Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Anna Karenina, Costumes and Textiles

If you know and love a book, if you happen to have read it two or three times, if you have taken more than one college course because you saw the title in the course description, then you may be on the same page with me when it comes to Leo Tolstoy's great masterpiece, Anna Karenina.

My first reading took place in the summer when I was fifteen years old and able to spend several days in August, in a hammock strung between two trees, nestled under the whispering pines of northern Ontario.  Lulled by the sound of water lapping against the shore, I was totally enthralled with Tolstoy's Russia. The characters of Anna and Count Vronsky were so real to me, I felt as if I knew them well. My mind, to this day, can conjure up whole scenes, and if given the task, I do believe, it would be great fun to costume this beautiful drama. After all, it is a story that can be danced and has been done masterfully by the great Bolshoi Ballet.  

Years ago, after giving friends the second draft of a work in progress, the first assessment to come back to me was that I had changed my character's outfits. It is but too true. I amuse myself by dressing my imaginary friends, and they well may get new costumes as time goes on. When I think of the great books brought to the screen, when I first see the trailer and have a look at a tremendous actor inhabiting the role, it just takes my breath away to see them in costume.

If an audience can walk by the life size posters in theaters and know immediately, that a new version of Jane Eyre, or Anna Karenina is about to be released, if the casual viewer can know the story at first glimpse of the costumes, then I say the writer clothed his characters in such a way as to allow us to see them. Even if certain liberties have been taken with the original descriptions, but the feeling is still there, then it just puts me right over the moon.

As writers, we don't often think in terms of costumes; there are so many details to keep in mind that dressing the protagonist, is often seen as an afterthought. Not so. This is your chance to be a designer. If you long to see your work on the silver screen, then think of it in terms of the trailer. If another artist, or actor, can see how to flesh out this role, or how to design the set, or what the color palette should look like, it is a credit to the author. Some writers, such as Tolstoy, had a knowledge of textiles and color and because of this, designers can recreate it.

Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, released in the years 1873-1877, was published serially. Russia was in a time of reform and there was much detail of the amalgamation of agrarian life and the emerging merchant classes. Adultery, and the inherent risks taken regarding social convention make up the theme, but part of what lingers in the mind regarding Anna Karenina, is her appearance and her dress. As it turns out, it played a part in the creative process itself.

Sophia Tolstoy, Leo's wife, kept notes as he was hard at work. This passage tells us a great deal of what was on her husband's mind as he wrote, Anna Karenina.

"I was sitting downstairs in my study, examining the white silk embroidery on the sleeve of my dressing gown, and I thought how beautiful it was. And then I wondered how it occurred to people to invent all these designs and decorations and embroideries, and then I realized there was a whole world of fashion and ideas and hard work that make up women's lives, and women are so fascinated by all of this. And it naturally led my thoughts about the novel to Anna and suddenly this piece of embroidery on my sleeve suggested a whole chapter to me. Anna is cut off from all the joys of this side of a woman's life for she is alone, other women spurn her and she has no one to talk to about all the ordinary, every day things that interest them."

So there it is, captured for posterity and available to all of us, the workings of the great man's mind. Take a look at a work in progress and imagine yourself the costume designer. Think of the color pallet and call to mind some of the best films in terms of color and pattern. Do not limit your writing to black and white; give it all the best elements of great design. If you are writing in another era, spend an afternoon in the library and familiarize the dress patterns down to the actual year. Learn about dyes, weaving techniques, berries and flax, cotton and wool. What do the clothes sound like when they move? Who can forget the image of Scarlet O'Hara's mother, Miss Ellen, rustling as she passed by with the scent of lemon verbena wafting through the hall.

If you set your story in another era, then please do, just for me, include a ball. You would be doing me the distinct honor of imagining the costumes.


Jennifer Rova said...

What a great concept you brought to our attention! I never thought how much importance there is to "costuming" our characters be it a historical novel or modern day setting. Great post.

Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you.