Characters and Clothing: Some Considerations

baby-clothes-1406945-mToday, I wanted to ask a question to my fellow authors (and readers!) about characters and clothing: how important is it to you, to have a description of clothing? Does it matter?

On one level, this is a matter of preference. Some readers like to have a true picture painted for them. Others love to be part of the creative process. They like gaps they can fill in, crafting a unique and personal vision of a novel that is truly their own.

Surprisingly often, we overlook this fact as readers. We don’t realize we are adding details that aren’t given. What is on the page and what comes from us merge into a seamless mental construct. The process is unconscious. Alarmingly natural.

The only time, in fact, we DO tend to realize what we’re doing is when a detail given later contradicts what we had been picturing all along. That is always jarring because it draws attention to the fictional aspect of fiction.

(For instance, I will never forget how STUNNED I was as a teenager to watch the first Harry Potter movie. The quidditch pitch really surprised me, because it was nothing like I had pictured the stadium at Hogwarts. Nothing. The only thing that shocked me more was reading, somewhere later, a reminder that nowhere in the book is the quidditch stadium ever described by Rowling. My interpretation and vision might have been different, but the one in the movie was no less “valid.”)

CLOTHING

The point of this post, though, is about clothing in particular. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to describe or to leave out descriptions of clothing, of course. But I wanted to mention some things authors can consider when they decide how much detail is too much, or whether to give any. So here we go:

  • CLOTHING CHOICES CAN BE SYMBOLIC. In my novels, I have a rich character who spent some years living poor as he fought for his life against a political regime. After his situation improves, he still prefers to wear simple clothing beneath the robes his station requires him to wear. For me, that’s important because it’s symbolic of what he learned, how the experience of living poor changed him, and how despite his good fortune his is a person poor in spirit who understand the limited value of physical comfort and of wealth.
  • WHY DOES THE DETAIL MATTER?: We all wear clothes and accessories. So will your characters. The question to ask when you start to describe clothing: WHY? What am I getting across with this information? Sure, I know what the character is wearing, but why do I need the reader to know as well? Am I portraying social status or occupation? Am I contrasting one character with another? Am I setting a scene in a particular place or time? Am I making a point about a character’s personality or quirkiness? Am I trying to create an iconic image I want to stick with readers? (Like Harry Potter’s glasses?)
  • PLOT: Who can forget Scarlett O’Hara’s curtain dress? Cinderella’s ballgown? Clothing can be more than a fashion statement or a symbol. It can be a plot point and a way to introduce or exacerbate conflict. Certain events, certain circumstances, call for certain attire. And when that attire is hard to come by…. You get the picture. OR, in crime/ suspense fiction, clothing left or missing from a (crime) scene can have major plot implications.
  • NOT JUST CLOTHING, BUT THE STATE OF CLOTHING CAN SAY A LOT. Is that jacket new or patched? Is a character usually wearing the same outfit(s)? Are those shoes sparkling or scuffed? This is the kind of thing that can help revel biographical information as well as be symbolic or set tone. Speaking of which…
  • COLOR TONES CAN MATTER JUST AS MUCH AS HUE. If your purpose in describing clothing is to help set a tone, but you want to give your readers some power, describing a jacket or blouse as “light,” “dark,” “soft,” “pastel,” “bright,” etc, might be an option, rather than saying “lavender,” “navy,” or “kelly green.
  • THERE ARE DEGREES OF DESCRIPTION. Clothing can be description on so many different levels. You can give nothing. Or give garment names. (A dress? Slacks? Suit?) You can get more specific (sleeve length? Are those shoes boots or sneakers, or sandals?) You can give color. Fabric. Texture. Describe a print (stripes or polka dots? Animal print?) Again, less is usually more. If you can’t pinpoint a reason that a particular detail is needed, leave it out.

So, what do you think about clothing and characters? Is there any literary example that stands out? For me, Scarlett’s curtain dress was huge. Stuck with me.

Next post, I hope to talk about one major reason less is more when we authors are describing a person or a setting. Work and life have temporarily gotten me off of a regular  posting schedule, though I do try to post two or three times a week. To make sure you don’t miss out on future discussions, you can sign up to follow my blog by email.

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32 responses to “Characters and Clothing: Some Considerations

  1. Reading this post made me realize I haven’t included any real physical description of any of my characters. Only one charcter has a description of a cane. Hmmm, I think I may need rethink that. Great post and glad to see you back posting.

    • Thanks! It’s something to think about, but lots of famous and great writers give very little, if any, physical descriptions of character. It’s just about what works for you and the tone you want to establish.

  2. N.E. Montgomery

    I’m with you on what clothing and accessories say about a character or their circumstances. Especially in fantasy/ science fiction, where we can’t just say “he wore jeans.”

    As a reader it makes me nuts when authors give no description – I’d actually rather have too much. I can skim or skip it if I want to, but I actually quit reading one author because she gave pretty much zero physical description of the characters. At least give me hair color!

    And I hate that issue you described, when you realize way into a book that things don’t look like you’ve been picturing them.

    As a writer, I only let myself go into clothing and other physical attributes when, like you said, it tells the reader something about that character. If I’m just describing it because I like it, I cut it later.

    It’s a tightrope, sometimes. Great post, and really nice breakdown that will help me walk it 😀

    • Thanks for stopping by! And for elaborating your approach both as writer and reader. It’s helpful as a writer to remember how different readers do things differently and like different things. Not that we can (or should try to!) please everyone. But sometimes a small tweak that costs little can really expand how many people we’re able to reach in a way they like!

  3. Some of my characters have signature articles of clothing like skirts or a necklace. Others have favored colors. I only really describe in detail when it’s an introduction or a grand event. I really don’t know enough about clothes to go into tons of detail.

  4. Sometimes the clothing description really matters.

    For instance, in The Hobbit, when Gandalf is first described as having bushy eyebrows that extended beyond the brim of his hat. Can you imagine how that would look with Peter Jackson’s version of Gandalf’s hat?

    Another instance would be in the TV series Firefly (yes, I’m a Browncoat!). When the seamstress was designing Malcom’s uniform, the shoulder patch has the star in a triangle, with the point of the star toward the flat part of the triangle. She asked whether the star pointed upright, and the memo told her that the point goes down.

    They meant that the point of the triangle was down, the star was to be upright, but because of the misunderstanding, several uniforms were made incorrectly and aired that way.

    So, I feel that there are times when clothing descriptions are important, and others where it may be best left to the reader’s imagination.

    • fantastic point. thanks for those examples! Sometimes clothing does matter. and sometimes, like Gandalf, a physical description gives us clues about clothing, such as how wide his hat brim was 🙂

  5. If the clothes define or contrast characters–or it’s a special occasion–I’ll give a brief description. I tend to be more attuned to someone’s hair or eye color rather than how he or she dresses. Now, if you’re writing a historical piece, describing the garb of the day would assume more importance. In either case, it’s best to use specific details rather than generalizations. Example: “an emerald-green sheath” instead of “a pretty dress.”

    • I’m like you! I’m big with eyes and hair, hahaha! I don’t know what it is about eyes but I always want to make a point of describing a character’s eye color. And I remember eye color. Scarlett O’Hara and Harry Potter both have green eyes, for instance 🙂

  6. I get bored with long descriptions of gowns, uniforms, etc., but appreciate little bits and pieces incorporated into a larger piece of writing.
    For example, I don’t want to read that she wore a pink taffeta gown with layers of eyelet lace, etc. as if it were an episode of “Say Yes to the Dress”.
    But I like seeing the dress’s description wrapped into something else, such as “Her dress, which reminded him of the bubble gum he loved as a kid, was so full that the top layer caught on the broken chair, tearing off a width of lace worthy of replacing his grandmother’s table runner.”
    We need to “see” the clothes, but only the essential details.

  7. I tend to describe the characters in a bit of a barebones style; rough height (typically as compared to other characters, unless a specific height is important), hair and eye color, if they have facial hair or scars or something else. Clothing I’m usually fairly vague on – preferring to give a example of their style without getting into deep details, unless what they’re wearing is specifically important (if the character’s going to pull a gun, stake or sword out, he’s going to be mentioned wearing a trenchcoat, for example) or deliberately stand-out or specific.

    I blame that I am utterly clueless, fashion-wise; I think I’ve been wearing the same clothes since 1994. XD

    So far as my reader’s eye, even if there’s an excessive amount of detail regarding a character’s clothing, I almost always “dress” the characters in my head in my own way, often only vaguely referencing the specifics. Not sure why; my brain just doesn’t want to work that way. It might be tied to my “disability” relating to writing their clothing. It might not. The world may never know. XD

  8. The example of Scarlett’s dress was perfect – it showed her indomitable spirit! Mitchell described Scarlett’s clothing several times in GWTW, but Scarlett was a pretty, vain creature and her clothing was important to her – thus we gained some insight into Scarlett as a result. Mitchell didn’t hit the reader over the head with endless minutia about the clothing, however.

    Details about clothing seem to be a key feature in period romantic stories. I am guessing, perhaps, it has to do with the escapist/fantasy elements of romance. Truly, I never thought much about this before. Very interesting.

  9. Sometimes clothing is needed to draw a character – a brief description of what they have on can equal pages of useless chatter. other times clothing is need for a plot point. It’s not always needed, but it should never be forgotten that real people wear clothes. Well, most of the time.

  10. I think that it is very important to have the clothing of a character match their personality. It brings more depth and insight to the character that I believe the readers will enjoy.

  11. As a reader, I depend on the author to provide me with a description, including a few lines about his/her clothing, of the character to produce a picture I can see. Clothes may not necessarily make the the man or woman, but they are an indication of their feeling about themselves.

  12. I think clothing is essential to delineate time and place and describe it in as much detail as I can. I have a modern-day character – a girl who inadvertently time travels back to Elizabethan England. The changes in clothing between the two periods means that the Tudor people interpret her modern women’s clothing as a poor verion of Tudor men’s clothes. This therefore becomes an integral part of the narrative.

  13. I like it, but it has to be well placed and not overdone. I look for it more in fantasy books and historical fiction than others. Sometimes, however, the right details of clothing can really set the tone, you know?!

  14. As a reader I find I’m typically more concerned with what’s happening than getting a description of what a character is wearing at any given moment. Much like in everyday life when you couldn’t remember what a coworker was wearing even if someone asked you, it hardly matters unless there’s a reason to take note of it.

    That being said, certain details help bring the story alive. The mention of wizarding robes in Harry Potter is important to help set the scene. (I particularly liked the fact that plain black robes were on Harry’s school supply list.) Another time clothing stuck with me was in Clash of Kings, when Daenarys goes to Qarth and its in style for women’s clothing to expose one breast. It hit home how foreign the place was to the character. In Brandon Sanderson’s book The Way of Kings one culture wears one sleeve extra long to cover the hand, an interesting tidbit that I remember even though I never finished the book.

    Clothing literally makes the man. What we wear is determined by culture, status, and values. In writing its a way to drive home important details about characters and locations. I feel clothing descriptions are most powerful when used sparingly. Suddenly the detail pops rather than being stuck into the background of everyday life.

    • Love your examples! That’s cool!!! I agree with you too about focusing on action. I’m always terrified I’m going to be a witness to a crime, haha, and have to describe what I saw because I just don’t remember details about what people were wearing or even usually what a stranger looked like!

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