By Elizabeth Abrams
Visualize one of your characters. What are they wearing? What aspects of their wardrobe stand out the most?
Considering fashion isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s an underused method of characterization. Style reveals details about setting, as well as personality and background. Someone prim and proper might dress neatly—or they might subvert expectations by neglecting their appearance. This process, in my experience, is best begun in the early stages of developing a character, but details can be added or changed as your work develops.
You don’t need to become a fashion expert, but having the vocabulary is half the battle. To get the ball rolling:
1) Choose a style. For inspiration, consult this list of fashion movements and their basic aesthetics. Historical accounts are more complicated, but this brief timeline, this database, and the FIDM website are good starting points.
2) Research terminology: balance the specificity of your writing with what the narrator knows and how much attention they pay to clothes.
Next, consider where it makes sense to describe clothes, and how to integrate it into prose. Here’s a poor description:
Lana wore her track uniform, a varsity jacket, blue running shoes, and a backpack. Her hair was in a short ponytail, which was dyed all the colors of the rainbow. She had on striped socks and carried a pair of black cleats.
It’s annoying to read. Some advice: avoid lists. They trick you into giving irrelevant details. Also, pay attention to context-appropriate clothes; does your character break convention? Why? What are the repercussions of doing so?
Here’s a revision:
Lana jammed her running shoes over her striped socks. Usually she liked looking at the cool blue of her sneakers, but today they reminded her too much of Katherine’s stupid sweater; it’d be shabby and shapeless on Lana, but on Katherine it managed to look stylish instead of sloppy. She was too irritating to be so attractive in something that old and stained, but Katherine was, and it pissed Lana off.
With her backpack in one hand and her running spikes in the other, she moved to stand within the sea of uniforms waiting on the infield. She yanked her cheerfully dyed hair into a scruffy ponytail, decidedly uncheerful. Her teammates seemed to pick up on her bad mood, but no one commented on how roughly she shrugged out of her varsity jacket or the excess force with which she threw down her spikes.
Here the details are woven into the prose instead of clustered together, with better pacing. A rule of thumb: intersperse with emotion and action; introduce through interaction.
The shoe color contextualizes Lana’s emotional state. Lana’s interactions with her wardrobe establishes tone and capitalizes on her irritation. Her socks give her individuality in a group of people dressed identically.
Clothes make the man, but they can also make or break your story. Fashion statements are a tool. Use them to the best of your ability.
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Széchényi, Flickr.