Writing in Style (Or Style in Writing?)

15 Jun

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.


22 Responses to “Writing in Style (Or Style in Writing?)”

  1. hannahkarena June 15, 2011 at 12:08 AM #

    Clothing definitely adds really important details. I did a lot of research when writing my historical fiction novel to figure out not only what kind of clothes my main character would be wearing, but what they were made of and how she would make them. I ended up learning that they didn’t have buttons in the Middle Ages, only ties, and very very rarely died their clothes colors. So glad I looked into it because there would be nothing worse than to get criticized for historical inaccuracy!

    In contemporary fiction I think clothes are a great way to characterize someone, but at the same time, I can never fit it in without it sounding like an out of place, chunky description paragraph. And when I read it in books it usually comes off super fashion-magazine report. Any examples of where it can be used smoothly in prose?

    • Sammy Bina June 15, 2011 at 12:27 AM #

      Researching historical clothing is SO fascinating! Honestly, that class I took was probably one of the best ideas I ever had, even if it had nothing to do with my degree and I had to fib slightly to even get in. I learned so much, and I really hope I can put it to good use at some point.

      Unfortunately, I don’t really have any prime examples of non-chunky clothing description on hand because all my books are currently packed away. Off hand, I’m trying to recall TWILIGHT (which, I admit, is probably a terrible example, but it’s late, and I can’t think of anything better). It’s been forever and a half since I opened that book, but I recall SMeyer noting that Edward always wore light colors, or something to that effect. (I’m sorry. Like I said, probably a terrible example.)

  2. maybellestyle June 15, 2011 at 12:10 AM #

    As a visualizer myself, setting and description come naturally to me. So I love playing with atmosphere and perspective (though I’ve been told I go overboard sometimes – I’ve been trying “active/significant” as opposed to “fluffy” descriptions. Clothes speak to me too. I picked up on it after I read books by Tanith Lee – her characters are wonderfully dressed (and she has this awesome sense of style, too!) One of my favourite “outfits” was amber silk edged with blue roses, and dark sapphire bracelets, for a girl with black hair and pale skin. I digress, but you get the point! Her fashion pieces reveal character in unforgettable ways. I think the outfit thing works with fantasy too – more imagination, too.

    • Sammy Bina June 15, 2011 at 12:28 AM #

      I’ve never heard of Tanith Lee, but I may have to look into this!

      And I totally agree, I think you can totally get away with some crazy stuff clothing-wise in the fantasy and sci-fi department! Maybe that’s part of why I like science fiction…

  3. Ellen Levy-Sarnoff June 15, 2011 at 12:22 AM #

    I agree. Just as clothing makes the person, clothing can make the character. Moreover, the color of a characters clothing can give you great insight into the character’s personality. A fashionista myself, I am alway curious to learn what a character is wearing. Sometimes, it can create bonding and other times, love-to-hate repulsion. A little description goes a long way.

    • Sammy Bina June 15, 2011 at 12:29 AM #

      “A little description goes a long way.”

      I agree 110%.

  4. Martha Ramirez June 15, 2011 at 12:24 AM #

    This is a GREAT reminder, Sammy! Thank you so much. I think one of my mss could use a pick me up clothing tour:)

    • Sammy Bina June 15, 2011 at 12:30 AM #

      Sometimes we all need a little reminder — glad I could help! Hopefully some of the websites I mentioned are useful! If anything, you should just look at the KCI archives because they’re AMAZING.

  5. Martha Ramirez June 15, 2011 at 12:38 AM #

    Very cool sites!

  6. laradunning June 15, 2011 at 1:17 AM #

    Clothing definately helps create the character. No matter the time or era. I always admire the clothing in period piece movies as they are so rich with “life gone by.” Thanks for the links, they might come in handy someday.

    • Sammy Bina June 17, 2011 at 1:19 AM #

      Have you seen Bright Star? First, it’s a FANTASTIC movie. Secondly, it’s one of the most accurate period pieces, in terms of clothing, ever. Guh. ❤

  7. Marc Vun Kannon June 15, 2011 at 5:49 AM #

    Not something I’ve thought of before. I always thought of clothing as functional, but never as a way to reveal the character of the man wearing it.

    • Sammy Bina June 17, 2011 at 1:20 AM #

      It’s definitely the first thing most people think of! But it really can say a lot about a character if done right.

  8. Rowenna June 15, 2011 at 8:56 AM #

    Another fantabulous historical site–the Met Museum Costume institute. Most of their collection is online and browsable or searchable: http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/the_costume_institute. Clearly I’m a huge historical clothing geek! But even within historical clothing, working within a defined, researched frame, you can still define a character with clothes. People still had personal style, and I love thinking about how characters would express themselves with their clothing!

    You’re right, too, that little details can say a lot–just mentioning that a girl is wearing a string of pearls or biker boots tells you a lot about how she wants to be seen.

    • Sammy Bina June 17, 2011 at 1:21 AM #

      Darling, were you the one who told us about the KCI archives originally? Because if you were, I owe you, like, a billion and one thank-yous! The Met one is ALSO awesome! God, I know what I’m doing the rest of the night.

  9. Savannah J. Foley June 15, 2011 at 11:23 AM #

    Wow, awesome links Sammy! I’m totally going to use that Victorian dress style for help on my steampunk.

    • Sammy Bina June 17, 2011 at 1:22 AM #

      Do iiiiiit!

      God, I love Victorian dress. Like, a lot. One of these days I need to write a period piece, just so I can do more clothing research.

  10. Mac_V June 16, 2011 at 10:46 AM #

    I definitely think it helps characterize a person, especially if fashion is a big part of his or her life. I can’t help but think of Evie in Paranormalcy because her wardrobe is one of the few things she has some control of. What she wears and her accessories help define who she is. I definitely think it’s important. Not to mention you can indicate things about setting through clothing– whether its hot or cold or where they might be in the world depending on colors. Clothes can tell a lot about characters and your story. I definitely think it’s important. I’m totally bookmarking that website! That is brilliant! Thanks for the lovely post!

    Mer 🙂

    • Sammy Bina June 17, 2011 at 1:24 AM #

      Evie is a PERFECT example, Mer! Thanks! Way better than my TWILIGHT example (which I still think is probably wrong anyway). The fact that she bedazzles her tazer says a lot just by itself.

      I need to reread that book, come to think of it…

  11. Julie Eshbaugh June 16, 2011 at 11:05 AM #

    Great post Sammy! I’m writing a period story right now, and I LOVE researching the clothes. Fashion really is a great aid to characterization. Thanks for this!

    • Sammy Bina June 17, 2011 at 1:25 AM #

      I think writing is the only time I’ve ever enjoyed doing research :-p

  12. Caitlin Vanasse June 21, 2011 at 1:26 PM #

    Clothes can really shape someone’s mood or personality too. Two artistscreate illustrations of characters from dresses and old clothing they find online and the variety and personality the glean from the challenge is amazing. You can see thier work here: http://drawthisdress.tumblr.com/

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