The Importance of Fashion in Fiction

Characters don’t just wear clothes, they appear throughout their world in costume. How do you make fashion choices for your characters?

Clothes Cover Our Actions

The clothes don’t make the man. But they do change his mind.

Our appearance changes how we think, how we act, how we present ourselves. Think of yourself as a character in a play, and your clothing choices as costume changes.

We perform our personality – our inner thoughts about who we are – through our actions. When we want someone to think we are a certain way, we present ourselves that way; we perform actions that we think will make others perceive us a certain way. (Note: I’m using “performative” here more loosely than Butler, focusing not only on gender but on personality as a whole. Personality – if you didn’t know – is a very tricky field of psychological study. I mean performative more akin to Ahern’s discussion here.)

You know this. It’s why you dress the part for job interviews – and why you probably button up your language along with your suit jacket. It’s why you might feel more girly when you wear something pink and sparkly. It’s why you might seem to feel more confident behind sunglasses, where no one can see your eyes.

Writing tip of the day: dress your characters

Characters in novels, or even non-fiction manuscripts, are not much different than characters in a play or movie. They need different costumes for different events, and what they wear should affect who they are, on some level.

When you introduce your characters, describing their choice of clothing and general style should indicate to the reader a great deal about the way your character performs their inner vision of themselves.

As you put the character into each subsequent scene, jot out what they are wearing, and how it affects their body language. You might not include a full description of every outfit, but to help yourself set the scene, a list of the character’s “look” might be helpful. You can always throw it in the scrap pile during editing.

Writing tip #2: people move in their clothes

Accessories may make a woman move more awkwardly than she would otherwise; a man might be constantly yanking up pants that need a belt but don’t have one. Maybe the woman is self-conscious about her jangling bracelets and clattering necklaces and trying not to draw attention, but the man is oblivious to his crude, sloppy appearance.

Whether it’s what they always wear and the way they always move, or it’s outside of their normal fashion range and makes them nervous or uncomfortable, the reader should see your characters perform (as themselves) in their clothes. Don’t merely show the reader the color or shape of your characters’ clothing, but the ways fashion affects the people themselves.

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