Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dressing Down Your Novel

Clothes play a big part in most novels, especially when the genre is historical.

Researching the clothing to get it right is as important as nailing the social mores of the time period. I actually taught a History of Fashion course at a junior college when I lived in Boston, but that’s another story.

Writers have different perspectives on how to treat clothing and facial descriptions. Some prefer to limit the way a character looks and/or dresses because they’d rather have the reader’s image prevail. Others describe every part of the wardrobe, every mole on the character’s face.

I’m in between. Description for me has to mean something, convey something. Describing the clothing is synonymous with describing the character. Is the male character wearing well-worn jeans, or are the jeans pressed with a sharp crease? Is he wearing a polo shirt or a starched dress shirt with those jeans? Is his hair long and shaggy, or does he have a nice, neat trim. Beard, bristle, or clean-shaven? See? Those descriptions paint a picture of the character.

I was a fashion illustration major in college. When a friend tempted me (it wasn’t difficult) to travel to Rome, Italy, with her for a year after college, I was lucky enough to connect with the reporter who covered Rome for Women’s Wear Daily. I accompanied her to the different fashion houses of the day to draw their collections. I met Valentino, and a few others biggies, drew their clothes, and had an experience that was part Rome Adventure, part The Devil Wears Prada, and all beyond the scope of my imagination.

My association with WWD extended to the New England area when I returned home. I accompanied the different reporters who wrote the copy for all the Fairchild publications, which in addition to WWD, included  Footwear News, Men’s Wear Daily, and Home Furnishings Daily.

I’ve used my fashion experience in my stories. Tawny Dell, my high-priced call girl in Hooked, wears nothing but designer clothes because she can afford them, and she is who she is. My series character, psychic entertainer Diana Racine, wears only black and white, bright red lipstick, and sometimes a red accessory. It was her trademark when she performed, and she carries it on when she stopped performing. My male character in Murder Déjà Vu is an artisan. He wears a white T-shirt under a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots. The clothes in all those instances define the characters in the same way the words they speak and think do. 

Shakespeare might have written the idea― “apparel oft proclaims the man”― but Mark Twain elaborated slightly in his characteristic way by saying, “Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Clothes might make the man, but they shouldn’t take over pages of your novel, or you might bore the reader to close your book.


Polly Iyer is the author of eight novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

10 comments :

  1. Yes, the beauty and effectiveness of balance must prevail. Clothes complement the character in that they express attitudes, preferences, and perhaps at times intent. Accuracy about dress should subtly create a picture in the mind of the reader but not a glaring poster. Great article, Polly!

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    1. Once description takes over a scene, As a reader, I lose the story. The story should always come first.

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  2. I like a few hints about characters' clothing to help in characterization, but some authors do go on and on about what every person is wearing, even those characters who aren't very important. That does get boring.

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    1. It's the descriptions of passing-through-the-story characters that bug me. When we never see them again, do we care what they're wearing?

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  3. Such exciting experiences!

    I agree that clothing helps define a story world and a character's personality. I read a lot of historical novels and one thing that helps is when an author not only names the item but describes it so I understand what it is without having to look it up. Don't just say she had a fichu, describe what it looked like. But I don't need a description of what everyone at the ball is wearing. Just the main characters. A secondary character can have a quirk to make him or her fun or annoying, like wearing excruciating color combinations or all black all of the time.

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    1. I thought I remembered what a fichu was, but I looked it up to be sure. Describing what a character wears should mean more than the description. It should describe the person. Then it makes sense.

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  4. Very good information, Polly. When giving editing workshops I always tell writers to avoid the "grocery list" approach to description. We have all been stopped short in a story while every detail of a character is related, and those details are too often conveyed in a pattern starting with hair and eye color, moving on to clothing. The same is too-often done with a description of the room the character has just stepped into. A writing instructor once told me to always make sure the description somehow connects to the character. Has she entered a room that is like a palace compared to her walk-up in New York? That reveals something about the character while giving the reader a visual.

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    1. My critique partner is always reminding me to set the stage. Where are they? Talking heads, etc. I jump into the characters and forget to put them someplace. I'm okay with that as long as I don't make the setting the story.

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  5. I absolutely agree, Polly. More than once I've put down a book because of excessive/unnecessary clothing description. Dress, like all other aspects of story, should reveal character or move the plot forward. If in doubt, leave it out. Too much generic wardrobe detail suggests the author is trying to up word count, write to formula, or doesn't have a good grasp of her characters and/or theme(s).

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    1. Oh, formula. You know I agree with you about that. Where I sometimes fall flat is setting the scene, and I have to be reminded with my critic partner asking where they are. I'm getting better though. Still, too much scenic description bogs me down too, but that's another blog post.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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