Costuming Your Characters

10 May

What are your characters wearing?

Do you know? Is it important? I think it can be. Even if you don’t include long descriptions of each character’s outfit (which you shouldn’t because no one wants to read that), you should still include bits of information. Jane Austen mentions muslin in Northanger Abbey; she does not indulge in a treatise on the spring fashions of 1804. If we didn’t know what people wore during the early 19th century, we wouldn’t get an idea of it just from reading, but those mentions of muslin still give texture to the story and make Henry Tilney awesome. People’s clothes say a lot about them, so whatever the setting, whether it’s historical, modern, fantasy or sci-fi, you can use clothing to help set the mood and flesh out the world your characters inhabit.

Just like the color choices on movie costumes are used to say a lot about the characters, the colors your characters wear can drop hints about personality. I’m not talking about a leather bustier for your villain’s hot and evil secretary; I’m talking earth tones for chill people or bright colors during dramatic events. I have one character who’s emotionally distant. She wears mostly light blues and white but at the climax she wears red.

Fabric and accessories can hint at class or wealth. A Coach purse says upper-middle class and affluent, but not old money. The latest toys from Apple say something similar with a techie edge. A duct taped wallet shows someone who’s not willing to spend money on a new one. Silk and satin dresses are far more expensive than polyester blends or cotton. Think about all the props you see in movies and TV shows. It takes more time to write about objects but it can be worth it for what they say about your characters and the setting.

You can also hint at the weather or reinforce what’s already been said about it. Are people sweating through their t-shirts? That makes more of an impact than someone saying “It’s hot out.” During the winter they could reach for light jackets or wrap up in heavy fur coats. Which one they go for tells us more about the temperature than just plain ‘cold.’

The better you can picture the elements of your story, the better you can describe them and get that image across to your readers. I have trouble picturing things without reference, so I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out what everyone in PRISCILLA THE EVIL wears. It gave me an excuse to look a lots of pretty pictures, especially since Priscilla goes all Art Nouveau when she can. The dress is the wrong color but the picture feels right.

Mucha

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the prince she meets is dressed like Valentino from The Son of the Shiek.

The desert peoples are inspired by paintings of the late 19th century Ottoman Empire.

In short, know what your characters wear. The Kyoto Costume Institute has a drool inducing book I will probably eventually treat myself to, but even for those not quite up to buying books on historic costume, there are the wonderful wilds of the internet. So, here’s a few links I’ve found handy:

-The Art Renewal Center, Lord Frederick Leighton, http://www.artrenewal.com/pages/artist.php?artistid=14

-18th Century Blog (pictures of period clothing and fashion plates): http://18thcenturyblog.com/

-Movie stills from period dramas: http://www.costumersguide.com/costume_research.shtml http://www.freewebs.com/heileen/graceelliot.htm

-Wikipedia also has articles on fashion changes over different periods of time. Here’s the one I’ve looked at the most: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1750–1795_in_fashion

It’s pretty easy to find information on Western European clothing from the Roman Empire up through the modern period but there are tons of different clothing traditions throughout the world that are beautiful and wonderful sources of inspiration.

-some traditional Russian clothing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sofi01/3929375465/ and http://www.costumes.org/HISTORY/100pages/1903BALL.HTM

-The West African Grand Boubou: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boubou_(clothing)

and Kaftan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrapper_(clothing)

-Historic Japanese outfits: http://fibers.destinyslobster.com/Japanese/Clothes/japoutfits.htm

and Kimono http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimono

-Aztec clothing: http://history.missouristate.edu/jchuchiak/HST%20350–Theme%203–Daily_life_of_the_aztecs.htm

So, go have some fun, look at some pretty pictures, and play dress up with your characters.

~~~

Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then plans on spending her time querying agents and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.

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31 Responses to “Costuming Your Characters”

  1. Praya May 10, 2010 at 12:49 AM #

    LOL when I first read the title, I thought it said ‘Consuming your characters’. Costuming makes slightly more sense. 😉

    Anyway this is such a great tip for achieving good characterisation! I’ve never really thought about doing it consciously, though thinking about it, I realised I definitely give my characters a fashion style before I write. It’s such a good way to get to know them. Also it could work for you, as a writer, as a way to get to know your characters. You could ask yourself questions like if Mary was to go to a party themed “Fairytales, Fantasy and Fear” what would she wear and why? Actually I got asked that question at a job interview once. I said Mulan. Don’t really know what deep inner psychological message they took from that, but I got the job. 😉

    But you flagged a good point- in fantasy, you don’t have to dress your characters in a typical Western style. I’m defs going to make good use of those links, and research! Exciting! It’s like making my own fashion house! 😀

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 7:50 PM #

      Lol, consuming! It is a good way to get to know your characters, that way you’re not surprised later on when they want to go to a Halloween party as something ridiculous.

      The interviewer probably thought Mulan was awesome and therefore you must be awesome too 🙂

  2. Kat Zhang May 10, 2010 at 2:09 AM #

    What a great post! I love imagining what my characters are wearing, and though I can’t always indulge my love of description, I try to stick some pertinent points in. Your suggestions got my mind running on this subject again, and I’ll definitely be putting your ideas to work as I revise!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 7:52 PM #

      Thanks, Kat! I draw mine for fun sometimes, though it never turns out quite right. Glad I could give you even more to think about for revisions! lol

  3. Cassandra Jade May 10, 2010 at 3:28 AM #

    The clothes are incredibly important part of the character. The clothes may not make the man but they can certainly be revealing about him, or her for that matter. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 7:55 PM #

      Very true, and a change of clothes can really make them act differently, like Jack in Titanic… oh I can’t believe I just made that reference.

  4. Angela May 10, 2010 at 5:40 AM #

    I love this post. You do make a point when you say that clothes can say a lot about what a character is.

    I remember a few years ago when I was obsessed with Gossip Girl and The Clique series. They mentioned a lot of expensive clothes and bags, which made imagining the New York high society setting much easier.

    Of course, I sometimes read fanfiction that go overboard when the outfits. Authors will devote three paragraphs telling about how the character is wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a dragon design on it, etc, which gets sort of annoying.

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 8:02 PM #

      Yeah, there is a fine line between just the right amount of description and too much, and then there are people who go way beyond the line. But I think with practice we all get better at finding it. I totally hate having to read paragraphs and paragraphs on someone’s hair or whatever. It’s soo boring!

  5. Rowenna May 10, 2010 at 8:59 AM #

    I love clothes…especially historical clothing! I love throwing in details now and again…because I write historicals, I sometimes think of these as “insight” moments when I can make it a bit more clear what the time period was like. You’re right, though–it can go overboard into “teaching” moments with full descriptions of everything.

    Kyoto has a fabulous website, by the way, with great photos of some of their collection highlights, and you can browse quite a bit of the book on google books preview (just in case you hadn’t exhausted those options yet 🙂 )

    Can I also add to the list of links the Met’s costume institute gallery? It’s searchable…and gorgeous: http://www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art/the_costume_institute. One caveat–quite a few items do not have precise dates or geographical origins, so be forewarned if you’re trying for specific historical/geographical research. And, for kicks–the Bata shoe museum in Toronto: http://www.batashoemuseum.ca/ Very cool online exhibits!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 8:07 PM #

      you do recreations, don’t you? (i stalked your blog) I think that’s awesome! I’m trying to teach myself to sew so I can make fun sun dresses and eventually fun historic clothes.

      And thanks for the link to the Met, I’m fairly certain I will get nothing productive done for the rest of the evening!

      • Rowenna May 11, 2010 at 8:58 AM #

        I do living history stuff, yeah 🙂 It’s my dorky little hobby that kinda takes over my life sometimes lol. I can spend hours goofing off in the Met’s virtual collections–if you really want to spend an evening of it, go past the “featured” collections and just search the entire collection–I like to type in “gown” “dress” or “corset” and then browse.

        • jenn fitzgerald May 11, 2010 at 11:03 AM #

          I think you are now officially a bad influence! Also it’s so cool that you do living history stuff!

  6. Aurora Blackguard May 10, 2010 at 10:35 AM #

    Good idea for a post! This was brilliant and it really addresses one of the main problems I have when writing a story, It gets difficult to properly imagine what they’re wearing. And when I DO get an image, I don’t know what their proper etymology is. I mean, like, in Prince Caspian the movie, at the end, you see Prince Caspian (annoyingly played by Ben Barnes) wearing this awesome outfit. And I wanted to imagine my character in it.

    What do I call it?

    Bell sleeves that close at the wrists and have giant slits but into them to see the the undershirt. MEH.

    • Rowenna May 10, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

      If you write fantasy, you could make up names 🙂 I would love that!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 8:15 PM #

      I haven’t seen the move but it sounds like he’s wearing a doublet with slashed sleeves. Of course you can also get over shirts with slashed sleeves to show the undershirt. It’s very 16th century
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1500–1550_in_fashion

      There are sites out there that list different types of clothes and what they’re called, but I can’t think of any off hand, sorry!

      Rowenna’s right though, if it’s fantasy you can call it whatever you want 😀

      • Aurora Blackguard May 11, 2010 at 4:55 AM #

        Totally, man, but sometimes it doesn’t seem right and this aspect of my personality demands for it to have the correct definition/name. It’s such a hassle but good idea! Thanks Rowenna!

  7. Savannah J. Foley May 10, 2010 at 11:27 AM #

    Fabulous concept Jenn; I love the idea of playing dress up with my characters!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 7:52 PM #

      I play dress up with mine a lot… it’s a good way to procrastinate

  8. priscillashay May 10, 2010 at 12:26 PM #

    haha, irony? I’m supposed to be writing my final paper on two novels and what the clothing says about the characters and how it effects their standing…but what am I doing? I’m reading this post 🙂

    I totally play dress up…my characters are 1800s England..and I want to make them into dolls ^_^ (i work Michael’s)

    • priscillashay May 10, 2010 at 12:26 PM #

      work at Michael’s*

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 7:54 PM #

      oh cool! which novels were you writing about? I could never work at Michael’s my pay check would never make it home 🙂

      and good luck on finals!

      • priscillashay May 12, 2010 at 11:15 AM #

        uhhh Kate Chopin’s short story A Pair of Silk Stockings and The Great Gatsby.

        Lol, yeah…most of mine never makes it out the door.

        thanks!

  9. Biljana May 10, 2010 at 3:45 PM #

    Great post Jenn! I actually had something happen a couple weeks ago where a friend who knew Victorian costumes inside out told me that my character wasn’t wearing anything to cover her corset… Lol a touch embarrassing to realize that my character was dressed like a ho.

    Thanks for the resources. I find I have trouble locating sites that have details about clothes, specifically things like the layers they wore. I’ll check those out!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 8:20 PM #

      lol Billy! did you just have her wearing a skirt and corset?
      Here’s a link on Victorian women’s underwear: http://home.earthlink.net/~zhizhu/WomensClothingPage.htm

      • Biljana May 11, 2010 at 12:06 AM #

        Gasp! Thank you! Got any more of there from different eras? This will be tremendously helpful.

        And…yeah pretty much lol. Well okay she was a little more decent than that…

        To tell the truth, I don’t know what the hell she was wearing.

  10. Myra May 10, 2010 at 8:02 PM #

    What a thoughtful post–I haven’t thought of much this consciously, except when it comes to leather bustiers. 😉 Ahaha, kidding.

    But this makes me think of the movie, Georgia Rule; I don’t remember much of it apart from Lindsay Lohan’s character. She wears white throughout the whole film to portray innocence/purity, except in the pivotal scene near the end when she’s trying to seduce someone (I thiiink? Correct me if I’m wrong; I don’t remember the context, only the costumes). Then, she wears a shock of red. You notice this immediately, as it stands out against everything she’s worn before. I thought the costumes were really well thought-out in that respect.

  11. jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 8:26 PM #

    I haven’t seen the movie but that sounds really cool!

    My mom dragged me to see G.I. Joe with her and whenever the evil girl was on all I could think was, “that leather won’t breathe, she must be so sweaty! it’s too tight to be good for fighting!” ugh

  12. Julie Eshbaugh May 10, 2010 at 8:43 PM #

    Wow Jenn! Awesome post!!! You stuffed it with info and some really helpful links. Thank you so much for this. 🙂
    I really like to talk about my characters’ clothes. Sometimes I worry that I say too much about what they’re wearing, but then I realize how much it says about a person, and the story overall.
    Thanks again for such a well-written post!

    • jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 9:54 PM #

      Thanks Julie! I totally know what you mean, I want to describe every dress my main girls wear, and all of the guys’ outfits 🙂

  13. Vanessa May 10, 2010 at 9:12 PM #

    I LOVED this post, Jenn! I love visual descriptions, and knowing what a person is wearing definitely helps with setting a scene, or establishing what type of character you have. Setting, mood, world-building, character personality; all of that can be fleshed out when it comes to what your character wears. And yet, I spend far more time developing the world/culture, and sometimes the clothing gets little to no attention. But it can really add so much more depth!

    GREAT article! 😀

  14. jenn fitzgerald May 10, 2010 at 9:58 PM #

    Thanks V! clothing really can tell you a lot when people take the time to think about it

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