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What Not to Wear

Monday, August 29, 2011

. . . Or, Characterization by Wardrobe

It’s no secret—I’m no fashionista. I do enjoy watching the show referenced in the title, especially when they feature larger-than-average women, because I enjoy finding out what shapes and colors and patterns of clothes might be flattering on me. Of course, what looks good on someone depends greatly on several other factors than size alone: lifestyle, situation, and personality are the three most important.

I spent the weekend choosing the wardrobe for my two main female characters in the first book of the Great Exhibition Series. And after hours of this activity, I started asking myself why I was spending so much time doing it.

Sure, it’s fun. But I realized that in the process of figuring out how Kate and Nora would dress tells me a lot about their personalities and lifestyles—as well as the culture in which they are supposed to have lived. As a governess, Nora is typically going to wear dresses in dark colors, with practical straight sleeves, high necklines, and narrower skirts. Kate, who grew up privileged and wealthy—though very practical and definitely not a typical socialite like her aristocratic cousins—wouldn’t be allowed to be seen in public wearing one of Nora’s dresses. And Nora would be accused of trying to appear above her station if she wore one of Kate’s dresses.

So while a “daily wear” dress for Kate would be something like this:

a “daily wear” dress for Nora would be more like this:

I didn’t spend nearly as much time on costume research for the Ransome Trilogy—mostly because it’s not one of my favorite fashion eras. How many different ways can an author describe a high-waisted white gown? Of course, that’s one of the reasons I did depart from that fashion statement just a bit, by putting Julia in color as much as possible. I also didn’t need to do as much research, because I’ve seen ever so many movies set during that time period, so I have a good visual image of what women wore for different functions during that time period.

When I’m working on my contemporary romances, I also do “costume research” for my characters by choosing at least partial wardrobes for them. Of course, I’ve learned a lesson over the past couple of years—which is that if I’m going to mention what a character is wearing (women, particularly), to not get very specific with the description, or to make sure it’s something “evergreen,” like a little black dress or jeans or something that hasn’t gone out of style for the past fifty years and probably won’t any time soon. In Stand-In Groom, there’s a scene in which I describe Anne, who’s working on getting a wedding set up, as wearing a sleeveless denim shirt and khaki shorts. Well, a reviewer (who read the book in 2010 or 2011) took exception to this, saying in her review that she pictured Anne as much more fashion-forward and wouldn’t wear something that frumpy. Well . . . yes and no. You see, that book was written in 2004–2005, when denim shirts with khaki bottoms were au courant. But now, five or six years later, to a fashionista, it seems frumpy and passe (from other clues on the person’s blog, I guesstimate she’s no older than 20, which puts another spin on it, as well).

[Would Anne wear a sleeveless denim shirt with khaki shorts when working on setting up a wedding in 2011? Well . . . probably not, but only because she’d more likely be wearing a lighter-weight shirt in a stretchy cotton knit, which would be cooler and easier to move around in, and she’d definitely be wearing cargo shorts with lots and lots of pockets!]

Choosing wardrobes for my contemporary characters, even though I most likely won’t describe them, really helps me get to know them better. For example, even when going to the same place with the same man, a woman who would wear this on a first date:

is going to have a much different experience on that date than a woman who would wear this:

Just from looking at those two pictures, it’s easy to imagine two very different types of women (or one who just really wants to toy with a man’s mind—or one who’s living a secret life . . . I could go on and on).

What does the clothing someone wears tell you about him/her? Do you ever consider the impression people will have of you when you get dressed? How does that affect your clothing choices?

Writers: Do you make conscious choices of what style/color/type of clothing to dress your characters in? What have you learned about your characters through how you dress them?

  1. Monday, August 29, 2011 4:17 pm

    I don’t make conscious choices in regards to what most of them wear. Though I do use color to evoke personality. The step-mother in The Color of Love wears darker colors. Lots of greys and dark browns, and a dark olive green. She’s a very dour person who doesn’t like frills or anything ostentatious. She’s very rigid and stiff.

    My heroine wears brighter colors, to reflect her brighter personality. She loves the plaids but can’t afford many. She loves lace, so she attaches lace trim (usually that she made herself with her tatting shuttle) to anything she thinks it’ll look good on. She also enjoys fancying up her clothes with embroidery of all kinds.

    My hero, though a well-off planter, works in the fields alongside his slaves five and a half days a week. He wears work clothes most of the time with his pants stuffed into his boots to make the cuffs last longer. He always wears boots of some kind too. More practical for traipsing through fields on foot, where all manner of snakes are hiding in the weeds!


  2. Monday, August 29, 2011 4:18 pm

    And I LOVE LOVE LOVE that plaid dress SO much!


  3. Monday, August 29, 2011 8:03 pm

    I love your contemporary examples! You can definitely see the “type” of woman who would wear that kind of dress.

    I do think about what kind of impression my clothes will make. I don’t even go to the grocery store in my sweats or workout clothes. 🙂


  4. Tuesday, August 30, 2011 5:26 am

    I appreciate you sharing how much effort you put into your characters and their wardrobes.The first dress reminds me of something Margaret Hale from North & South (BBC) would wear and the second one reminds me of Jane Eyre. Both beautiful but respective of their stations in life.

    I would wear the last dress with the boots because it would make me feel less visible, and it would be comfortable. I am ALL about comfort. I wear modest clothing and muted colors but not drab. You won’t find me in lime green. No fad clothing for me. I suppose my choices tend to show my conservative nature, and yet I did drive a 1968 VW bus painted just like the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo for about 6 years (while my children were little). So I’m not sure what that says about me. Crazy, maybe?!


  5. Tuesday, August 30, 2011 1:48 pm

    What a fun topic. I spend quite a bit of time researching the fashions for my characters, because its so much fun! I might as well enjoy the research while I’m at it. Costume really does tell much about the characters so I do find that important to get correct and to help show personalities. One way to show personality or scene is when a person “should” dress a certain way, but varies from it due to circumstance which is another way to enhance a scene and bring the characters to life. When he rips off his cravat to stop a bleed. When she needs to shake a hand, but hers is gloveless (how embarrasing!). That type of thing. I’m not much of a fasionista myself, and pretty casual, but love pretty/feminine things. So when I recently went shopping (much needed) I decided to get some comfy/casual things with a pretty flair like subtle embroidery, that type of thing. I hate to shop, but was able to get some cute things and it was fun! So when I wear the clothes I feel more like “me” than frumpy old-self.


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