13 Literary Characters Who Knew How to Dress Up

by Tori Telfer

I'll always have a deep and abiding love for a good old-fashioned movie makeover montage. I love the upbeat music and the way our patient protagonist is suddenly caught up in a whirl of makeup brushes, sassy but helpful friends, and cool new clothes from the aforementioned friends' generous closets. I love the way she'll inevitably emerge at the top of the stairs looking like a new person. Maybe it's because we all love a good transformation narrative, but a makeup montage is deeply gratifying — if a bit shallow.

While cinema will probably continue to whirl through makeup montages until the end of time, literature has the opportunity to go a bit deeper. When people get dressed in books, it's rarely just about the new ball gown. Fashion in fiction is explanatory, symbolic, and full of foreshadowing; we experience the embarrassment that comes from wearing an old dress, the pleasure of a new pair of dancing shoes, or that icy feeling of intimidation that comes from entering a room of well-dressed people. Some of my favorite scenes in all of literature have to do with clothes, not because the clothes are so strange, or scary, or lovely — but because they say so much about the person wearing them.

1. Mrs. Havisham's horrifying wedding dress, Great Expectations

She was dressed in rich materials — satins, and lace, and silks — all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white ... But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.

2. Holly Golightly's ultimate Little Black Dress, Breakfast at Tiffany's

It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim, cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes.

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3. Scarlett O'Hara's dress made from curtains, Gone With the Wind

There wasn't a nice dress in Tara or a dress that hadn't been turned twice and mended…. The moss-green curtains felt prickly and soft beneath her cheek and she rubbed her face against them gratefully, like a cat. And then suddenly she looked at them.

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4. Daisy and Jordan in white, The Great Gatsby

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.

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5. Lily Bart's expensive wardrobe, House of Mirth

As she entered her bedroom, with its softly-shaded lights, her lace dressing-gown lying across the silken bedspread, her little embroidered slippers before the fire, a vase of carnations filling the air with perfume, and the last novels and maga- zines lying uncut on a table beside the reading-lamp, she had a vision of Miss Farish’s cramped flat, with its cheap conveniences and hideous wall-papers. No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty.

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6. The "height of fashion," A Clockwork Orange

The four of us were dressed in the height of fashion, which in those days was a pair of black very tight tights with the old jelly mould, as we called it, fitting on the crotch underneath the tights, this being to protect and also a sort of a design you could viddy clear enough in a certain light…. Then we wore waisty jackets without lapels but with these very big built-up shoulders ('pletchoes' we called them) which were a kind of a mockery of having real shoulders like that. Then, my brothers, we had these off-white cravats which looked like whipped-up kartoffel or spud with a sort of a design made on it with a fork. We wore our hair not too long and we had flip horrorshow boots for kicking.

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7. What the rich people wore in Jane Eyre

Some of them were very tall; many were dressed in white; and all had a sweeping amplitude of array that seemed to magnify their persons as a mist magnifies the moon. I rose and curtseyed to them: one or two bent their heads in return, the others only stared at me. They dispersed about the room, reminding me, by the lightness and buoyancy of their movements, of a flock of white plumy birds. Some of them threw themselves in half-reclining positions on the sofas and ottomans: some bent over the tables and examined the flowers and books: the rest gathered in a group round the fire: all talked in a low but clear tone which seemed habitual to them.

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8. The brand names in American Psycho

I debate between two outfits. One is a wool-crepe suit by Bill Robinson I bought at Saks with this cotton jacquard shirt from Charivari and an Armani tie. Or a wool and cashmere sport coat with blue plaid, a cotton shirt and pleated wool trousers by Alexander Julian, with a polka-dot tie by Bill Blass. The Julian might be a little too warm for May but if Patricia's wearing this outfit by Karl Lagerfeld that I think she's going to, then maybe I will go with the Julian, because it would go well with her suit.

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9. The secret to being truly chic, Vile Bodies

She had slightly more than average height, and was very dark and slim, with large Laurencin eyes and the negligent grace of the trained athlete (she fenced with the sabre for half an hour every morning before breakfast) … Her clothes were incomparable, with just that suggestion of the haphazard which raised them high above the mere chic of the mannequin.

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10. Kitty's ball gown, Anna Karenina

Although her dress, her coiffure, and all the preparations for the ball had cost Kitty great trouble and consideration, at this moment she walked into the ballroom in her elaborate tulle dress over a pink slip as easily and simply as though all the rosettes and lace, all the minute details of her attire, had not cost her or her family a moment’s attention, as though she had been born in that tulle and lace, with her hair done up high on her head, and a rose and two leaves on the top of it.

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11. The Artful Dodger's jacket, Oliver Twist

He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bowlegs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment — and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man's coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roystering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in his bluchers.

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12. Meg's makeover montage, Little Women

They crimped and curled her hair, they polished her neck and arms with some fragrant powder, touched her lips with coralline salve to make them redder, and Hortense would have added 'a soupcon of rouge,' if Meg had not rebelled. They laced her into a sky-blue dress, which was so tight she could hardly breathe and so low in the neck that modest Meg blushed at herself in the mirror. A set of silver filagree was added, bracelets, necklace, brooch, and even earrings, for Hortense tied them on with a bit of pink silk which did not show. A cluster of tea-rose buds at the bosom and a ruche, reconciled Meg to the display of her pretty, white shoulders, and a pair of high- heeled silk boots satisfied the last wish of her heart. A lace handkerchief, a plumy fan, and a bouquet in a shoulder holder finished her off, and Miss Belle surveyed her with the satisfaction of a little girl with a newly dressed doll.

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13. Cinderella's magical dress, Cinderella

Cinderella went to her mother’s grave, under the hazel bush, and cried, “Little tree, little tree, shake over me, That silver and gold may come down and cover me.” Then the bird threw down a dress of gold and silver, and a pair of slippers embroidered with silk and silver. And in all haste she put on the dress and went to the festival. But her step-mother and sisters did not know her, and thought she must be a foreign Princess, she looked so beautiful in her golden dress.

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Images: Universal Pictures (2); Lionsgate; Paramount Pictures; Loew's, Inc; Warner Bros. (2); Sony Pictures Classics; Focus Features; Lions Gate Films; Film Four; Columbia Pictures (2); Wikimedia Commons