Let me make something clear up front: the point of this blog post is not to give you tips on how to dress. The point is to help you think about how you discuss clothing in your writing.
Recently I discovered this amazing podcast called Writing Excuses. Specifically, I listened to an episode called “Fashion for Writers,” featuring fashion guru Rebecca McKinney, and I could not not share what I learned. This is partly because it was useful and partly because I could see a lot of people dismissing the topic as irrelevant to their work (which they definitely should not!). A great clothes description can make your characters spring vividly to life.
Take a look at what I learned, and tell me what you think.
You Can Learn A Lot By A Person’s Clothing
A person’s clothing can tell the reader a lot about a character in a few short sentences. You can learn something about her age, social economic situation, personality, and more.
McKinney points out that if a woman walks into a room wearing a fuchsia dress, for example, you can be pretty sure that person is not a wallflower. You can alert your audience that she likes attention, is confident, and host of others things with two short words: “fuchsia dress.”
Take advantage of this opportunity.
Consider the Economy of Your Character’s Clothing
Without giving some thought to your character’s clothing, you may end up putting a struggling Ph.D. student in an expensive Brooks Brothers shirt. Unless you can explain the paradox (e.g., he used to work at an investment bank), it just doesn’t make sense.
Another question to ask is, do your clothes and fabric work with the region in which your work takes place? Or, do they work for the time period? The podcast hosts pointed out that, while fabrics such as cotton may be relatively cheap in the United States, they’re considered a luxury in other parts of the world. Similarly, if certain material was scarce in a specific time period, the average Joe probably wouldn’t have access to it (even if it’s ubiquitous today).
Think about how much your character’s clothing costs and whether it is consistent with his background, location, time period, and everything else we know about him.
Use the Correct Words to Describe Clothing
We can get away with being imprecise about clothes in our real lives, but that doesn’t work when we’re writing.
As McKinney points out on the show, it’s incorrect for a person to play with the “weave” of a sweater because sweaters are knit (who knew?). The fashion guru also seemed to shudder at a writer’s use of the word “tool” when he meant “twill.”
Using the wrong words can hurt your credibility. Conversely, knowing the right word can strengthen the image you’re trying to draw with your words.
Not sure how to write a good clothes description? One resource the hosts recommended for figuring out exactly what things are called is the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing.
Different Characters Should Describe Clothing in Different Ways
If your character is in an industry where it is expected that they be thoughtful about clothing, then that character should notice a person’s clothing. A person working as a stylist may notice how a jacket fit, for example. A partner at a law firm might notice how much a jacket cost.
Alternatively, you may have written a character who tends not to notice anyone’s clothing, ever. To me, that actually presents the greatest opportunity because when he does notice a new necklace or a recent shoe shine, it signals to the reader that that it is significant.
Resources Exist to Help You Describe Clothing
To brush up on your fashion/clothing knowledge, the hosts recommend the following:
- Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing
- Historic Costume for the Stage by Lucy Barton
- The International Costumers’ Guild
- Fashion Sketchbook by Bina Abling
Clothing can be an incredibly useful tool for characterization. Even if your story doesn’t star a fashion designer protagonist, paying attention to relevant details of the clothes in your world will enrich your readers’ experience.
Do you have any fashion tips for writers? Let us know in the comments.
Look at the people around you or browse the web for an image of someone. Then take fifteen minutes to describe a person’s clothing. What do they tell you about that person?
When you’re done, share your practice in the comments, and don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!