Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 16, 2023

Characterize with Clothing Choices

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?

Jobs and Careers

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.

Temporal and Geographic Markers

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.

Interests and Hobbies

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.

Financial Status

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

  • Scars, skin conditions, or other imperfections
  • Signs of physical abuse
  • A pregnancy
  • Their financial standing
  • An aspect of their identity or heritage that they’re rejecting
  • Beliefs that would make them unpopular
  • Insecurity and self-doubt
  • Their emotional state

Does your character have something to hide? How could you show that through their clothing?

Mental/Emotional State

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.

Final Thoughts

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?

* * * * * *

About Becca

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.

Top Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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20 comments on “Characterize with Clothing Choices”

  1. I've been writing for a long time, with fourteen novels published, and while I've used clothing for some characterization, I've never looked as deeply as this. Thank you for a NEW tool in my toolbox! I'm excited to go back through my WIP and incorporate it.

    1. Yes, the "hiding" piece is a subtle one. The character isn't going to be talking about what they're hiding, and they may not even be directly thinking about it. But their thoughts will circle whatever it is they're keeping secret, and as with any big secret, there will be other cues that the character is hiding something. So pairing clothing choices with those other cues can clued readers into what's going on.

  2. I love this, Becca. I use clothing a lot to give unspoken clues about some characters personalities. I've also used clothing style changes to show the evolution of the main character in my James McCarthy series. In my current WIP, I use changes in clothing, hair, and skin tone to show mood changes in some of the characters.

  3. Loved this comprehensive post. I utilized some of these but must incorporate more of your ideas in my fiction. Thank you, Becca!

    P.S.- I always recommend the Thesaurus series to people in my writers group and to anyone else who is interested in the craft.

  4. If clothing is used to hide maxillofacial differences, whether congenital or otherwise, make sure you're not using ableist slurs or language to describe what they're hiding. Same goes for other medical diseases, conditions, or disabilities.

    Scars don't make one imperfect. That's an assigned and conformist value under ableism.

    1. This is a good point, Denise. We always want to be careful in this area. But I would say that your viewpoint is an evolved one——it's where we wish everyone was——but many people (and characters) just aren't there yet; if someone has experienced an event that has left physical scars, a journey to acceptance will often follow, and they often will hide their scars before they get to the point of being comfortable with them. So a character in this situation is likely to use clothing to mask those marks.

  5. I have a signature dress that one of my characters wears. It says a lot about her status and her job. It also shows up elsewhere in the series and I'm having fun weaving in that meaning. Your post is a fun take on clothes making the character. Love it!

    1. So interesting! This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry was dating the girl who seemed to always be wearing the same dress, and he became obsessed with finding out why :). I'm glad you've found a way to use your character's clothing meaningfully.

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