The Fiesta Dress, A Quinceañera Tale by Caren McNelly McCormack, illustrated by Martha Avilés tells about a baby sister, Lolo, her family, and the moments before or an important event, the 15th birthday celebration of her older sister, Eva.
Lolo finds she’s not receiving the doting attention she’s used to as her older sisters and friends dress up in their finery for the Baile. Cousins hunker around a video game in their formal wear. Parents, aunts, and uncles in their Sunday best prepare the food and backyard fiesta lights. Too much is happening for anyone to notice Lolo.
It’s a crisis when the family dog snatches the white sash for big sister Eva’s dress and runs away with it – all Lolo’s fault because she failed to close the laundry room door that kept the puppy contained.
But her quick thinking saves the moment. Lolo distracts the dog with a tamale and rescues the sash. Her efforts land her back at the center of everyone’s affection and attention.
In the end, The Fiesta Dress is a story about family love. Pictorially, though, it’s about those dresses – the rich, pleated ‘fairy dresses’ of the Quinceañera, with their lush fabrics and vibrant designs and beautiful colors. Let’s consider the role of clothing in illustrated stories.
In a story, clothing reveals so much about the characters. Styles and textures report on the setting – rural or urban and what corner of the world, region, and place on the historical timeline. The look and condition of clothes imply a character’s job, societal class, and income level.
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat follows Joseph’s scratchy old overcoat on its meandering, modifications over time. The coat is reduced to a patchwork jacket, then a vest, a scarf, a kerchief, a button, and finally, nothing, oh wait – to a story for a picture book.
This die-cut version with luminous collage illustrations by Simms Taback won the Caldecott Medal in 2000. To nail the visual feeling of his cloth, Taback researched the rugs, pillows, napkins, caps, curtains, and outfits of Polish and Ukrainian shetls.
Same story, different treatment in Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman. (Both books source a Yiddish folksong that heralds the sewing table, bits of bright-colored cloth and thread, and resourceful creativity.)
In this version from Scholastic, a scrap follows Joseph from infancy, beginning as the blanket that covers him in his crib. From there it upgrades to a small child’s jacket, fashioned by his tailor grandfather, to a cute little tie that he wears to his grandparents’ house every Friday night. “Scissors go snip, snip” as little Joseph grows out of each garment and accessory. In Gillman’s illustrations, a family of mice performs its parallel dramas in the page margins, everyone wearing outfits.
Tour de force narrative watercolor illustrations by P.J. Lynch carry us on an epic immigrant’s journey to Ellis Island and America in When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest.
Seamstress Jessie leaves her village and grandmother to start her new life in America, at the ripe old age of 13. With the support of a cousin on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she parlays her skill at pinning lace to collars, cuffs, sleeves, and the front of wedding dresses into her own business, and she sets herself to learning English.
Flash forward three years… Jessie reacquaints with a young shoemaker who befriended her on that harrowing Trans-Atlantic voyage. With the money she’s saved from her sewing and lacework, she buys a ticket for her grandmother to sail to New York, to join her in the new life she has built and the family she and the shoemaker will someday have.
Author Hest said of her story, “It’s about being really brave, about being wrenched away from everything you know and everyone you love and coming out all right at the end.”
But if you look at Lynch’s paintings, it’s also about the weight, texture and warmth of what people wore at the turn of the 19th century.
When depicted with care by an illustrator, fabric communicates the story world more personally than many other details in a scene. It suggests the form underneath the material and the points of tension. Depending on how it’s rendered, it taps into our sensory memory.
Folds in fabric are their own special geometric form with many variations. Crush folds and stretch folds share a small cylinder in them. If you look you’ll find each value part: Highlight, middle tone, reflected lights, form, and cast shadows. (How well you see depends on the brightness and direction of the light.)
Illustrators render cloth consistent with their own illustration styles – plainly realistic, like in the pictures of P.J. Lynch, or flatly abstracted in the way of a comic novel or cartoon (see below.)
Note the plush red Karate uniform of the Wolf determined to learn martial arts in Ninja Red Riding Hood, written by Corey Rosen Scwartz with marvelously kinetic spreads by Dan Santat. Little Red, action hero. Gran “in her gi, she’d just come from Tai Chi.”
This story is about outfits swirling in manual cartoon combat. By the end, though, peace has prevailed. Folds drop inertly around the saffron robes of the wolf and his yoga teacher, who sit in stillness at the Downward Dog Center.
We find children in everyday clothing, creases and wrinkles minutely observed, in the incomparable watercolors of E.B. Lewis in The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson (also in Woodson’s Each Kindness).
Exquisite folds stand out as if chiseled from stone in The Sweetest Fig by two-time Caldecott winner Chris Van Allsburg. Perhaps due to his MFA training and early work as a sculptor.
Who knew a laundry pile on the floor or any set of folds could offer so many opportunities for practice? For gesture and contour drawing, shading shadows, and painting contrast and gradations?