Why Your Character’s Clothes are Important

One of my least favorite aspects of writing is deciding what my characters are wearing.

Although I have definite preferences about what I put on my own body, I don’t usually notice what the people in my life are wearing. Heck, I didn’t even know what color my now-fiance’s eyes were until we’d been dating for three months–that’s how unobservant I am. Constructing outfits for my characters is painful. Half the time, all I can think of is…”pants…? A…shirt? With…buttons? And…shoes…?” Not the most enlightening description, I know.

For a long time, I thought it didn’t matter. I thought that what a person chose to put on their body was always incidental, and that detailing it could only disrupt, not enhance, a story. Talking to one of my closest friends, Carla, an aspiring fashion designer as well as a talented writer, helped me to see how a character’s clothes can work in the writer’s favor.

Identity

My outfits as a teenager were outlandish–neon pink hot pants with ripped tights, combat boots, and a blue dress shirt one day, a shiny evening gown from Goodwill the next, and tee shirts with anime characters faces stretched across my tits on weekends. I’d been bullied for the last decade, and I was finally free, so I was being as ridiculously “individual” as I could to make up for lost time. Although I’m sure that my mother disapproved of many of my more bizarre combinations, she let me wear what I wanted most of the time. I had no idea who I was, and I was trying on different outfits in order to discover that.

This kind of identity confusion is typical of teenagers. If you’re writing a YA novel or a coming-of-age story, your character is probably trying desperately to figure out where they fit in. Their clothes can reflect who they wish they were, who they think they should be, and who they feel they are inside but can’t express in other ways.

Time and Place

Your character’s clothing can help you ground your story in a particular time and place. Most writers of historical fiction already know how important their character’s clothes are for establishing credibility. Dressing your British, Victorian-era woman in a yukata would be confusing. Giving that same Victorian-era woman a computer bag would be laughable. For most serious writers of historical fiction, this stuff is second nature.

It’s easy to forget about it when it comes to work set in modern day, especially work set close to home. Writers should expect and anticipate readers from all over the world. It may be obvious to me what an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn would wear–all I have to do is look at my mother–but that doesn’t mean that someone from Bangkok will picture the same thing that I do. Heck, it doesn’t even mean that someone from New Jersey will. We’re all familiar with our own cultural contexts, but we can’t expect everyone else to be. Telling you what my Italian-American female character from Brooklyn is wearing not only helps my readers to picture my character–and her culture–more clearly, but it will resonate with Italian-American women from Brooklyn if I’m doing it right.

Of course, I have to be careful not to stereotype–not every Italian-American woman from Brooklyn has the same sense of style as my mother!

Culture and Values

Some cultures have more rigid codes of dress than others. An Italian-American woman from Brooklyn can usually wear whatever she wants, unless she fits into other categories that don’t allow it, but Hasidic Jews have a pretty strict standard of dress. If your character is a Hasidic Jew, whether or not he conforms to this standard tells you something about how he relates to his culture, and what his values are.

This also applies to less deeply rooted affiliations. A teenager who dresses like a punk may be doing so because she aligns herself with the subculture. If she does, then her outfit can tell you something about what her values are. If she doesn’t, then her outfit might signify something else entirely.

Mood

People dress differently depending on what mood they’re in. A person in a good mood might shower, blow-dry her hair, put on makeup, iron her clothes, and shine her shoes. She does this because she has the energy to take care of herself in a way that makes her happy. She might do none of these things because her good mood compels her to put on some hiking boots and head for the woods, or to watch Naruto in her pajamas while eating ice cream. She may do any one of these things because she’s in a bad mood–they are comforting, and make her feel better. She may dress in all black to indicate her unhappiness, or she may dress in all black because she lives in New York City.

Self-Esteem

I was bullied relentlessly as a child and teenager, and it tore my self-esteem to shreds. I hated myself as a teenager, and I because I was sexually harassed along with being bullied, I thought my only value lay in attracting boys. I couldn’t make any overtures to them, because I was afraid of people, but I could certainly make myself look attractive. I slathered on makeup, and wore low cut belly shirts, and see-through miniskirts that didn’t cover much of anything. I wasn’t consciously aware of why I was dressing this way until I got older, but the adults in my life could see it, and so could my friends.

Your character may dress this way due to low self-esteem, but she might also hide herself in baggy clothes. She might wear revealing clothes not because she hates herself, but because she loves herself and wants to show off her body. Sweatpants and a t-shirt might indicate that she feels beautiful and loveable no matter what she wears.

When you establish how your character feels about herself, her clothes can help accentuate those feelings.

Physical

I have a character named Rue. Rue has a slew of allergies, but because he doesn’t have health insurance–he lives in the USA, no free healthcare here–none of them are diagnosed. He spends his life figuring out what he’s allergic to through trial and error. By the time he’s a teenager, he has a very short list of things that he can eat, touch, and smell without having symptoms. This includes fabrics–there are some that he can wear with no problem, and there are others that will make his throat close up.

Once this is established, if I call attention to the fact that Rue is wearing a type of fabric that he doesn’t know his reaction to, it means that he’s being more daring than usual. If he’s wearing a type of fabric that he knows is a problem, it means he’s being thoughtless or self-destructive. Just a simple choice of fabric can tell you a lot about the character’s current state.

Your character’s clothes can also reflect their physical and emotional state. Does your character always wear long sleeves to hide her self-injury scars? If so, wearing a short-sleeved shirt could indicate a major change. Does she always wear short sleeves because she can’t stand the feel of fabric on her arms? How might this choice affect her on a cold day in January?

It’s important to establish how it feels to be in your main character’s body. The body and the mind are firmly connected, but the body is all too easy to ignore. Don’t ignore the body, and don’t ignore how your character decorates it. Both can help establish what’s going on in the character’s mind, without you having to blatantly say, “he felt that _____”.

How to work it in…

One of the hardest parts of describing a character is figuring out where to do it. Unless your character is in the fashion industry, a paragraph detailing their outfit down to the last button will seem out of place, and, to many readers, boring. You don’t want to open your story with your main character rifling through her closet, unless she’s going to find an entrance to another world in there, you want to open it with something gripping. So how, then, do you get across this information?

There are many ways to do this, and each writer has to find one that works best for them. My favorite method goes like this: you blend the details into the story, one at a time.

Example: Natalie pulled her black Doc Martens off without untying the laces, then shucked off her tights and lay down, kicking the boots under the bed.

This example doesn’t tell us everything that Natalie’s wearing. It tells us that she’s wearing boots–not everyone will know what Doc Martens are, but it provides an extra visual for those who do, while still providing enough information for those who don’t. It’s difficult to get most boots off without untying the laces, so the fact that she does this indicates that she’s too tired to go through the process. We also know something about her over all style, though we don’t yet know why she’s chosen it. The information doesn’t hijack the narrative, it works with it.

Later, you can tell us about her matted black hair, her thick eyelashes, her penchant for stealing her mother’s makeup and putting on twice as much as she needs, her men’s Radiohead t-shirts with the collar ripped out, and the golden music note charm that her dad gave her after a piano recital, but we don’t need to know it all up front. Tell us when it’s relevant, and blend it with action.

Context

As you may have noticed, context is key. If you simply shove your character into an outfit and leave it at that, your reader will fill in the blanks. This can be a good thing, but they might form the wrong impression. Lets go back to the example of myself as a teenager. I dressed the way I did because of low self-esteem, but someone else could dress the exact same way because she loved herself. She might dress that way for no reason at all. A lot of people assume that people who dress in revealing clothes are having a lot of sex, or that their morals are lacking. If your character’s fashion choices have multiple meanings, you need to make it clear which one applies to your character.

In my example about Rue, no one is going to know what his fabric choices mean, or think that they’re even remotely relevant, if I don’t establish his allergies beforehand. I have to imbue the detail with meaning, not just throw the detail out there and expect the reader to understand.

Without context and good character development, your readers may not understand the point you’re trying to make with your character’s clothes. It’s hard to hit just the right notes, but the better you know your character, the easier it becomes.

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