Fashion Police: How To Dress Your Characters

Let’s talk about clothes. I mean, in writing. Not that I don’t like talking about A-Line skirts and empire waists. I can be quite the fashionista if given half the chance.

But clothes, jewelry, shoes, and hair is important for your stories as well. It can be a language unto its own. It can communicate with the reader in subtle and interesting ways. It’s also often overlooked, perhaps because an interest in fashion is often viewed as shallow or uninteresting.

I once had a conversation with a writer who took care to put his male characters in clothing with specific logos, brands, colors, etc. He was aware of the message of his 3-piece-suited villain versus his flip-flopped protagonist. The girls, on the other hand, all wore sundresses.

When I pointed this out to him, he shrugged and told me he had no idea what girls wore so he put them in the same thing. He was certainly missing an opportunity.

Three very different characters. Three very different styles.

Historical fictions and epic fantasies tend to do clothing best, perhaps because there is real research that can be done. In these novels it gives the world a sense of depth and it also signals social shifts, dangers, or transgressions without coming right out and saying them.

For instance, if a novel has all of the royal family and court constantly dressing in red and gold, the color of their house, the sudden appearance of someone in blue and silver creates tension instantly. There’s no need to explain why he doesn’t belong. We already know something is suspect.

Fashion is always used to communicate. Take the high heel, for instance. King Louis XIV created a law that only aristocrats could wear heels, and only royalty could wear red heels. Recently a high fashion line of very expensive shoes sued to patent their red heels. High red heels are a sign of status once again!

The best way to build a wardrobe for your characters is to pay attention to the clothes around you. Do research into historical clothes. Look at what people are wearing in magazines (especially high fashion magazines as it tends to be weirder).

Clothing is an important part of world building. It is the first way in which your characters adapt themselves to their environment and it bears serious consideration. You’ll find that, even if it doesn’t make a star appearance in your next story, even considering it can give your world and characters more depth and detail.

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