Friday, March 2, 2012

The Wrong Clothes, the Wrong Man?

illustration from the man in lower ten

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably know I obsess a bit when it comes to clothing in books. But a few books ago (who needs to tell time in actual days?), I encountered a Fictional Clothing Situation that threw me a little.

In The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart, the main character, Lawrence, meets a woman under unusual circumstances and falls in love with her. Sounds pretty normal, right? But whenever he sees her for most of the book, he's wearing someone else's clothes. Just in case you don't notice it on your own, the character helpfully points it out us: "I don't want to meet you like other people, and I suppose you always think of me as wearing the other fellow's clothes."

Usually when characters wear another's clothing, it's to spoof gender or social norms. Think of something like The Prince and Pauper, for example, or Some Like It Hot. I don't think that's the purpose here, however. In fact, I'm not sure what exactly the clothing mix-up signifies.

Part of the purpose is probably to underscore The Wrong Man storyline, as Lawrence is mistaken for a man named Sullivan, who stole all his clothes and luggage and left Lawrence with his own. Once he puts on Sullivan's clothes, no one believes he's NOT Sullivan--except for Alison, who clearly knows the real Sullivan but won't say so.

That's just one instance where Lawrence wears another's clothes, however. In the second case, he stalks Alison to a weekend party and has to borrow another guy's dinner suit (or bathing suit--I was a little unclear on this point. I hope it was the dinner suit). In this instance, he's not really mistaken for another man, and it's connected solely with his pursuit of Alison.

So what does it mean when a suitor is constantly wearing another man's suit? This where I'm having a bit of trouble. There's no doubt Lawrence's behavior in regard to Alison is unusual for him--one of his friends calls him "Blakely, the Great Unkissed!" and is sure Lawrence won't "lose his head" over her like every other man who meets her. Is Lawrence a virgin? Is he gay?

I don't think he is gay, mainly because it doesn't make sense for his character to pursue Alison if he is. As for him being a virgin, I don't think it matters. This isn't that type of book, for one, and for another an implied gaining of masculinity or experience with the donning of Lawrence's borrowed clothes doesn't happen, since neither gentleman seems any more or less particularly "manly" than he is.

Perhaps Lawrence's different suits are more important from the perspective of Alison's character than his. Sullivan was a man who lied to her and had her in a long con; then Lawrence shows up wearing Sullivan's clothes. As with Sullivan, Alison has to decide if she can trust Lawrence, and his wearing another person's clothes symbolizes that she hasn't seen the "real" him yet.

Have you ever read a book where a character wears another character's clothes? What was the purpose in the story?


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