When it comes to clothing, society wants it both ways. We say “Clothes make the man,” and pay close attention to every article of clothing the rich and famous don on Instagram. Likewise, we say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and insist that no one should form opinions of others based on their clothes.
Personally, I wish the world adhered to the latter, overlooking personal style decisions and focusing instead on a person’s character. (I also wish that Disney would release the unaltered, original Star Wars trilogy on blue ray, so that shows how much power my wishes have…)
Like it or not, character attire shows the reader a bit of who they are. Ignoring our character’s clothing choices deprives us of a chance to give the reader a bit more of a bigger picture of who they are.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when using duds to enhance your character’s character:
Clothing can reveal your character’s income. “She’s wearing my salary.” I love that quote from Dennis Leary in The Thomas Crown Affair. Some articles of clothing can cost into the tens of thousands in today’s world. No one can forget Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind making a dress out of curtains to disquise her fallen income. If your characters live in a pre-industrial setting, the wealthy would have access to rare silks and fabric dyed with hard-to-access dyes. The lower classes will often wear used clothing. In the Victorian times, the poor might be the third or fourth owner of a dress.
Clothing can reveal how much your character wants to be noticed. Some days I just throw on a black shirt and jeans so I can fade into the background. If I want to sell books, I might wear hot pink or red. (Yes, at conventions, I often wear my brightest clothes on Saturday when people are searching for new books to read.) Some people wear clothes specifically to be noticed, and it doesn’t have to be “sexy” attire. Bright colors, statement shoes, bold patterns all garner attention. A shy person will avoid these items. A person who is uncomfortable with their body size or shape will choose clothing that hides certain areas.
Clothing choices can reveal a moral code. The Amish way of dressing is attached to a moral code. Some religions require a woman to cover her hair. Some people refuse to wear leather and fur.
How someone wears her clothes reveals a lot about her character. Some days, I’m lucky to make it out of the house wearing clothes. I rarely notice whether I’ve put on jewelry, and I often forget to put on belts. Contrast me with a perfectionistic person who makes sure the buttons on his shirt line up perfectly with the button on his pants. Contrast this again with the woman who looks effortlessly fashionable with the perfect amount of accessories. All three methods of dressing reveal character.
How someone cares for his clothes reveals character. Some people iron and starch everything. Some add fabric softener. Some don’t iron when they should. I own a fabric shaver and try to shave off the pilling my clothes because I hate spending money on clothes.
All societies have an unspoken dress code. Whether or not your character chooses to follow it exposes part of his nature. Some people push boundaries. Some people dress down no matter the situation. Some people dress up.
Your characters are human (unless you write sci-if or fantasy and they aren’t human), and they will judge other characters’ clothing choices. My father is an engineer, and sometimes has to go out in the field as part of his job. One day, he entered a jewelry store wearing jeans, muddy work boots, and was quite sweaty. No one in the store would wait on him because of his clothing. Your characters might behave in the same way. If your writing mimics life, it will feel more real.
Keep your audience in mind when describing your character’s attire. If your audience tends to be men who enjoy military fiction, they will probably not be interested in the quality of cotton used in a shirt, nor will they care about what kind of handbag your character carries. If you write for mainly women, mentioning your character’s Birkin bag would totally change their attitude toward your character, (especially if the character is wearing hand-me-downs). Your own writing style comes into play here. Anne Rice will pay more attention to fabric and texture more than Stephen King.
Don’t forget uniforms. They aren’t just for the military.
Don’t write fashion to impress your reader with your knowledge. Use fashion, clothing, and accessories to enhance your characters, not to impress your reader. Overdoing the clothing description will seem out of place if it doesn’t fit with your voice and your style.
How about you? How do you use clothing in your writing?
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Fantasy, steampunk, pulp, and paranormal novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. To receive notification of M. B. Weston’s book releases click here to subscribe to Dark Oak Press & Media’s e-newsletter.