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.
How to describe clothing: 6 simple tips
- Use clothing to show status and position
- Build (or thwart) expectations using clothing descriptions
- Describe clothing to contrast character personalities
- Show clothing to avoid over-relying on telling
- Change clothing to highlight character development
- Use clothing details to create authentic setting
Let’s delve further into these ideas about describing characters’ dress:
1: Use clothing to show status and position
Think of your characters’ clothing like an actor’s costume in a play.
Costume is a large part of a 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 humble flower-seller.
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), we learn of a doctor’s status through his being the only person 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.Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), p. 35.
What the description shows is that many of the invitees play at status 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, indicative of higher status.
Like Marquez, compare and contrast character’s clothes to reveal important details about their social status or position. You can weave clothing description into your process when using our story planner for writers.
2: Build (or thwart) expectations using clothing descriptions
You can quickly convey a number of things about your characters based on the clothing they wear.
You can also fulfil (or contradict) 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 show off their 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 innate sense of style. What backstory or character motivations could combinations of appearance and reality suggest?
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3: Describe clothing to contrast characters’ personalities
A few small details of clothing may distinguish your characters from each other, highlighting their personalities.
The Victorian author Charles Dickens is widely regarded as a master of characterization, for good reason. His writing offers a masterclass in how to describe clothing in stories.
Consider this example from Hard Times. See how Dickens contrasts the fact-obsessed, overbearing teacher Thomas Gradgrind and his wife’s personalities through (among other details) their clothing description.
In this scene, Gradgrind returns 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.Charles Dickens, Hard Time (1853), p. 15.
The bully Gradgrind is 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?Dickens, 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.
[Find more articles on character description on our character writing hub.]
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 six. At a quarter to six, 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 that she feels shamed by her Aunt and thus decides to ‘be good’.
There is simply more characterization, not only of Gem but the other characters, too.
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 Rodion 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.Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866), 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!Dostoyevsky, 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.
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. 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.Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009), 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. Use fashion and clothing history archives if necessary. 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 develop quick story ideas and flesh out your story’s cast.