By Sammy Bina
Anyone who knows me in real life (or just follows my inane ramblings on twitter or tumblr) knows that my not-so-secret second love in life is fashion. Every morning I wake up and check the publishing blogs I subscribe to, then immediately move on to the style blogs. My writing may be influenced that day by some tips I picked up, and my outfit may just be an interpretation of something I saw online. Either way, my day has been impacted by the two things I love most.
But what does fashion have to do with writing, you wonder. Besides the obvious fact that your characters wear clothes (or maybe they don’t. Maybe you’re writing about a nudist colony, in which case, this post may not be relevant).
As writers, we’re told to infuse our characters with personality. No one wants to read an entire novel where the main character is as bland as a piece of burnt, unbuttered toast. We’re told to give them quirks, a distinct voice, and maybe a few defining physical features. Clothing, I think, falls into the same category. Maybe it’s just me, but I pay close attention when an author takes the time to describe what a person is wearing, even if it’s only a passing sentence. Suzanne Collins doesn’t really waste a lot of words on Katniss’s dress for the opening ceremony. In fact, this is all we get:
“I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremonies. I’m in a simple black unitard that covers me from ankle to neck. Shiny leather boots lace up to my knees. But it’s the fluttering cape made of streams of orange, yellow, and red and the matching headpiece that define this costume. “
“My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of highlighting here and there. My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual style.”
It’s pretty vague, if we’re being honest. We have absolutely no idea what the headpiece even looks like. But that’s okay, because we’re given an impression. In our minds, we’re able to understand that the dress is, in a lot of ways, like Katniss herself: simple yet powerful.
Period pieces require a little more effort than a contemporary novel. Instead of saying a character’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you’ve got to worry about historical accuracy. I took a class on the history of fashion in college, just so I’d have the basic information if I decided I ever wanted to write in that genre. The text book is actually a really great reference for anyone who’s looking for one: Survey of Historic Costume. There’s also a great website (the KCI Digital Archives) that has a lot of fantastic images compiled for your perusal. If you’ve read any historical romance novels, you’ll know that fashion plays a bigger role than it does in contemporary stories, if only because a person had to change so often, and a specific garment meant a specific thing in a specific situation. These days we don’t really have that problem; at least, not to such a degree.
Taking characterization into consideration, I think clothing is a totally legit way to help your readers understand them. I mentioned once how black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement. Same goes for that girl who’s always wearing frumpy clothes inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe she’s poor and can’t afford nice things. Maybe she doesn’t believe in wearing pants. Maybe she thinks she’s stuck in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, it speaks to her character as a whole.
Lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my physical portrayal of people and places. I’ve made a conscious effort to include some sort of clothing description where it’s necessary, and one of my CPs mentioned the interior of my main setting seemed a bit lackluster. Needless to say, I took the time to spruce it up. I realized she was right — initially, it was just a standard house. There was nothing defining about it. Now, as I go back and edit, it’s begun to take on a personality of its own. Which goes to say that clothing doesn’t just belong on people — you can dress up a setting, too!
If you’re anything like me and prefer a visual to help you with your descriptions, the above websites should be pretty helpful. Also, take a look at polyvore.com. Not only can you create visual representations of outfits, but interiors as well! I’ve definitely found it to be a very helpful tool in certain situations.
What about you guys? Do you think clothing can be an important aspect of characterization? I’d love to hear what you have to say!
Sammy Bina graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and interned for the Elaine P. English literary agency in Washington D.C.. She is currently editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE. You can follow her blog or find her on twitter.