Saturday, May 6, 2023

Clothes Make the Character by Mary Dutta

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?



  1. As a reader I do notice what people are wearing -- and I start skimming if the description goes on longer than two sentences. That leads me to making sure that when I do include clothing, I only include enough to let the reader fill in the picture sufficiently accurately to serve the story.

  2. I'm remembering the incomparable Katherine Woodiwiss here. Her career began as a dresser in Hollywood. When she turned to writing, you had a complete visual of her characters. Somehow, she never overdid it. When I began writing, my beta readers reminded me that my characters were always naked. Now I pay attention to their lack of clothing and make sure they dress in the morning!

  3. You mean it's okay to wear white shoes after Labor Day? I had no idea.

    Some clothing choices can be a true shortcut to providing information about characters. Black leather jacket with bike club colors and motorcycle boots on a man in a bar. Skimpy, shiny skirt, high heels and a barely-there top on a woman standing shivering in the mouth of an alley. Hard hat and steel-toed boots on a burly person holding a huge hammer at a construction site.

  4. I like your idea of the guy all in orange as someone hiding in plain sight, Mary. On the other hand, he might turn out to be an orange herring. Nice post. I'd better go make sure my main character is wearing more than shoes and a life jacket. Although that kind of minimalism does say something about a person.

  5. One unusual detail per character: fun running shoes in bright colors, a purple hardhat at a construction site, a silver filagree hair clasp.

  6. I would have made a much better playwright than novelist—play scripts don’t include descriptions. My first drafts include very little descriptions of anything—people, setting, or clothing. I have to work hard to incorporate it in my revised versions. I’ll have to envision my characters as being naked.

  7. The clothing tells a lot about the character...and you really highlighted that in your blog. (sequins for lunch?)