by Mary Jo
Barring a visit to a Nordstrom's cosmetic counter, I've never had a makeover personally, but I enjoy reading about them, and I love writing them! Which is why so many of my books have such scenes--not because they're good business, but because they're fun.
I very seldom write stunningly beautiful heroines, and when I do, they have invariably suffered because of that beauty. Think of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, who became the trigger for a war. Not a good place to be! Having the sort of beauty that brings men to their knees can bring power, but also danger. It's too easy to become an object, and what happens when beauty fades?
It's safer if a woman is pleasantly attractive, or perhaps striking, rather than classically beautiful. Most of my heroines are hard-working women who don't have a lot of time or money for prettifying, and they think of themselves as average looking, if they think of the subject at all. This is why giving them a makeover at the salon of a really talented modiste is such fun. Instant Cinderella!
This fantasy is effective because most of us clean up pretty well, so we can relate to a heroine who discovers a new self-image--and new personal power--when she has a chance to look her best.
In real life and fiction both, the ideal is a man who thinks you're beautiful always, even when your hair needs washing and you aren't quite the sylph you once were. That's very romantic! But even though the hero is already drawn to her, it's fun when he sees the results of the makeover, and he's stunned almost speechless.
Of course the details of the scene will provide insights into the characters. My favorite among the ones I've written is from Thunder and Roses. The heroine of the story, Clare, is a Welsh Methodist minister's daughter, a hardworking village schoolteacher. She goes to Nicolas, the local lord, to ask his help in improving the economy of their valley. Hung-over and wanting her to go away, Nicolas says he'll help if she'll ruin her reputation by allowing her friends and neighbors to think she's his mistress.
Instead of fleeing in shock, Clare takes up his challenge, and they're off! This includes Nicholas taking her to London and acquiring the sort of wardrobe a mistress should have:
Before allowing Clare to look at herself in the wall mirror, Marie produced a sprig of creamy silk roses and tucked them into Clare’s dark hair. “Tres bien. Accessories and a different hairstyle are needed, but this will please Monsieur le compte.’’
When Clare was finally permitted to see herself, she blinked in surprise at her image. The rose challis made her skin glow and her eyes look enormous. She looked like a lady—an attractive lady. Even, heaven help her, rather dashing. She studied the neckline of the gown uneasily. Not only was it cut alarmingly low, but the stays pushed her up in front. Though Clare knew herself to be modestly endowed, in this fashionable gown she looked quite… bountiful.
Suppressing the desire to cover her bare chest with her hands, she shyly emerged from behind the screen. Nicholas and Denise broke off their discussion to stare. While the dressmaker nodded with satisfaction, Nicholas circled around Clare, his eyes glowing with approval. “I knew this gown would become you, but even so, I’m impressed. Only one alteration is needed.”
He used the edge of his hand to draw a line across the front of her bodice. “Cut the décolletage to here.”
She gasped, as much because he was touching her breasts—in public!—as because of the shockingly low neckline he wanted. “I refuse to wear anything indecent!”
“What I’m suggesting is rather moderate.” He drew another line across her breasts, this one barely clearing her nipples. “This would be indecent.”
Appalled, Clare glanced at Denise. “Surely he’s jesting?”
“Not at all,” the dressmaker said briskly. “I have customers who won’t buy a gown unless they’re in danger of popping out. Keeps the gentlemen interested, they say.”
“I should certainly think it would,” Clare muttered, unmollified. “But it’s not for me.”
“You smolder better than any woman I ever met.” Nicholas gave her his devil’s smile. “The décolletage I am suggesting is more daring than you want, and more conservative than I would like. Isn’t that fair enough?”
The makeover scene in The Marriage Spell serves a different purpose. The healer heroine, Abby, is tall and well rounded and thinks of herself as a plain country woman. Then she marries Jack Langdon after saving his life, and it's off to London and a better wardrobe, among other things.
One of the points I wanted to make in this scene is about stays and corsets. Modern women tend to look back on them in horror, but a well made set of stays would be comfortable, and good underpinnings definitely makes a woman look her best. (And honestly, are stays any less comfortable than stiletto heels???)
That's still true, I might add. A really good bra that has been fitted by someone who knows what she is doing will feel good and make a woman look younger and fitter, and who doesn't want that? So here is Abby's encounter with a first class corsetiere:
The corsetiere, who wore gray, added, “Without a proper foundation, even the finest of gowns will not look its best.” Her eyes gleamed as she studied Abby. “And you, milady, are in dire need of my skills.”
Apparently talented artisans were allowed such rudeness. Fortunately Abby had little vanity, because the sisters and the duchess began to discuss her appearance with hair-curling bluntness. Abby was stripped down to her shift, measured in amazing detail, draped in swathes of fabric, and analyzed as if she wasn’t present.
As Madame Ravelle turned to consult a copy of La Belle Assemblée, Abby asked her sister-in-law, “Am I allowed any opinions about what I am to wear?”
“A few,” Celeste said cheerfully. “But you will only be offered good choices, so whatever you wear will look stunning.”
“Indeed, milady has a magnificent figure,” Madame Renault observed. “With your height and natural form, it’s a crime the way you have concealed yourself with plain garments and inferior stays.”
“If magnificent means overblown, you’re right,” Abby said tartly. “Even when I was thirteen, I didn’t have the elegance of figure that the duchess possesses.”
Madame Ravelle shook her head. “There is more than one kind of beauty, Lady Frayne. Her grace is the epitome of ethereal elegance. Men and women gasp when they see her. She is like a fairy queen who is briefly visiting earth to grant mere mortals a glimpse of timeless beauty.”
Celeste laughed. “That is ludicrously overblown flattery, Madame Ravelle.”
“Overblown, perhaps, but essentially accurate,” Abby commented.
Madame Renault turned to her. “Your beauty is of an earthier, more sensual kind, Milady Frayne. When you enter a ballroom, women will see a well-dressed woman, and continue what they were doing. Men will stare and yearn and consider challenging your lord husband to a duel to win your favor.”
Abby doesn't believe it, but needless to say, Jack is suitably stunned by the results. <G>
My upcoming September book, Not Always a Saint, has a heroine who is of the beautiful- and-has-suffered-for-it sort. Jessie doesn't get a real makeover scene, though when she goes to London, she does need to get a new wardrobe because she's in mourning but needs to find a new husband fast. In her case, she needs widow's weeds that will make her look both modest and alluring.
Clothing plays into our stories in numerous ways! Jessie does get to wear a scarlet gown at one point, and that's what the Kensington art department went with for the fabulous cover.
Do you enjoy reading (or writing) makeover scenes, or do they bore you? Are there some you've read and particularly enjoyed? If so, what books and why? I'm sure I'm not alone in this particular pleasure!
Mary Jo, who is awfully casual about clothing in real life. <G>