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Tamzin Merchant on the Magic of Clothes in Stories

Posted on 30th December 2021 by Anna Orhanen

As an actor who has appeared in numerous costume dramas, Tamzin Merchant, author of our January Children's Book of the Month The Hatmakers, knows a thing or two about the power of clothes to enhance story. In this exclusive piece, Tamzin reveals her favourite garments and accessories - both magical and otherwise - in children's literature. 

Thanks to my career as an actor, I've been lucky enough to get to play dressing up for a living. But long before pulling on my first film costume (Georgiana Darcy's white muslin gown) I was digging through the depths of the dressing up box in my childhood bedroom. My mum's 70s wraparound skirts in which I swathed myself made excellent highwayman capes, witches' cloaks or ballgowns depending on the occasion. Bedecked with shell necklaces, in too-big trousers and a tatty jacket with shiny buttons, I swaggered around slaying dragons and casting spells, vanquishing villains and even rescuing the occasional prince. 

The inspiration for these escapades always came from books. I imagined special outfits for special adventures, like the ones my heroes went on in my favourite stories, with magic woven into the very threads of their clothes. 

I pretended to be enveloped in fur coats like the ones found in the wardrobe that kept the Pevensey children cosy as they ventured into snowy Narnia. Swirling Harry’s Cloak of Invisibility around my shoulders allowed me to slip, unseen, into and out of trouble. Imagining I was buttoning up Paddington’s blue Duffle Coat, I felt like a small bear ready to take on the big world. (Although his wellies weren't original to Michael Bond's creation, they hold a special place in my heart because when my mum couldn't find boots little enough to fit me, I splashed to school wearing the red wellies borrowed from my brother's Paddington Bear toy.) 

Clothes in stories have always fascinated me but it's the making of clothes that I find particularly interesting. In my book The Hatmakers, the hats are created with specially sourced magical treasures to inspire the wearer with confidence, or dashing dance moves, impart a sunny outlook or the voice of a nightingale, depending on the ingredients used. 

Cinderella's dress may be the most iconic magically-made garment of all time and I was always much more impressed by how it was created than the fact that she managed to snag a prince while wearing it. Did the fairy godmother weave spells into its frills? Entwine enchantments into the undergarments? Lace the lace with magic? Famously, of course, it's thanks to the glass slippers that the prince finally manages to identify the love of his life (though why he couldn't have just paid a little more attention to her face still mystifies me.) 

Talking of accessories! Mary Poppins' umbrella, beneath which she so elegantly blows into town, and her unusually capacious carpet bag, are both examples of excellent accessorizing. Since first reading about P.L. Travers' nanny and her very handy luggage, the Carpet Bag has held an almost mystical status in my mind. Even now, I suspect that the most workaday carpet bag probably holds some ineffable secret power. 

Tom and Hattie's skates, from Tom's Midnight Garden, are wondrous. I still cannot quite grasp how Tom and Hattie are able to skate to Ely on the same pair of skates: they quietly bend the laws of time and space. Having been hidden for decades under the floorboards of Hattie's nursery they are rediscovered by Tom years later and used simultaneously by both children on the Ely expedition. Beyond the magic that defies the laws of physics, there is the pure enchantment of the frozen landscape and the two lonely children united in the joy of a shared adventure along an icy ribbon of river. 

But even ordinary clothes can become extraordinary when immortalized in literature, weaving subtle enchantments on wearer and reader alike. Perhaps, like the rough blanket that Sara Crewe imagines to be a royal raiment, it is imagination that makes clothes the most magic.

Mildred Hubble's socks have always been special to me. They're long, black and grey striped - wonderfully witchy! - and are always crumpled around her ankles rather than staying pulled neatly up to her knees in accordance with the Cackle's Academy uniform code. These disobedient socks seem the perfect emblem of the misfit witch: not magic in themselves, but somehow integral to Mildred's haphazard, mild-mannered rebelliousness. 

Bobbie's red petticoat in The Railway Children takes on heroic importance - I believe it is the only undergarment in literature to have prevented a disastrous train crash. Bobbie and her siblings tearing up her petticoat in a desperate effort to save the day made me long for a chance to wear those old-fashioned clothes, so laden with romance and near misses. Now, when I tie the laces of petticoats round my waist before stepping onto set in a period drama, I'm tying a bow infused with the heroics of Bobbie and the petticoat that saved the day.

Anne of Green Gables' sensible straw hat has always been my favourite hat in literature, because she decorates it with a garland of wildflowers gathered on her way into town, arriving at Sunday School laden with a what I always imagine to be an entire meadow's worth of flowers perched on her head. It is a symptom of her wild imagination: in an ordinary straw hat, Anne sees an opportunity for romance and beauty, and she transforms that bland hat into something wayward and wonderful. This glorious head-turning headwear creates a great stir among the girls of Avonlea as Anne proves herself an avant-garde hero of eccentric dressing, the wildflowers as beguiling as the ideas that grow out of her head. Honourable mention must go, of course, to the puffed sleeves she so desires. Anne treats puffed sleeves with a reverence bordering on holy and when she finally acquires them, she resolves to make an extra effort to be the very best version of herself she can possibly be. Puffed sleeves, Anne believes, hold the power to make her a better person. 

Clothes help us tell stories about who we are, they are our glamour and our armour. I've noticed that several of my favourite choices are signs of unconventional - even eccentric - dressers! Perhaps that's because I find the truest magic in expressing ourselves through our quirks and unconventionalities, in wearing clothes that reflect the strange and wondrous birds we all are in our souls. 

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