What You Wear Is Code

Richard Thompson Ford’s new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History was the subject of a recent American Ancestors Zoom presentation, the day the book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Ford is a Stanford Law professor who got interested in how dress codes (what you wear, your hairstyle) have affected employment opportunities. Plus he admits to being a bit of a clothes-horse himself.

Legal opinion on how dress codes may treat them as if they are trivial. If so, Ford believes, the courts are missing a lot of what’s important about the issue. What people wear is part of their self-presentation and sense of dignity. Back in Europe’s late middle ages, the puffy pantaloons called Trunk Hose (pictured) became the fashion for men. The upper classes resented their inferiors wearing the style and passed “sumptuary laws” prohibiting extravagant fabrics and attire except for those of high rank—a pure power play. No surprise, then, that in 1700s America, Blacks were prohibited from “dressing above their station.”

Ford noted that Queen Elizabeth I understood the power of fashion—magnificent, otherworldly fashion—to set her apart. Over time, the type of attire that signified the wearer’s importance changed, at least for men. It became more sober and conservative for men. Think of the black-clad Dutch Masters. The culmination of this trend was the familiar business suit we know today.

Intended also to convey the message that men were all equal, of course, little signals continue today to let people recognize the high-value “bespoke” suit versus one from the Men’s Wearhouse.

You may remember the photos from the early Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and his colleagues marching and dressed in suits. They dressed in their “Sunday best” to underscore the validity of their quest?? A few years later, younger activists wanted to express solidarity with the poor people they hoped to organize, so they dressed in jeans and overalls. The Black Panthers had their own dress code: black trousers, leather jackets, and berets. These were all deliberate decisions related to identity.

Until the 20th century, women wore draped clothing below the waist. Wearing pants was totally unacceptable. A 1903 article called women who wore trousers anyway “bifurcated” and clearly suggests they were a threat to the social order. As expressed in an essay for the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful exhibit: China Through the Looking Glass, “Fashion is the means by which we convey identity and belonging (including nonbelonging),” as in the case of the trouser-wearing women.

By repressing the individuality of the wearer, requiring a certain type of dress can be a tool of degradation or control. The stricter the requirements, the more control exerted. Now, with casual Fridays all week long, new unarticulated “dress codes” still determine what people wear. It will be interesting to see how the extreme informality of working from home and never changing out of our pajamas may persist!

Tennessee Williams: The Actor’s Challenge

So many of the insights of this five-session course on Tennessee Williams I’ve been Zooming from The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey are directly applicable to fiction writing. The course is led by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte.

(The next Book Club, scheduled for spring, will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, with its powerful “we happy few, we band of brothers” sentiments.)

Actor Laila Robins, who played Blanche DuBois in STNJ’s 2008 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, talked about the similar power of Williams’s language. “The language acts you,” she said. She deliberately didn’t play the heartbreak of Blanche’s situation, aiming instead to encourage the audience to keep hoping beyond hope, as Blanche does, that somehow everything will work out. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the play before and remember how it ends. You keep hoping.

I do too. Every time I’ve seen West Side Story, I’m silently praying Chino won’t show up with that gun . . . even though I know better. Reading Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, I read slower and slower in the last fifty pages, knowing how it would end and hoping for a miracle.

Robins and Monte pointed to the “practical core” of many of Williams’s characters that lets them be survivors despite their evident frailties and failures. Even at the end of The Glass Menagerie, Laura (pictured)—who is as fragile as one of her glass animals—seems capable of resilience. Monte believes a good Tennessee Williams actress must possess a great deal of courage because the roles demand so much vulnerability. Think of Alma in Summer and Smoke or Jane in Vieux Carre.

Just as he did with Summer and Smoke and its later incarnation, Eccentricities of a Nightingale (with critics still debating which is the better version), Williams returned to Laura’s story repeatedly, including in his short story, “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which ends with Laura picking up one of her precious LPs, blowing on its surface a little as if it were dusty, then setting it softly back down. Then she says something enigmatic about her encounter with Jim, the family’s dinner guest who, unexpectedly, is soon to be married and therefore no boyfriend candidate: “People in love,” she says, “take everything for granted.” Where did that come from?  It’s so much more worldly-wise than we might expect from Laura and more generous toward the situation than her angry mother is capable of.

This gets to another aspect of Williams’s plays that Monte has emphasized throughout this course, which is kindness. Yes, his characters may be in bizarre and uncomfortable, even brutal situations, but they display unexpected flashes of kindness toward each other. She views Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo as a kinder version of Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar. What she terms “extraordinary gestures of kindness” are demonstrated by many characters in Night of the Iguana too. “Williams finds the life-saving power of compassion in some very dark places.”

The ability to be both rough and kind, whether embodied in one character or distributed among them, not only requires great actors, but also a director who establishes the right balance between these poles. It’s something all good writers strive for.

Previous posts in this series:
The Deep Dive
How To See

Black & White on the Silver Screen

New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.

In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”

The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.

By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).

The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).

Tennessee Williams: How To See

“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte, is using for her “Book Club” discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, and the next Book Club discussion group will focus on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, both parts, and Henry V, the stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.

She chose “the fugitive kind,” because she believes what she calls Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with a tribe of broken spirits. You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, which was made from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Williams perfected a certain kind of character—drifters,  misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own. We know such characters in daily life. We believe in his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable, because we know people like that too—the people we call “their own worst enemies.”

Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Treatments in the 1940s for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy,  which left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, of course, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanch DuBois in Streetcar.

Not only did he create a vast body of work, he expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before: homosexuality, blasphemy, and the like. Monte calls him “a connoisseur of language,” as he sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.

Marguerite from Camino Real: “Oh, Jacques, we’re used to each other, we’re a pair of captive hawks caught in the same cage, and so we’ve grown used to each other.”

John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”

His lines are delivered in a very specific visual world. Williams’s stage directions and descriptions of his sets are detailed and precise: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, in the night sky, which constellations to project. (Examples from Summer and Smoke.)

Williams fell out of favor in the 1970’s, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel about him and his work. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and (like Edgar Allan Poe) the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate, a fate shared with Edgar Allan Poe, whose reputation was damaged for decades. But the plays speak for themselves. And, his later plays remain capable of getting audiences to think new thoughts and see the world in new ways.

An Attention Span of More Than 5 Minutes

Erica Obey, president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America, had some preparatory thoughts about our panel on New Jersey crime/mystery writers, taking advantage of having Mally Becker with us. Just last week, Becker published her first novel, The Turncoat’s Widow, set in the Revolutionary War period. Aside from Malley, we were Jeff Markowitz, me, and discussion leader RG Belsky, and Obey wondered how each of us connects with the past.

This was an interesting question. My public school education included very little history, none of it presented in an interesting or memorable way. It really wasn’t until I married Neil, who trained in history, that I learned what I was missing.

But history didn’t come to live in my heart until I started working on my family genealogy. In 2012, I extended my stay at Killer Nashville, and my cousin from Texas joined me for a two-day excursion to Wilson County, just east of the Music City. We wanted to see if we could learn anything about our great-great grandparents who’d lived there two hundred years ago. As it turned out, we learned a lot (patient people there, at the Wilson County historical society).

The artist Jeff Koons advises people to “take your history on board,” and I’m still working on it. One of the chief benefits of genealogy is recognizing more acutely how my ancestors’ lives were affected by where they lived and when they lived there. It gives me a specific, personal reason to become aware of the movements and events of the past. It isn’t all pretty.

When you start asking “why,” you come up with some powerful answers. Why did my family end up in Central Texas? Because the ruin and devastation of the Civil War was so great in Central Tennessee, my great-great grandparents and their eight children became part of the GTT (Gone To Texas movement). They had to start new lives with nothing but each other. Why were they so badly affected? Their homes and farms and animals were collateral damage in the Civil War Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro), just twelve miles south of them and involving more than 78,000 soldiers. (The abandoned cannon pictured is from the Stones River National Battlefield.) So, why were they in Tennessee in the first place? Because the men served in the Revolutionary War and were given settlement land in western North Carolina (now central Tennessee). Lots of drama and passionate feeling there for sure.

Among their Tennessee neighbors was the Huddleston family, ancestors of New Yorker and Atlantic writer George Packer, who says, “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.” I do know it’s affected my writing. Only two of my stories are overtly historical, but genealogy has taught me to think about more kinds of connections, past and present, as I write. It’s helpful grounding in this era of “nothing matters but the last five minutes” attention spans.