gym attire like designer logo shirts and fancy sneakers, but made sure he always had a decorative handkerchief in his breast pocket, matching tie, and real gem cufflinks. (The same guy with the previous white cape, by the way.)

Authors have a tremendous ability to flesh out a character by simply focusing on their clothing.

Tamara Meyers’ main character in her series about a Mennonite bed and breakfast owner-and gets caught up in murders-makes frequent references to her “sturdy, Christian underwear” while her eccentric sister stuffs her bra with unexpected items and wraps yards of chiffon around herself. Now, can’t you just picture these women? If you love learning about New York happenings in the 1940’s and 1950’s as I do, you should read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Every character is thoroughly described to where you can’t help but get an absolutely clear image of their lifestyle-at least back then. With an emphasis on class and social position, “ladies and gentlemen” changed for dinner, always wore hats, and never wore anything not freshly “pressed.” Mr. Wolfe himself, although never leaving his house on business, was daily outfitted in an expensive suit (which he kept on during his twice-daily escape to his penthouse orchid room) and an ever-present yellow shirt. Archie Goodwin, his assistant and narrator of the events was no slouch in the fashion department either-he always noted a desire to keep his new summer suits and shoes looking good in the midst of shooting and roughing up the bad guys.

Reading continuing series like these is more than an escape; it’s a pleasant mini-vacation to places offering more than our usual daily lives. Do so if you can.

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