Margaret Atwood, on the spot

On November 18, she will celebrate her eighty-third birthday. Overflowing with humour, curiosity and playfulness, the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood – author of some fifty books, including the famous dystopia The Scarlet Maid (Robert Laffont, 1987) – has never ceased to examine our times. Everything in “the eddies and currents of time”, the passion. The place of women and the future of the planet, its two great battle horses, but also the way of dressing over time, or even the snobbery of Parisian intellectuals. Walk through an anthology of texts covering the years 2004 to 2021, and brought together under the title burning questions.


It is no coincidence that in The Scarlet Maid, Margaret Atwood attaches great importance to the costumes of her heroines. Puffy skirts, white headdresses and crimson capes: we know that she was inspired by the illustration of a packet of detergent that traumatized her when she was a child. In burning questionsthe writer also explains that she has worked a lot on 19th century fashion magazinese century, as well as on “sumptuary laws” of medieval times which “dictated what each category of people could wear”. Thus the codification of colors – blue for purity, red for sin and passion – coincides with that of paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: no symbol is left to chance.

In the eyes of Atwood, for example, there is a strong link between women’s clothing and the fate that society reserves for women. This link, she analyzes it with humor in an essay entitled “De la beauté”, which sends her back to her childhood. ” We [les petites filles de sa génération] we understood that to transform a slut into a dream creature, we needed a godmother with supernatural powers and a dress that would impress. Magic and fashion therefore had a role to play and they were inseparable. » Of Cinderella at The beauty and the Beast, passing by the nursery rhyme of Mother Goose on the cowgirl and the gentleman, Atwood shows how, from the first readings, the habit goes hand in hand with the destiny of the characters. Dissecting the advertisements of vogue or of Playboyit also lists everything it can be used for since the dawn of time – to arouse desire, “to help you rise in life”arouse the jealousy of others, raise one’s self-esteem, and even “protect against evil forces”, like the Egyptian women of Antiquity… This is why, much more than a simple accessory, clothing is a key resource in the novelist’s toolbox: what would the heroines of Henry James be without their long lilac gloves? Or Sherlock Holmes without the “velvet sleeves” dear to Conan Doyle? As for her, Margaret Atwood, who was still playing the cover girls on the “one” of the “Style” supplement of the Sunday Timesin 2019, she told us, the same year, that she had long dreamed of becoming not a writer, but a fashion designer.

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Margaret Atwood, on the spot