"What A Deal Of Starch!"

"There is but one cloak, and the moth in the hood of that one; but take this rug from the bed; it is thick and warm, and will serve well enough with your brooch to hold it."
The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff

I am sitting here listening to the cheerful strains of Aston's instrumental cover of Viva La Vida, breathing nail polish fumes, and dwelling on one of the world's most important features, a feature that defines region from region, people from people, personality from personality.

The Yankees and the Red Sox.

No, I am thinking, Mr. Cratchit, about clothing. I am very fond of putting together outfits from my wardrobe, but I don't consider myself very good at it. My imagination seems somehow cramped when I make an attempt. Still more does my imagination cramp when I approach my characters with the desire to outfit them. We are, of course, assuming that you all write stories that do not take place in those communities that do not have strict regulations on the wearing of clothes; we are, of course, assuming that our characters wear clothes. We assume this, but we don't just leave it at an assumption. We try to make something of it.

I have seen a good number of Polyvore collages on several blogs, chiefly as regards Beautiful People posts. This belies the understanding that clothing is more than just protection against the cold, more than just a mark of civilization. Clothing tells something about the person. The remark "Everything you put on your body tells the world how you expect to be treated" is true. If you spot a Strider in a dark and smoky corner, uh oh, he looks like trouble that was dragged by the stirrup through bog-country and got up with a temper. Maybe it isn't true beneath the surface, but what other impression is one supposed to take away from a dark, mud-bespattered, stubble-chin'd man in a dark corner? Clothing is important.

If you are writing in a current time, clothing is fairly easy. We all know more or less from experience what is in fashion these days. (I say "more or less;" fashion changes like New England weather.) If your setting is historical, have fun! You have studying to do. If your setting is of a fantastical nature, an other-world sort of story, then you have perhaps the hardest task of all: starting from scratch. I have wrestled with the beast of originality over fantastical stories myself, and in the end I come away feeling like hurling bolts of fabric at my characters and calling it a day. It is most horrendously not easy.

I am going to fixate for the moment on the problem of making up fashion. You all are on your own dealing with current fashion and historical fashion. You don't need any help with that. But yanking ideas out of the ether is hard. It's hard for me. So keep in mind a handful of things.

geospatial region

Where are your people on the map? Are they in a warm oceanic environment? Are they in northern climes where winter is rather more dire than otherwise? Are they on a chilly coast? Are they deep inland? These considerations will impact the overall design of your people's fashion. Clothing, besides being a means of modesty, is a way of tackling head-on the effects of the weather, and the weather and your clothing must be continually in a war of dualistic balance with each other.

urban or rural

Particularly in agricultural-based societies, the difference between those who work with the land and those who benefit from the merchandise of the land is vast. Not only that, there is a pervading snootiness which colours the attire of either sect: a city-boy is proud of his polished shoes and tailored suit; a farmer is proud of his rawhide gloves and reinforced cover-alls - and never the twain shall meet.


This is not quite so true nowadays, but again I'm still working with the idea of a fantastical, non-industrial culture. Any given occupation will often have its own "style." It can be as simple as a blacksmith's attire not including chiffon, or as subtle as the width of a Roman tunic's stripe to differentiate between classes. A person's occupation will heavily impact his or her wardrobe.

This is why time-travellers have memberships with Kohl's.


This, too, is perhaps something we are not so conscious of today. The age of the individual will also impact the person's attire. A girl might not wear long skirts until her "coming out;" a boy, likewise, might wear shorts, or only a tunic and not breeches, until a certain age.

There are lots of other things to think about: evening dress, travel dress, mourning dress, seasonal dress. There is vast scope for the imagination, once you can kick the old gal into gear. But keep in mind, once you have spent all this time dawdling about daydreaming of interesting clothing that you can never have, that clothing is, and always has been, not cheap. Unless your character is gifted with a particularly prestigious position in society, he or she can't slough off clothing on mere whim and expect to have an endless supply of outfits to draw from. Your girl needs to ride a horse: too bad, she doesn't have a riding dress, and you don't have money to buy one, or time to tailor one. You will just have to make do. It's raining: blast, your character doesn't have a slicker so he's just going to have to get soaked and let's hope he doesn't catch pneumonia and die because that would really bomb the story. Even if a chain of events has left your character's clothing threadbare and people are offering him handouts thinking he is a homeless beggar (maybe he is, I don't know), you can't waltz into a clothing store and yoink a perfect outfit off the rack without expecting to pay through the nose for it. (You might be better off playing on people's charity and begging for clothing rather than food, but that's your character's call.)

I have one last warning to deliver, after all this enjoyable brain-storming. It is very easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on clothing. Among several other faults, the novel The Shadow of Albion can be accused of this. The clothing - of men and women alike - was described in minute detail. Now, the knowledge of the author is commendable; she (or, rather, they) knew the material (no pun intended, but you can laugh anyway). Unfortunately, the detail to which the book descended regarding the clothing was almost inexcusable. I was almost tempted to scan, and I never scan when I read. But, on the other hand, the novel The Worm Ouroboros can go into detail as well - very deep detail. Yet the latter does not suffer from the same drudgery and gagging minutia as the former: if anything, it is exhilarating. What makes the difference?

The difference is that, in The Worm Ouroboros, the clothing is an extension of the wearer. The clothing tells you something. This is why many of you writers n' scribblers subscribe to Polyvore. Clothing is not mere material, clothing is part of the person's voice. When you read the description of Gorice XII's court apparel, you don't think, "Oh, for the love of heaven, get on with it!" you think, "Here is a splendid and uncanny creature, and I almost admire him, for all that he is wicked." In The Shadow of Albion, the detailed description of clothing is almost a means of showing off, and a sensitive reader might find it embarrassing. (I'm a girl, and I found it embarrassing - imagine how unbearable it must be for a man to read all that frilly detail!)

Eh, it seems like a lot of work, but I'm a visual sort of person, and I like to read and write very vivid scenery - this includes the character's outfit. Not only does this help round out the scene, it makes me more comfortable when I go to "look at" the character - I feel as though he is there in flesh and blood (and clothing) and not a mere ghost floating through the pages. If you like the vivid too, a bit of brain-storming about clothing will probably not go amiss. Remember that clothing is a detail, not the main thrust, of your story. It is an important detail, and I think the writer ought to spend at least a little time dealing with it, but while you deal with it never let it overwhelm the text.

After some consideration, he remembered that he had seen his wife in a rather wide Liberty tie, whose prevailing colour was orange. That, he felt, would do if he could find it. On her it had looked rather well; on him, it would be completely abominable.
The Haunted Policeman, Dorothy Sayers

4 ripostes:

  1. For the record, I would just like to point out (again) that Kohls' slogan makes no sense.

    I loved this post, Jenny. I have a very difficult time with clothing, which makes White Sail's nice - they're in uniform. However, your remark about stripes on Roman tunics caught my eye because the same was true of the officers' uniforms: higher ranks got more gold embroidery, epaulets, and the like. And even with the uniforms, the characters' clothing does come into play, since there is such a marked difference between what Tip wears and what Charlie wears.

    You do a great job with clothing. Every time I read one of your descriptions I think, "How on earth did she dream that up?" I have to sit and ho-hum a lot before I can produce anything half-decent (no pun intended).

  2. "If you spot a Strider in a dark and smoky corner, uh oh, he looks like trouble that was dragged by the stirrup through bog-country and got up with a temper."

    BWAHAHAHA! I love it!

    That aside, this is an interesting and quite helpful post. I'm a fantasy writer, and I rarely if ever describe clothing (or appearances, for that matter...) and I should probably do that more. Stories where everyone's clothing is described in maddening excruciating detail every few pages drive me batty, but one should find a happy medium. Of course, my problem is that I simply can't figure out what they are wearing.

    My current WIP is set mostly at a school of magic; this makes things easier, because the school has uniforms. The clothes themselves are all the same, though the girls wear skirts. I still haven't figured out what any of the clothes are actually like, though I'm thinking something very very simple. And colours vary based on what sort of magic you have (fire, air, earth, or water). Teachers aren't required to wear the colours of their element, but they tend to, so much so that if one of them didn't they would be thought quite odd.

  3. For a second there I actually thought this post was going to be about baseball, and I got all excited.

    That was mean.

  4. I find Chewie's plight an amusing one.

    On Abigail's comment about uniforms, Naomi Novik makes some interesting observations in her Temeraire series. The degree to which an officer, or enlisted, follows protocol in their attire is telling about the person. For instance, one may infer certain things between the one who wears his jacket and neckcloth, despite the heat, because his station and upbringing compel him, and the one who abandons all pretense and runs about in his shirtsleeves.