How much do you want to know, as a reader, about what a character is wearing? Is it important for you to feel as familiar with the inside of a protagonist’s wardrobe as you are your own?
Yet clothes tell us so much about a person.
In life outside fiction, that prosaic place where most of our lives are lived, we make constant judgements about people from what they are wearing. Meeting someone for the first time, swift assessments are likely to be made about their personality and temperament from their clothes. It’s not superficial – it’s simply how it is.
After all, is a shy and retiring person likely to want to stand out in the crowd by wearing a vibrant, highly original outfit that screams I am different?
But loading a reader down by describing endlessly the daily choice of outfits a character is sporting will overburden the book and turn it into more of a fashion catalogue than a novel.
So economy is required. Enough but not too much. A suggestion rather than a shovelful.
When Sally Bowles is introduced to the reader in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (which was adapted into the play I am a Camera and eventually, of course, into the film and stage show, Cabaret,) we are told that:
she was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head.
Clearly, this is no shy and retiring figure, arriving for an afternoon visit in this somewhat theatrical style- but it’s another detail that Isherwood gives us that really begins to show Sally to the reader: her finger nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s.
Sally is immediately both extravagent and vain yet vulnerable with a certain innocence at the same time.
Clothes for the writer and reader are, of course, a useful indication of class as well as life-style. 19th century writers don’t even bother to say what the servants are wearing – something that will make them blend into the background as unobtrusively as possible, I imagine – and even the affluent characters receive little sartorial description. In fact, it seems clothes are mentioned only when they are either an oddity or an indication of status. Think of the wondeful description of Miss Havisham: She was dressed in rich materials – satins and lace and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil. And then there’s Pip’s encounter with a fearful man, all in coarse grey which tells the reader – or Dickens’ contemporary readers, at any rate – that there’s a convict in the marshes …
Colour symbolism is a subtle and unobtrusive way of saying something about a character without overlaying the point. In fact, the colour of a dress or shirt, shoes or jacket can be used to foreshadow something yet to be revealed. As if the writer is saying, remember that, I’m giving you a hint that could be useful later …
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a brilliant, poignant story that is the epitome of economy of words since the novel – or novella- numbers little over 100 pages, tells us that George and Lennie are dressed in denim which defines them as itinerant labourers in an era before denim was a fashion statement. Poor ill-fated Curley’s wife, we are told, wears red mules with red ostrich feathers on the insteps and her fingernails are painted red and her lips are rouged. No wonder things don’t work out well for her ….
It does depend on genre. If you’re writing a steamy romance it’s probably important to know about the exact shade of stockings and suspenders, the lacy brassiere and leopard skin bikini. A gothic novel is going to favour dressing its characters in black rather than pastel summer shades.
But as a writer who writes non genre-specific fiction – and just happens to devote far too much of each day considering clothes, other people’s clothes, their views on mine and mine of theirs – I find it hard to resist going in for a full head to toe description of fabric, style and effect.
And I have to curb myself, remembering that it is the smallest detail – those vividly painted finger nails, those vibrant insoles – that conveys the most.
I can allow myself to see the full outfit being worn by my character – but then must strip items off the page and go with the minimum requried for maximum effect.
It can be a considerable struggle!