What I learned from a 19th-century painter of brothels and cabarets about appearance--Emily Whitman

Two black gloves against a bare background. The arms, the hands, more alive than they'd be in bare flesh. A face garishly painted in stage makeup, all the more honest for the disguise.

I met the singer Yvette Guilbert in this painting at the Toulouse Lautrec museum.  Gloves and a face, and I know her.

The right details, vibrant against a spare background. I'm aiming for that in my writing, too. I'm blown away by writing that does it well, slashing through the scrim of how I see the world, making me focus suddenly, intently. It may be a motion, a piece of clothing, a metaphor, but all of a sudden I SEE.

We make sudden judgements based on threads of information. My book Wildwing (It just won the Oregon Book Award in YA!) plays with appearance as cue and clue. Addy time travels to the Middle Ages in a stolen costume and is mistaken for Lady Matilda, arriving to marry the lord of the castle. When a sea-soaked Addy reaches the castle, the maid Beatrix helps her off with her wet clothes:

"Now, off with this lovely kirtle of yours--will you look at the weave of this fabric! I've never seen the like!" She starts untying and loosening laces, and then the sodden weight of the gown is lifting off and I'm standing there shaking in my cold, wet underwear. "Well, don't they do things different where you're from, my lady!" She's eying my underwear as if she's never seen such things before. I cross my arms firmly across my chest. "Where is your shift?And what are these flimsy things? Well, no matter; they're sopping, and you're as wet as a drowned cat." She reaches a hand to my underwear, and I leap back.


"But you're all ashiver, my lady," she says, shaking her head firmly. "His lordship will never forgive me if you take ill. We need to get you into that warm bed."

Past and present rub against each other in layers of clothing. Later, when Addy's dreaded wedding is approaching, and she's fallen in love with the falconer's son, and the king who knows the real Lady Matilda is due to arrive any minute, Beatrix is sewing a veil to hide Addy's face. Says Addy,

I think how an actress steps onstage and the audience sees her for the first time. They take in how she's dressed, how she stands, the tilt of her head. In that split second they decide who it is that they see. It will be like that when I don this veil and appear before the king. 
"It's about making an entrance," I say out loud.
"It's about hiding your face, is what it is," Beatrix says.

Appearance as disguise, as clue, as revelation. It's all there in those black gloves.


  1. Love the reminder that we need the "right" details--details that add meaning, instead of just word count!

  2. Sounds like a fascinating story! I like stories about characters who travel back in time, because it's interesting to see how they adapt to their unfamiliar surroundings that they may only have read about. And congratulations for winning the award! That's awesome.


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