As any writer knows, clothes also make (and define) the character. Think about it: Who's Mark Zuckerberg without his hoodie? Or Steve Jobs without his black turtleneck, jeans and New Balance?
Whether you’re writing about a fashionista or a stay-at-home-Mom, a tomboy, a 1920’s flapper, a surfer, an East Village artist or a Queen, modern or otherwise, the characters will be different and their clothes will be different.
An Annie Hall look projects one kind of heroine; a little black dress and sunglasses à la Audrey Hepburn another. Whether you’re writing about Madonna or Lady Gaga, Michelle Bachman or Michelle Obama, about Catherine the Great or the girl next door, their clothes are your secret weapon and a crucial part of the author’s tool kit, an essential way to bring your characters into focus for yourself—and for your readers.
By the way, speaking of writing about a Queen, did you know that Queen Elizabeth’s skirts are weighted so that no errant gust of wind can blow her skirt up? Never a photo of with the Queen’s underpinnings hanging out. ;-) Interesting tid-bit and just the kind of info that can give a scene or a character another and very intriguing dimension.
Some actors say that finding the “right” shoes for the character they’re about to play is key. Shoes on chick lit covers have edged into cliché territory. Cliché—but effective! Jennifer Weiner went even further and acknowledged the importance of footwear in a title: In Her Shoes.
The fashionista will be hobbling around in stilettos, the surfer in flip-flops, the tomboy in Nikes, the artist in Doc Martens, the Lauren Hutton type in jeans and Topsiders. They look different, they walk different, they talk different.
What your characters say and the way they say it helps define them: a bit of faux French for the fashionista? Chat about pediatrician recommendations for the Mom? NFL scandals and World Series stats for the tomboy? References to Renoir and Warhol for the artist? Safari tips from Lauren Hutton?
Everyone loves food and reading about it. Think of all the “cupcake” covers or James Bond’s haute cuisine choices.
The fashionista will lunch at the latest, trendy bistro, Mom will eat whatever the kids don’t, the tomboy will scarf down a hot dog at the baseball game, the artist will go organic or maybe vegan. Where they go, who they meet, who they fall in love with—in essence your plot—will all derive from your characters as revealed by their wardrobes.
Twists and surprises.
Take the fashionista out of the trendy bistro, put her into vegan lunch counter and you have the beginnings of a plot. What will she think of the bearded video artist who, apparently needing to make a little money, serves her the organic sprout sandwich? What will he think of her? Intrigue? Disdain? Conflict maybe? Leading to sparks?
Then the twist: the “starving” artist working in an organic luncheonette turns out to be a good-guy Department of Health Inspector and the fashionista turns out to be the devil in (knock-off) Prada. Looks can speak honestly or looks can deceive. The twists and turns are up to the writer but clothes, well-described, can launch an engaging, twisty plot.
Whatever your character wears—or doesn’t wear—underneath his/her clothes counts. Come on, we’re writing fiction—romance, adventure, horror, mystery, erotica. We’ve got to get them undressed, too, don’t we?
The unexpected shock of Fruit-of-the Loom white cotton under the fashionista’s haute couture? Does Mom flaunt lacy, silky undies from Paris? A sequined thong for the tomboy? Or is super sexy Victoria’s Secret the secret our surfer is hiding? And what about the rule-breaking downtown artist? A bullet bra maybe?
If you’re writing historicals, don’t forget that corsets were abandoned in the 1920’s, that underwire bras became popular in the 1950’s and that recently a bra dating from the Middle Ages was found in Austria.
Let’s not forget our heroes, either, the bad boys and the good ones. After, all, athletes aren’t called jocks for nothing!
Does the powerful executive in his custom-tailored Saville Road duds indulge in a silk g-string underneath? The electro-punk musician in tightie whities? What is that superhero wearing under his tights and cape? What, if anything, comes between that cool and clever assassin and his Calvins?
Is that honest politician (this is fiction we’re talking about, right?) wearing Spanx under his drab off-the-rack suit?
To finish where we started, I’m about to make a confession. MTwain’s entire quote reads: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
Much as we love, respect, and admire you, Mr. Twain, we beg to differ. After all, we’re writers and we know better!
Ruth Harris, million-copy NYTimes bestselling author
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THREE WOMEN. THREE DECADES. Spanning the years from the optimistic post-War 1940s to the Mad Men 1950s and rule-breaking "Make Love, Not War" 1960s, DECADES is about three generations of women who must confront the radical changes and upended expectations of the turbulent decades in which they lived.
"The songs we sang, the clothes we wore, the way we made love. Absolutely perfect!" --Publisher's Weekly