Sunday, September 19, 2021

Fashions for Fictional People

 Annamaria on Monday

Perhaps because I am in Italy where it is so important fare la bella figura--that is "to make a good impression,"--I have been thinking a lot about what the characters in a work of fiction wear.  I am editing my own work in progress and critiquing a draft for a friend. Out of doors, I walk around looking at Florentines dressed with style and flair and tourists some of whom look like they are headed for the beach rather than for the Uffizi,  All the while my head is also spinning with the people in those two stories, living in the deep and distant past. They are wearing period clothing, in one case in a very exotic location.

Ordinarily, I think about a couple of things when working when drafting a story.  One is, of course  what the characters are wearing, and also I have to make choices about the best way to describe the clothing. I'll take these subjects in that order.

Who was that masked man?

Dressing a character is one way an author reveals what kind of person the reader is meeting.  And also what activity she may be headed for. To be extreme about it, for instance, a man in a tuxedo is not going out to wash the car.  Well, maybe, if the man is James Bond, and the car is an Aston Martin! The clothes may be fashionable or drab, attractive and fit well or undersized for the protagonist's body. They may hang off the person's emaciated frame or be the best tailored clothing ever seen in a remote place.  

All these things can tell the reader about the characters' physical capabilities, economic status, etc. They can help to inform the reader, to say whether or not the writer wants the reader to trust the character, or worry about her. They can speak of what the character's lot in life is, her personal habits, and also, of course, what the writer wants the reader to think about the wearer of the Rolex watch, what judgments the writer wants the reader to make about the child in rags holding a shotgun.

Along with other clues in the subtext, a reader may conclude that the man whose suit is too tight is overindulgent or too out of shape to be helpful when danger comes.

For historical novelists, clothing gives the reader information about what age the story is set in. Every epoch has its own special style. Many of us of the historical persuasion try to keep readers in the long-ago by embroidering into the text little reminders that the reader is not being taken to a contemporary experience. A woman wearing a cloche hat and a knee-length frock with a fringed hem is going to dance to Charleston, not a quadrille.

And nun wearing a wimple is most likely living in a medieval convent, not riding to Washington for a demonstration with the other Nuns on the Bus.

Sometimes, we writers go looking for clothing to put on our characters. This, like a lot of research became easier with the Internet. These days you can find examples of all kinds of clothing from all places on the earth from any century with the click of a button.  When I was composing City of Silver, I read a chronicle that spoke of what the ladies wore in Potosi in 1650, but I had to rummage through several other books and take trips to the Frick and Metropolitan museums to see paintings of the era to give me an idea of what those wealthy ladies living at 13,500 feet on the Altiplano of Perú might have been wearing.

What intrigues me and challenges me most about dressing characters is how to deftly insert this information in the text. I don't like to do with gratuitous sentences informing the reader of what the person has on. It is tempting to take the other common expedient, and have my character look in the mirror. But when I do that, the words seem clunky to me, and I scold myself that I'm not trying hard enough.

My difficulties here are ameliorated because I write third person, multiple points of view. The most likely way you will find out what my characters are wearing is when another character takes notice of or remarks about the clothing.

Another technique that I find useful in blending in these sorts of details is to have the clothing itself have an effect on the person who is wearing it or to have the environment have an effect on the clothing.  Clothing that binds or itches for instance can be a metaphor for something troubling the protagonist or the villain's wool shirt may irritate him.   Or vice versa. A breeze can lift lift a scarf or a skirt can drag on the stairs is the heroine descends.  Wearing the wrong clothing by mistake can have an effect on the characters confidence, or conversely being perfectly turned out for an event that comes with a threat help the hero blend in and disappear to the crowd.

The options, of course, our endless. And I confess that I know full well that writers who insert paragraphs of fashion descriptions in their work can often be giving the readers exactly what they want. And I understand that my difficulties with finding subtle ways to create those pictures in the readers minds maybe overly precious in the extreme.

I am hoping that my fellow authors here will weigh in on this subject. Not only for the edification of our readers, but also for mine.


  1. What an interesting blog, Annamaria! What people are wearing can not only tell you about the person themselves, but also about the prejudices of those with whom they interact.

    Who doesn't remember the Rodeo Drive shopping scene in 'Pretty Woman', when Julia Roberts' character is thrown out of an expensive clothes store, only to return the next day, bristling with carrier bags from her other purchases. "I was in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. You people work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge."

    In one of the Charlie Fox books, I describe her business suit as 'the most expensive thing in my wardrobe that didn't contain Kevlar' in the hopes that tells you as much as you need to know about her attitude towards clothing.

    1. I read that Charlie Fox book, Zoe! I thought this would be a subject that would appeal to you, knowing how deftly you use clothing in your stories. And you were right about showing people’s prejudices, although I didn’t know the scene in Pretty Woman. I tend to avoid Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and as I recall by skipping that film I got to avoid them both. I know I’m unduly prejudiced about these things. But I don’t think you can tell that by the clothes I wear.

  2. Great points, Sis. Clothing descriptions help the writer capture far more than a character's sartorial dress. Which leads me to wonder, how would you handle the challenge of placing a thriller in a nudist colony?