do the clothes maketh the man (or dog)?

via BeanTownHandmade

I read a blog post today about characters' hats. This got me thinking. None of my characters have ever worns hats! I don't think I really think about their clothes. In fact I think often I deliberately avoid describing them altogether!

I think I'm always far more interested in what's going on internally for my characters rather than what colour their shirt or knickers are, and whether or not they match.

I detail articles of clothing and appearance if they are deliberate (ie. a disguise) or if it says something specific about the character. One of the characters in my WIP, Pig-nose Pamela (age 10), wears a pair of old yellow ear-muffs - rain, hail or sunshine. It's a part of her persona: "She lives in the school library, reading and re-reading the two books available on flesh eating insects. She was plagued with a fear that a bug would crawl into her ear one night, and eat her brain." (More here.) The ear-muffs also make her look crazy and augment her position as an outcast.

How about the dog in the picture above? Lets call him Pablo (am I the only one who imagines that if Pablo could speak, it would be in Spanish with a haughty Mexican accent?). Yes his hat is entertaining and definately worth describing, but it's the combination of the hat and the look in his eyes that are most interesting.
To me his eyes speak of deep resevoirs of wisdom, dignity and also a peaceful resignation to fate. Pablo knows his intellectual superiority to his owners full well, but he has resigned himself to the fact that others are in control of his destiny. A destiny which, it would seem, mainly has to do which wearing cutie-pie hats.

While I find descriptions of articles of clothing tedious. I do think that they matter, but how to do them well? 

Would it help if we thought of clothing as another characterisation tool, rather than an arbitrary commentary. Clothes can denote social status, the time/era the story is set in, how a character sees herself - insecure, ugly, confident - or the way they want to be seen -  seductive, superior. It may be a case of exercising a bit of restraint and only describing articles of clothing that help or hinder the character, or that reveal something about the character.

How do you describe clothing in your writing? What other ways can clothes be used as a tool rather than a report? Also, if you have a contemporary character who would just wear jeans and a t-shirt, would you describe this? How would you do it in a way that was not boring? What do jeans and a t-shirt tell us about your character?


  1. At first I thought I was the same as you -- that I don't really think about what my characters are wearing, but then again, maybe I do a bit. I know my character is fashion conscious because she comments on other people's lack of fashion sense! LOL! And she notices what the guys in her life are wearing ... but I don't describe what she's wearing. Part of that might be because I'm writing first person and she's thankfully not so incredibly shallow that her world revolves around what she looks like. :)

    Good post! This made me think about something I hadn't been conscious of before.


  2. I don't enjoy reading a list of what a character is wearing, but a few key things, like their hat or shoes, give a good idea.

    Great post. Hmm, I suspect my post inspired it. ;)

    Adorable dog! LOL

  3. A.L - I'm glad it got you thinking, it's got me thinking too! I don't think about what they are wearing much - unless they are practical things like a raincoat and gumboots (wellies?). ButI wonder if readers will sit there wondering "what on earth is this person wearing?" I don't do that when I read a novel, but then I may be a minority?

    Amanda - it certainly was your post about hats that got me thinking about this :) Thanks for popping by!

  4. I do imagining him speaking in a haughty mexican accent! Ha! I was just thinking that before you said it...

    I love that about the yellow earmuffs, and I think you're right. If clothing helps as a characterization then it's a good thing. If it's not, then it's just annoying.

  5. Ditto Pablo's accent (having a bit of fun with that!) anyway- as you know I just finished Bird by Bird and from memory re clothes- Anne says write them in as you get to know your character and then take them out later if they don't fit (as in the snazzy shark skin jacket). Importantly like @achinghope is that you remove them if they don't work later after you read your first shitty draft :) Love your blog BTW!