Talking About How Clothes Make the Character

I am a guest at Joan P. Lane’s Fashion Flashback blog, which is a great resource for readers and writers of historical fiction, and anyone else who has an interest in the history of apparel.

floozyConsidering how little attention I pay to clothes in real life as well as in my fiction — I wouldn’t know a Manolo Blahnik, if it stomped on my foot, and in fact I had to Google the names of shoe designers to get a name to make this point — it doesn’t seem as if Joan’s blog would be a good fit for a guest post for me, but it turned out to be a wonderful experience. I talked about how clothes make the character, and many people left comments, which resulted in a rousing discussion.

In the post, I explained (among other things) how I used clothes in A Spark of Heavenly Fire. One of the dramatic clothes moments in this story of a state quarantined because of a dreadful disease, is when my clothes-conscious character has to wear blood-soaked clothes for added warmth. (Actually, I don’t think I portrayed her as clothes conscious so much as self-absorbed.)

Clothing can be used as part of the stage action to show the nature of character rather than just to dress him or her. In another scene in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, a girl polishes a fingernail with the edge of her crop top, and in doing so exposes her breasts. It wasn’t a deliberate or flirtatious act on her part. She was a receptionist, and was simply polishing her nails to show her oblivion of the client standing at her desk.

A third significant clothes moment in A Spark of Heavenly Fire goes to show the depth of a woman’s character. She is big, hearty, aggressive, with a braying laugh, yet she wears feminine clothes such as challis dresses and blouses with ruffles.

So you can see that even though clothes are not a big part of my fiction, with very few words spent describing the characters’ apparel, the clothes they wear do have an impact on the story.

You can find the guest post and the ensuing discussion here: Clothes make the character.

What about you? How do you use clothes to show character or to further the plot in your story? If you don’t currently use clothes except to keep your characters from running around naked, how could you better use apparel to further your story?


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

8 Responses to “Talking About How Clothes Make the Character”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Funny you should write this: in my science fiction novel “Reborn City”, clothes are a big indicator of what gang a character belongs to, and to many of the characters, gang life is important. Also, in the book series I plan to write someday that I also plan to be my personal magnum opus–my “Dark Tower” series, if you will–my main character wears a very specific outfit, and I went through several different outfits with a similar base in mind in order to get the right effect. The current one I’m going with, which involves a long black trench coat, seems to do the trick, but it might change with time. After all, I might find an article of clothing that says, “I’m a mad man but I’m leading a revolution” better than the trench coat does.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I have used clothes in Desk Job to indicate where a character belongs on the social scale.

    Lika-lika birds don’t go anywhere without their mobile phones.

    Praying mantises like power suits with the big shoulders.This was a fashion with office women in the 1940s that has been revived numerous times. Green also suits them well.

    Hawks, male or female, are walking suits of varying types and have a smoothness of unruffled feathers about them.

    Praying mantises are damaged and are somewhat sinister. Hawks are not always the bad girls or guys but they do have that option.

    Goths love black as do the male version, the Odin Crow.

    Butterflies love anything sparkly and flirty.

    Moths tend to look like refugees from a Great Depression soup kitchen.

    In Desk Job I have a character who looks like a butterfly but actually does real work for a living. This makes her somewhat of an enigma to some of the other office characters.

    My main character, Sarah Hollingsworth, likes to dress in black and so is a Goth.

    Groups, whether they know it or not or want to or not, inevitably develop their own dress code. Even in rebellion this is done. Just look at the Punks of the late ’70s and easly ’80s. In dressing down they weren’t escaping a dress code but actually creating one of their own.

  3. mickeyhoffman Says:

    I do use them but often, like you, have to use the internet to make sure I’m on track. I just finished a book with lots of references to brands I’ve never heard of (making this worse the author is British) and it frustrated me because I felt I couldn’t get a good image in my brain. So, maybe it’s best to be more vague or the readers won’t gain any advantage at all?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Vague is good. I don’t use brand names and don’t read books that do. My characters wear generic clothes — black jeans and a peasant blouse for Mary in Daughter Am I, chinos and a white shirt for Bob in More Deaths Than One. They may not be fancy styles or name brands, but they’re easy to picture.

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