I always err on the side of sequins.
In the last month, I’ve had three events—a wedding, an awards banquet, and a black-tie gala—that required dressing up. For me, such special occasions mean wearing something sparkly. That confluence of festive occasions got me thinking about clothes, the choices we make for ourselves, and those we as writers make for our characters.
Variations of “clothes make the man” date back to classical times. Do my sparkling ensembles reflect my sparkling personality? Or a need for some sartorial pizzazz to compensate for the lack of one? What about those forgoing the bling? Are they understated? Or undercover? What does it say about a character if he wears a Rolex? What if he’s wearing a fake one? How does a character feel about being overdressed or underdressed compared to the people around them?
Clothing can provide a useful shorthand in our writing. For instance, in my story “The Wonderworker,” one character expresses her New England preppiness through penny loafers and a lightship basket purse. In “Devil’s Advocate,” the protagonist dreams of wearing a polo with the logo of the golf club he longs to join. And in the forthcoming “Deceit by Design,” nautical-themed attire pegs a woman as a cruise passenger.
Some famous fictional detectives have their own trademark clothes, of course, like Sherlock Holmes’s deerstalker hat, or the hard-boiled detective’s trench coat and fedora. But clothing conventions for the rest of us shift over time. My sequins remain inappropriate for a funeral, but I remember when you couldn’t wear black to a wedding. And my mother only wore white between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Those latter fashion choices are no longer faux pas.
Our writing needs to stay current with those cultural markers or we’ve wasted an opportunity to convey a lot about a character with a small detail about what they’re wearing. Style is both a public statement and a very personal thing. Even better, it’s an unlimited resource for writers.
How much do you notice what characters are wearing? And how much do you use clothing to indicate character?