I’m worried that title gives you the wrong idea – I’m really not sitting down with paper cut-outs of my characters and playing dress up. Really, I’m not. Nor am I someone who’s overly focussed on clothes or fashion. Yet I find myself noting details of what people are wearing as I do my people watching.
And that got me to thinking…. presuming you describe your characters, does that include what they’re wearing?
When I’m noting clothing details, it’s about getting a picture of who the person might be. Are the clothes they’re wearing good quality or fast fashion? If branded, are they stylish or trendy? If casually dressed, is it business casual or just fell out of bed casual? Are they brazenly doing the walk of shame in last night’s party gear in the local coffee shop? And what could any of those choices tell me about who they are?
Let’s take me as an example. If a writer were to be observing me, what might they note? Well, that I have a clear preference for wearing black – I even wear it for weddings. What might that say about me? That I like to be able to throw on any item from my wardrobe and not worry about whether they match one another? That I believe in a capsule wardrobe and nothing is more capsule than black? That I wear black because I believe it’s slimming? That I wear black because it suits my colouring? That I’m a goth at heart? Clearly, the fact that I always wear black doesn’t tell the story by itself, but a writer could use that fact, along with other descriptive details, to create a picture. BTW, I wear black for all the reasons above, except I’m no goth 😉
What a person chooses to wear can tell us a tale. When I worked in advertising, a male colleague bemoaned the fact that he was expected to wear a suit, and that it was easier and cheaper for women in the same role to shop for a suitable wardrobe, as they could wear “whatever they liked”. While it is true that as an entry point into a working wardrobe, a suit can prove to be an expensive option, those women who also selected the suit option for their working wardrobe did so because they’d done the numbers and worked out they’d spend less on their working wardrobe in the long run. So, the choice could be a pragmatic one, but it could also be giving a message about who you are – or who you want to be seen as.
That advertising colleague chose to wear the traditional suit, shirt and tie combination. He was ambitious, but he also wanted to fit in and be accepted rather than rock the boat. Contrast that with a sales colleague who, while working in the hugely traditional print business, chose to wear beautifully cut black suits, occasionally with a shirt and tie, but more usually with a round-neck T-shirt, a polo neck, or a shirt with a Nehru collar. He had an Italian name and was half German, so maximising that fact via his clothing choices meant he remained instantly memorable – and it worked to his advantage.
How you chose to “dress” your characters can tell your readers something about your character’s personality, how they perceive themselves, even how they seek to portray themselves. It’s a useful tool and one you can have fun with – especially when you want to play against type.
Do you use clothing as a shorthand for telling your reader about your characters? What tips do you have for doing it effectively?
© Debra Carey, 2022