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.
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
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.