Monday, April 9, 2012

Do Clothes Make the Character?

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?


  1. I'm also not a fashionista, so I'm probably not as attuned to what characters are wearing. I tend to describe it if it's different or tells something about them or the situation.

    For example, in one scene after the death of her husband and what she thinks is the arrest for his murder of her ex-husband, one character in Every Last Secret shows up at Skeet's office in tailored slacks with a worn, stained sweatshirt and sneakers. This helps demonstrate her upset state and her loss of control and order in her life.

  2. Much better to do it the way Linda does. I tend to think name-dropping labels to help describe a character is a bit like cheating although sometimes there's no getting around it - if the guy's wearing a Tom Ford tux or a Grateful Dead t-shirt it's a pretty good indicator of who he is.

    I remember the early Judith Krantz books - I think there was a lot of label-dropping in them. You instantly knew who the characters were by their Louis Vuitton bags and Porthault sheets.

  3. Linda, I think it probably really depends on the story and milleiu, right?

    And sometimes I go for scenes and scenes where we have no idea what anyone is wearing and I hope we don't care.

    Ro, in a NYC/tri-state based book - designer labels make sense. A lot of sense,

    Alaska tundra and Outback. Not so much.

    (unless maybe you are talking Northface....)

  4. As a reader, one of my pet peeves is having to read detailed descriptions of what characters are wearing! Unless their clothing is crucial to the story line, I don't really care! I usually skim over, or skip entirely, that sort of description. It's usually easy to get a feel for whether or not the clothing someone is wearing actually matters. It sort of annoys me when an average person in a novel is described as wearing designer clothing. I always wonder how the person can afford it - I sure can't! An author I stopped reading a long time ago would go on and on about the designer outfits worn by all the women in the books, and it had no bearing whatsoever on what happened in the story. I could understand all these descriptions if the character was a spendthrift and the author wanted to illustrate that by describing what the person spends her money on.

    But I must also say that I enjoy reading about Lady Georgie's clothing issues!

  5. Jan, I think you're right. If I were writing about an upward-striving young woman in NYC, I'd need to be writing much more about what everyone was wearing. Luckily, I'm writing about a woman police officer in the Midwest who notices details of clothing if they give her clues to the person's state of mind, etc. Not so fashion-oriented. Which doesn't mean that all women out here aren't. Some could give Judith Krantz a run for her money.

    Also, the B&N mystery expert named EVERY LAST SECRET as one of the month's must-reads! Lots of happy dancing around here.

  6. Putting Nora Blackbird in vintage couture was a big writing mistake for me. Readers seem to love her clothes, so now I'm stuck doing tons of fashion research. Can I deduct a Vogue subscription on my taxes? Hope so, because I'm definitely an LL Bean kinda girl.

  7. Congrats, Linda! That's wonderful news!

  8. Linda, I definitely want to read Every Last Secret because during the Munchkin's adoption I once went to the office of She Who Must Be Obeyed (the social worker) in a similar outfit. Luckily I caught sight of "the crazy woman" in the lobby, realized it was me and went back home again.

    When I do talk about my characters' clothing I tend to focus on footwear, probably because I'm obsessed with comfortable shoes in real life.

  9. OH, yes, Nancy--Deduct Vogue. And then let us knoww hat happens...

    Here's something I used--Linda, your story reminded me! One day I was so tired --I think it was the Monday after BOuchercon--that I came to work with two different shoes. I mean--a different style of shoe on each foot. You know what I mean.

    So in THE WRONG GIRL (in progress) I have a character who is so distressed that she hasn't noticed her socks don't match.

  10. Yes, Hank, it seems to me that showing the state of the character's state of mind or quirks of personality. I have a former model, current New Age bookstore owner who flits around in pastels and chiffons as part of her facade, though she's actually quite shrewd.

  11. LOL, Darlene! I chose that outfit for her because I'd done that myself when upset about a son brought to the emergency room.

  12. Hank, that's the Barbara Bush look!

    Linda, hooray for you--congratulations!

    And Nancy, yes to Vogue. You could have more suspicious expenses that a magazine subscription:)

  13. Jan, I enjoy description of any kind. I find it disconcerting to read a book that is all plot movement without community, unless it feels like filler.

    Hallie, I love your description of Diana's changing her clothes to regain her courage. I used to try to melt into the background of my power wheelchair when I had to go out, not realizing it made me invisible and made my chair more of a focus. When I realized what I'd been doing, I started to dress the way I had when I'd been most confident. It does help - not just in getting out but also in being more visible as a person.

  14. Jan, let me try that again: I enjoy description of any kind. I find it disconcerting to read a book that is all plot movement without community, unless the description feels like filler.

  15. Jan, I'm probably driving everyone crazy with this, so maybe I shouldn't, but I need to try again: I enjoy description of any kind, unless it feels like filler.

  16. Linda,
    Congrats on the B&N honor.

    Hank, last night I noticed my son's socks didn't match, which I pointed out to him. He said, "ma, I've stopped thinking of socks in terms of having to match."

    So maybe you are ahead of the curve on shoes.

    And Nancy, YES to Vogue.

  17. Reine,

    I really love good description in writing, too. Some of the details that bore other people, really help put me in the scene.

    What I find is that new writers often load the first chapter with too much description of everything. Everything that is and everything that ever happened.

    I call it "History of the World."

  18. Actually,

    I have to change that, not "new" writers. It's pretty much every writer starting a new book. I think we all do it, maybe because we are still telling ourselves the story.

  19. Linda, congratulations... headed over to the B&N page to have a look! I preordered EVERY LAST SECRET, did I tell you... cannot wait. Now that you mentioned that publishers take pre-orders into account (and why wouldn't they, but I hadn't thought of it), I am preordering all the books - especially the Reds' - that I am going to buy.

    Jan, that is a huge, good tip about not loading the first chapter with tons of description. Thanks!

  20. I love this post, ladies. But then clothing is critical to my characters, whether it is Lacey's vintage or a politician's impeccable suit. In my books, what people wear always tells stories about them, their background, social status, or who they want to be. And yes, I've had people come up to me and say they will never read my books because they don't care about fashion.

    I don't care for books that simply drop label names without description, it may be shorthand for fashionistas but I'm not writing for them. I dislike it when characters never change out of their jeans.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  21. Nancy, yes by all means, subscribe to Vogue and tell the IRS it's a professional research expense. Hey, if trips to Italy work, why not magazine subscriptions?

    Jan, thanks. And I LOVE your son's attitude toward socks. Also, I'm choking with laughter over "THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD." Perfect description. I think the difference between new writers and those more experienced is just that the more experienced go back in revisions and chop out a couple of chapters' worth of infodump.

  22. Reine, until I got into this, I never knew about the importance of pre-orders, either. And I'd been in other types of publishing for years.
    Now, I try to pre-order everyone's book.Especially the Reds!

  23. Yes, pre-orders. BIG BIG DEAL.

    And matching..hmm. I've taken to wearing two different earrings..they're similar, but not identical, Because I always lose them. And so I figured--who cares? They're only gonna see one ear at a time anyway. And, character wise, it means nothing. Well, except that I lose earrings.. SO, there's a good one.

  24. Congrats, Linda!
    I am trying to describe clothing less than in my earlier books and to make any description of same key to understanding the character or also have it provide setting/plot clues. Not sure how well I'm doing yet. . .
    In a similar vein, I've started a Pinterest board for Gigi Goldman, the well-off but taste-challenged protag in my Swift Investigations series, and am calling it Gigi's Closet. So much more fun to find her some duds and pin them there than to make them up out of my head!

  25. Laura-huh? Now you lost me. Can we see that?

    And someday can we have a chat about describing furniture? That is my bete noir...

  26. Hank--
    Pinterest: . Newish social media site where the interaction is primarily visual. (You don't do much writing.) You create a "pinboard" on any topic you choose--Fave Vacay Spots, Pets, Shoes I Wish I Owned--and then find photos that fit the category and "pin" them on the board with a comment (optional). You accumulate "followers" who like your boards and you can "follow" people whose boards you like.
    Roberta knows what I'm talking about!

  27. I confess I love clothes in real life and also love reading about them. Clothes can say a lot about a character and it's fun to visualize what contemporary characters would look like walking around the mall (I'm writing this sitting at a café window). I write historicals so describing clothing is part of the period atmosphere as well as defining the characters. In one of my books I had a Bow Street Runner think that the heroine "looked like a woman who always wore earrings" which I thought said a lot about her.

  28. Laura,
    My kids have told me about Now I'm really going to have to check it out.


    I'm writing my first historical and finding the clothing FASCINATING!


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