by Becca Puglisi
“Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.”
This quote by Karl Lagerfeld is pretty heady. I’m still chewing on it, but what I gather is that clothing and other appearance choices are one way we interpret and reflect reality—the reality of who we are, of our passions. Sometimes, it’s the reality we want to project (as opposed to what’s actually real).
In this way, a character’s clothes can say a lot about them as individuals. As writers, we should always be looking for characterization opportunities that allow us to reveal truths about our characters in natural ways. And clothing choices, as mundane as they may seem, can be a great way to do this. Just zero in on a few details about your character’s clothes, and BAM! You’ve revealed crucial information without having to state it outright.
So, what can fashion choices tell us about a character?
Does your protagonist have a job that requires a uniform? Have them head into the coffee shop wearing their hospital scrubs, stained mechanic’s coveralls, three-piece suit, or steel-toed boots and work belt. By referencing their work clothes, you won’t have to mention their profession overtly.
If the story takes place in a different time or location, your character’s fashion choices can clue readers in to the where and when. Show your protagonist in crinolines and a corset, a tartan kilt and clan badges, or bellbottoms and a halter top. Use context clues to introduce futuristic, paranormal, or otherworldly wardrobe items. Let a few carefully chosen clothing details show readers where and when your character is living.
Because clothing choices are deeply personal, they can reflect certain aspects of personality. Looking at the main cast of Stranger Things, you wouldn’t define them as haute couture; they’re self-defined nerds with little fashion sense, and their clothes reflect this. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Cruella from the movie of the same name. Antisocial is her defining trait, and her fashion choices consistently fly in the face of what’s popular, traditional, and accepted.
A character who is flamboyant will dress differently than someone who is simple or traditional or lazy. Our personality absolutely influences how we dress, so know your character’s dominant traits, and outfit them accordingly.
In specific cases, clothing can quickly establish certain aspects of identity. Traditional cultural garb, like a sari, kimono, or yarmulke, can point to the character’s heritage. The same is true if their dress associates them with a certain group of people, such as the LGBTQ+ community.
Want to show your character’s interests? Put them in fan merch from a favorite band or a t-shirt sporting a social justice slogan. Reveal their K-Pop obsession by having them show up to a block party looking like a member of BTS. One of the things that makes us each unique is our individual passions. Show those off for your character through their wardrobe.
You can’t learn much from someone who looks just like everyone else. But if they take pains to individualize their appearance, it says something about them. Wearing colorful knee socks with a school uniform, only wearing certain colors, or making their own uniquely styled clothes are all ways to show that a character is swimming against the current. More information is needed for readers to know exactly how or why they’re different, but clothing is a good starting point for revealing this desire to break from the pack.
As we all know, clothes come with a variety of price tags. Some are cheap while others are wildly expensive. A character who dresses in name brands, wears only natural fibers, or shops at trendy boutiques is likely to have a bigger bank account than someone wearing hand-me-downs or generic clothes from Target.
Of course, the expensive clothes could be a smokescreen meant to convey the image of wealth. We see this with Coriolanus Snow in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
This book, like the original Hunger Games, opens on the day of a reaping, when Snow will learn which tribute he’ll be mentoring. Assignments reflect prestige and status, which is especially important for Snow because his family has secretly fallen into poverty. He’s got to maintain appearances, and we see this in the opening pages as he meticulously picks out his clothes for the big announcement. He has splurged on a black-market pair of pants, and his tired shirt is transformed with dyes, extra purloined cloth, and a fashion-savvy cousin’s needle and thread. He shows up to his meeting looking like any wealthy Capitol citizen, but it’s all a ruse that is carried off by his clothing.
This is something to keep in mind—that looks can be deceiving, and some fashion choices are meant to portray an image that isn’t real. Those false choices, in and of themselves, can be very telling to readers.
So, while clothing can reveal truths about a character, it can also be used to conceal those truths. Fashion choices could be deliberately made to hide things, such as
Does your character have something to hide? How could you show that through their clothing?
Sometimes, a person’s fashion choices can hint at how they’re doing mentally or emotionally—namely, when their clothes change unexpectedly and no longer match their personality. If a fashion-conscious or fastidious character starts living in threadbare leggings and stained shirts, that’s a clue that something is going on with them. Likewise, when an emo character suddenly starts wearing bright colors and clothing with cheery slogans, readers will sit up and take notice because it doesn’t fit with what they know about them.
It’s clear that clothing can be used to reveal certain truths. But the clothes themselves don’t always allow for a complete interpretation because they can mean different things. Rumpled sweats and mismatched socks may be a sign of emotional distress, but it also could just mean the character is a slob. Or their washing machine is broken. For clarity about the why, pair clothing choices with dialogue, thoughts, body language, and environmental factors to provide context.
And lay the foundation early for readers about what’s normal for the character. Know their personality, preferences, interests, and personal identity well. Identify what they embrace about themselves and what they’ll downplay. Once you’ve really gotten to know your character, you can write them clearly and consistently for readers. Then, when their appearance changes, readers will know something is going on, and the meaning behind the shift will be more obvious.
I hope this post gives you some ideas about how to make your character’s clothes do double-duty. But, of course, it doesn’t cover everything. Can you think of other truths wardrobe choices can reveal about a character?
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 1 million copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog.
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