JAN BROGAN: Hilary Clinton's pantsuits, Rick Santorum's sweater vests, Jimmy Carter's cardigans,and Sarah Palin's glasses.
What do they have in common? According to Time Magazine, the are among modern history's 10 top Political Fashion statements. As I read this, it made me think just how useful a single article of clothing can be. In one of the many Larry McMurtry's novels I have read, there is one I remember mostly because the character always wore a T-shirt with a stupid saying on it.
I personally find clothing tricky in writing because I'm never sure where to squeeze it in. I also am not always sure what to include -- if you start out mentioning her blouse, for example, must you itemize the remainder of her clothing, the jeans and high heels, or otherwise sound like she's going about in JUST A BLOUSE. And if the outfit isn't unique enough, or saying something about the climate, should you even bother?
In terms of creating a memorable outfit - that is, used repeatedly to mean something -- I believe I've only done it twice. In Final Copy, Addy McNeil carried a big, sloppy leather satchel that initially helped illustrate the chaos of her life,(everything was always falling out) but later the recovery of her career, as she began to use it as a prop and to collect evidence.
In Teaser, The two teenager girls in the suggestive video wore bikinis one in a bright pink, the other in lime green. The neon colors screamed youth and brashness, but their real use was as synecdoche. They became monikers for the teenagers before we knew their names. My protagonist, Hallie Ahern, would refer to them as "Lime Green" and "Pink" until she figured out their identities.
So my question Reds, is do clothes make the character? Have you ever created a truly memorable outfit for a charactes? Clothing that served more than one purpose in the scene or story? Any tips you'd care to share?
HALLIE EPHRON: Clothing can speak volumes. In "Come and Find Me," my agoraphobic main character wears furry slippers and sweatpants with a stretched-out T-shirt that says HACKER on it. I don't need to explain that she's depressed.
When Diana realizes she has to leave the house and look for her missing sisters, the only way she gets up the courage to go is by dressing up like her avatar (skinny jeans and a great leather jacket and boots) -- her avatar's outfit is the embodiment of the courageous person she once was.
What else speaks volumes is what a character has in her purse. Diana's sister carries around a copy of Vogue Magazine and a quart-sized container of hand sanitizer.
RHYS BOWEN: Because I write historical novels the clothes my characters wear tie them firmly to their period. Sometimes it's the clothing they don't wear... Molly Murphy has always refused to wear a corset, thus setting herself apart form the conventional. But she finds the clothing of the period restrictive when she has to run away or follow a suspect.
Lady Georgie is conscious that she lacks the clothes to move among the smart set and clothing has been her downfall a couple of times when she has had to act as a model--the second time for Chanel. I describe the clothing and accessories her mother and other smart women wear to remind us of the 1930s. And of course Georgie's clothing is constantly being ruined by Queenie, her hopeless maid. So I suppose you can say that clothing plays a vital role in the embarrassment of my main character.
JAN: I think one of my most favorite parts of historical research is looking up the clothes they wore. I have a fabulous book Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston that is just beautiful to look at.
LUCY BURDETTE: Maybe because I'm not a fashionista, I find it difficult to make my characters' clothing really stand out. That said, Hayley Snow wears red high top sneakers as a matter of course, which her mother hates! In book two, Mrs. Snow comes to visit bearing gifts, including a pair of fancy sandals that cause blisters immediately. The clothing item I try to remember from book to book is the yellow silk shirt with palm trees on it that all the staff (all 3!) at Key Zest wear--their company uniform. It makes Hayley look a little sallow, but it proves she's made the team...
And I almost forgot--her new housemate, Miss Gloria, is famous for sweatsuits with sequined patterns on them--palm trees, the Conch Republic flag, a map of the Keys. I have a feeling I'm predicting my future wardrobe...
JAN: I'd say red high top sneakers sound pretty memorable.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I think I want Haley's wardrobe... If any writer decided to cast me as a fictional character these days, the description would say "writer working hard on a book and not bothering with anything else." Except, of course, for the book promo events.
I love clothes on characters. Gemma never wears the standard female detective dark suit, although she sometimes envies her colleague, Melody, who does wear suits and manages to look fabulous in them. Duncan does have to wears suits when he's officially on the job, and a friend in London gave me a hint as to where the CID blokes from Scotland Yard buy their suits, so I've been in and checked them out. (The suits, not the detectives. Unfortunately, they weren't shopping that day.
And I love women's handbags and men's pockets. You can tell so much about a character by what they carry and how they carry it. In NO MARK UPON HER, Duncan has another detective list the contents of his wife's handbag to make the point.
ROSEMARY HARRIS: I have sometimes been taken to task for not providing enough info about what a character is wearing. Babe Chinnery (who is a former rock n roller and owns the diner where Paula hangs out) is a hottie of a certain age and I probably describe her outfits more than any other characters'. I sometimes describe the male and female "suburban uniforms" either when I want to make a point about how straight-laced someone is or how appearances can be deceiving.
My fave outfit from one of my books is one I want to own! In Slugfest, Paula is going to a blacktie event at a legendary flower show and she borrows and red dress, which she thinks is a little bare so she covers it with a Balenciaga jacket. Me want. I actually have her say "I guess as long as I'm wearing this dress I'll never be lonely."
Interestingly enough, someone has pointed out that I spend more time describing people's teeth!
HANK PHIL LIPPI RYAN: Ah, Jan, sometimes I just say one thing the person is wearing--a nine-year-old boy "his spindly arms flailing in a too-big red Sox t-shirt", a guy in a bar wearing "a fashionably wrinkled flannel shirt, fashionably untucked." Jane Ryland (a reporter in The Other Woman) always wears a black turtleneck and jeans. But it is a minefield. The other day I had to check with my college-student intern: "When you see a person wearing a baseball cap, bill in the back," I said, "Do you consider that on backwards or forward?"
JAN: Thanks, Hank, that helps actually, Anybody else have good advice on how to clothe our characters or have any insight into just how important or unimportant it might be?