Thursday, March 31, 2011

Guest Author Ellen Byerrum on Tales of Fashion

Ellen Byerrum is the author of the Crime of Fashion mysteries, which feature Lacey Smithsonian, a style reporter in Washington DC: The City Fashion Forgot. Her latest book, Shot Through Velvet, the seventh book in the series, takes Lacey on assignment to a velvet factory in southern Virginia on its last day of operation. The action begins when a giant spool of velvet is pulled out of a dye vat—with a body dyed blue, in mood indigo.

Clothes have always fascinated me. Whether it’s because in my childhood I attended Catholic school and wore a uniform, or it’s simply in my blood, I don’t know. But even as a child, beautiful clothing attracted me. What else explains why, when I saw my first dead body at age ten in my grandparent’s county club, I still remember what the corpse was wearing? For the record, she wore a pink hat and a pink suit, and she was sitting deathly still on a round pink sofa. Was I drawn to her because of the clothes, or because they were pink? Or because she was dead? Who knows? At any rate,when I started writing my Crime of Fashion mysteries, it was only natural to have my heroine Lacey Smithsonian solve crimes with fashion clues.

I love clothes because they tell stories about us before we even open our mouths. They can communicate such things as attitude, socioeconomic background, or profession, such as a cop, a waiter, or construction worker. Sometimes we choose our uniforms. Sometimes we plan. And sometimes we improvise.

In my books, Lacey works as a reporter in Washington, D.C., where the overwhelming style vibe is what I call Prematurely Serious, and it is pretty homogeneous. Sure, there are little pockets of rebelliousness outside of Capitol Hill, but the overall impression is mostly one of business suits and briefcases.

Therefore, it’s a bit of a happy shock when I leave my writing and get out into a new location where clothing tells a different story. I just returned from the Virginia Festival of the Book, held in Charlottesville, Va. (here I am with Ellery) where the couture was a bracing change of pace. I’m not talking about the writers, who were all pretty clean and well turned out in business casual, some of them having climbed out of their jammies for the event. But out on the downtown mall, there were other clothing notes, where the inhabitants turned their togs to a new tune.

A dozen or so young women wore cowboy boots with their dresses and skirts. Has it always been like this, or is there a new cowgirl vibe in the air? It was even more interesting to me because my next book incorporates cowboy boots and Western wear into the mystery.

Then I met Rose and Tasha, two college-age women strolling over the bricked walkways wearing wire and fabric wings. Were they escapees from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps the fairies Peaseblossom and Cobweb? Nope, they were just taking a stroll. It’s spring and they were feeling wings, so wings it was.

Tasha wore her orange wings, an orange-and-black lace corset, and a fluffy tutu over jeans. “Because I really think tutus look cute with jeans,” she told me. (Yes, I interviewed them. Once a reporter, always a reporter. And they were charming.) Tasha also wore athletic shoes. Rose was somewhat more restrained in a pair of smaller pink wings, a newsboy cap, a short dress, tights, and cowboy boots. They told me they just wanted to express what they were feeling on the inside and wear it on the outside. Who doesn’t want to reach for the bohemian and release their inner sprite once in a while? And get a lot of attention (all of it positive, so far as I could tell) while they’re at it.

It made me realize something. Not only are there style choices I haven’t considered—I’ve got to get out of my writing room more often. But not wearing wings.

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