How to describe clothing in a story: Creating characters

How to describe clothing in a story - Now Novel

The clothes a person wears tells us many things: their status in life, for example, or their cultural affiliation or identity. They can tell us what era they live in, and even a person’s current state of mind or intent. Understanding how to describe clothing in a story well will help you create fuller, richer character portraits.

Read these tips on how (and why) to describe clothes with examples from well-known novels:

1: Use clothing to show status and position

2: Build (or thwart) character expectations with clothing descriptions

3: Describe clothing to contrast characters’ personalities

4: Show clothing to avoid over-relying on telling

5: Change characters’ clothing to highlight character development

6: Use clothing details to recreate authentic setting

Let’s explore each suggestion for using clothing descriptions creatively:

1: Use clothing to show status and position

Think of your characters’ clothing like an actor’s costume in a play. The costume is a large part of the character. As soon as the actor enters stage right or left, we have an inkling of whether they’re a wealthy landowner or peasant, an elegant heiress or down-to-earth flower-seller.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a character’s widespread respect is shown, curiously, by the fact that he is one of the only attendees at an event who is not smartly dressed:

‘Although it was not customary for invitations to request special attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary clothes.’ (p. 35)

What the description shows is that many of the invitees play at status and refinement through fancy dress. Yet Dr. Urbino’s status as a respected doctor is earned – he has nothing to prove by dressing smarter. Thus his plain dress is, ironically, a sign of his greater status.

Like Marquez, you can compare and contrast character’s clothes to reveal important details about their social status or position.

2: Build (or thwart) character expectations with clothing description

You can quickly convey a number of things about your characters based on the clothing they wear. You can also confound or prove untrue impressions your characters (or readers) form based on appearances.

For example, think about a wealthy person and how that person might dress. You may have imagined a man in an expensive suit or a woman in designer clothes. You can immediately show a character is wealthy with descriptions of fine clothing. However, you can tell your reader interesting things through a mismatch:

A wealthy character might dress ostentatiously in expensive clothing. But they could also dress in modest, inexpensive-looking clothes.

What would you think about a wealthy character who looked as though he shopped at thrift stores? Or one who was forever wearing poorly-fitted clothing that appeared to be handed down from friends? These detail could suggest that your character is miserly or down-to-earth despite their wealth. Dr. Urbino in Marquez’s example above fits the latter category.

Think of other interesting combinations: A teacher who dresses provocatively; a beggar with an incredible, fashionable style of dress: What backstory or character motivations could these combinations of position and appearance suggest?

Download a practical guide to characterization

3: Describe clothing to contrast characters’ personalities

A few small details of clothing can radically separate your characters, highlighting aspects of their personalities.

The Victorian author Charles Dickens is widely regarded as a master of characterization, for good reason. His clothing descriptions are always precise, often comical.

Consider this example from Hard Times (1853). See how Dickens contrasts fact-obsessed, overbearing teacher Thomas Gradgrind and his wife’s personalities through (among other details) their clothing description. Towards the end of the third chapter, Gradgrind is described returning home to find his children playing outside:

‘A space of stunted grass and dry rubbish being between him and the young rabble, he took his eyeglass out of his waistcoat to look for any child he knew by name, and might order off.’ (p. 15)

The pompous and bullying Gradgrind is (as Dickens’ descriptions elsewhere show) the type who’d wear a waistcoat concealing an eyeglass for catching people out.

Compare this, then, to Dickens’ description of Gradgrind’s wife in the following chapter (Gradgrind’s wealthy but poverty-claiming friend has just told Mrs. Gradgrind he was born in a ditch):

‘Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her; Mrs. Gradgrind hoped it was a dry ditch?’ (p. 19)

In one single piece of clothing description (‘a pink-eyed bundle of shawls’), Dickens conveys how timid and ailing Mrs. Gradgrind is in contrast to her bullish, overbearing husband.

Similarly, show how different characters’ personalities are through apt clothing description.

4: Show clothing to avoid over-relying on telling

Clothing description in a story is useful because it often gives additional information about a character that you might otherwise tell. For example, if a character is going on a date, you could write:

‘Gem wanted to look sexy for her date downtown (but not easy), so she changed into more comfortable clothes.’

However, you can show and imply a character’s intention without spelling it out:

‘They’d agreed to meet downtown at 6. At a quarter to 6 Gem pulled off the low-cut top Emma had wolf-whistled and clapped at when they’d met for their usual weekend catch-up. ‘Make them earn any sight of skin,’ Aunt P always said. Jeans and a tee it was.’

Why this arguably works better is the details of getting dressed tell us multiple details about Gem. The last minute change suggests an indecisive nature. We see the contrast between the character’s friend’s reaction and the advisory words of Gem’s aunt. The fact Gem goes with jeans and a tee could suggest that she trusts her aunt’s advice, or else feels shamed by her Aunt and compelled to be ‘good’. There is simply more characterization, not only of Gem but the other example characters.

5: Change characters’ clothing to highlight character development

Changes in characters’ clothing can help reveal character development. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the poor, Tuberculosis-stricken Katerina Ivanovna’s husband is trampled to death by a horse-drawn cart. The novel’s protagonist Raskolnikov gives Katerina the last of his money to host a funeral. Dostoyevsky describes how Katerina’s landlady, Amalia Ivanovna, dresses for the funeral:

‘…the table was properly laid at the time and fixed, and Amalia Ivanovna, feeling she had done her work well, had put on a black silk dress and a cap with new mourning ribbons and met the returning party with some pride. This pride, though justifiable, displeased Katerina Ivanovna for some reason.’ (p. 340)

Katerina is affronted by Amalia’s fine dress because it is ‘new’ and shows ‘pride’. Impoverished with children to care for, she uses her last money to give her husband a dignified funeral. Amalia’s dress thus comes across as insensitive to her; malicious even. The landlady’s dress highlights, by contrast, the downward spiral of Katerina’s fortunes, and she responds to the landlady’s prideful clothing with her own wounded pride:

‘Look at her, she’s making round eyes, she feels that we are talking about her and can’t understand. Pfoo, the owl! Ha-ha! (Cough-cough-cough.) And what does she put that cap on for? … Look how she sits with her mouth open! An owl, a real owl! An owl in new ribbons, ha-ha-ha!’ (p. 343)

Embarrassed by her own inability to dress in finery for the occasion (and by being upstaged), Katerina resorts to scathing mockery of Amalia.

Like Dostoyevsky, think how something as small as a character’s change of clothing can affect their own or others’ behaviour.

David Foster Wallace on significance of clothing

6: Use clothing details to recreate authentic setting

Another important function of clothing description in stories is to create an authentic sense of time and place. Particularly in genres such as historical fiction and fantasy, clothing can help to create other worlds (or a long gone era of our own).

Here, for example, Hilary Mantel describes a Cardinal’s residence being plundered by the King’s men in 1529 England, in her historical novel Wolf Hall (2009). Mantel describes the cardinal’s vestments:

‘They bring out the cardinal’s vestments, his copes. Stiff with embroidery, strewn with pearls, encrusted with gemstones, they seem to stand by themselves.’ (p. 49)

Mantel creates a vivid sense of the wealth that the church amassed in these times. The fact the clothes ‘seem to stand by themselves’ indicates just how heavy they are with jewels and embroidery.

The details create an authentic sense of a prominent cardinal’s dress in the 1500s. Elsewhere, Mantel’s novel is full of descriptions of garments for specific, era-appropriate purposes: Riding cloaks, town coats, and other clothing people of means would have worn at this time.

Similarly, find out (or, if you’re creating a fantasy world, create) the garments your characters would wear in a particular time and place, for a particular purpose. Describe these in passing to add visual colour and authenticity to your character descriptions.

Ready to sketch vivid characters for your novel? Use the ‘Character’ section of the Idea Finder to flesh out your story’s cast.

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  • I used to be under the mindset that describing attire was boring and it was better to let the reader fill in those details… but especially with the novel I’m working on now, I have used clothing to portray more about their character. So this really reaffirmed that approach for me. You really can tell a lot about a person by what they wear, or what they don’t wear.

    • True, it all depends on your purpose. Subtle clothing changes can signal character development quite effectively in some scenarios.

  • Liv Heady

    This article was very helpful…can you post some examples of showing versus telling when describing clothing? Thanks I will be following your blog from now one I just came across it today.

    • Thanks Liv, I’m glad you found this helpful. As for showing with clothing rather than telling, a writer could say, ‘He was lazy and inattentive to his appearance’ about a character, or they could say ‘his clothes always looked like he’d just pulled them out of a pile in some corner of his bedroom and had thrown them on without a glance in the mirror’. You can use visual description to make a character more vivid in the reader’s mind’s eye.

  • Teresa Schischka

    I love the way clothes can describe a character. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar a long time ago and ‘Jesus’ was in a sharp black suit. Which was, indeed, a little weird straight off! But as the show moved forward the suit got more ragged – the jacket was open, then gone, the shirt cuffs undone, half the buttons undone and I think by the end when he was on the cross the shirt was gone. Such simple things, but the clothes really helped show Jesus’ plight. Our characters are always (mostly!) clothed and we should definitely be using them to portray our characters’ personalities. Love this topic!!

    • Thanks, Teresa, and for sharing that great example from the stage. That’s a good example of using clothing to reinforce the narrative of a character’s arc.

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