Ever see the movie Citizen Kane? Well, there’s a montage relatively early in the film following the marriage of Charles Foster Kane. The photos above do not capture the complete sequence (please click on any photo or here to view the full scene), but what we see from left to right is the progression of Charles and Emily’s marriage. There are a few cinematic devices at work to show us in less than 3 minutes’ time that this couple gradually grows apart from one another emotionally: mise-en-scene (setting/props), music, dialogue, acting (body language, tone, proximity), and costume. To focus on this last element in particular, we see the neckline of Emily’s garments climb ever higher as the cut and fabric of her gowns likewise shed their romance to become increasingly structured and rigid. In this way, what a person wears can speak volumes for who they are and how they feel at a given moment in time.
Page 35 of Room to Write asks us to write about clothes today. We can “take a character shopping,” describe clothing we like, dislike, or has otherwise made a strong impression on us, or simply free-write beginning with the words “clothes” or “clothing.”
Oh goodie. I’m going to take my character “Margaret” shopping, or at least raid her closet to determine what it says about her.
During Part I of her tale, I would take her shopping at a vintage shop for accessories as well as a contemporary store selling vintage-inspired clothing such as Anthropologie. After that, it’s shoe-shopping!
– In the first chapters, she’s seen wearing “eggshell white kid leather driving gloves,” a “cameo choker” and “kitschy rhinestone cocktail ring.”
– In the later half of Part I when she has temporarily moved, thus only packs what she would need for a few months:
“The separation from her stored goods had been achingly painful—her weakest moment being when she cradled a pair of claret suede leather stilletos before lovingly packing them away with assurances they would be okay, that Momma would be back, as though tucking children in bed and promising no monsters would prey on them in the night.”
– And though impractical, you can still at this point hear her “high heels echoing off the walls as they clacked on the wood and cobbles.”
Towards the end of Part I, however, we already see how a shift in Margaret’s lifestyle results in a shift of her wardrobe as well. At this point, I’d probably still be taking her to vintage shops, but, instead of jewelry, it would be for clothing more in the vein of Urban Outfitters. These shopping excursions would be infrequent, though…probably just the one time.
– Getting pensive in the shower one morning, she finds herself wondering:
“What if she fell out of the habit of nine-to-five, of suiting up in business casual and charging at the world in proactive high-heeled fury? She had been gravitating quite naturally to the irregularity of her schedule and informality of denim and limp old cardigans thrown over graphic tees, of every-other-day unwashed hair thrown into a man’s tweed cap.”
– Though she doesn’t wear jewelry anymore, she still accessorizes her t-shirts with linen scarves (that’s an effort, anyway), yet after she compliments her friend’s appearance and doesn’t receive one in return, she “shuffle[s] one now glaringly plain denim leg over the other.”
– We frequently see her in “her cardigan—that worn, pilled one of charcoal grey that had been her uniform for some time.”
– When our dear protagonist eventually seeks counseling for an issue you’ll better understand when you read the book ;), we do see a brief return to her previous style at the first two sessions:
“Margaret sat up and, knocking over one of her classic black pumps (she’d made a decided effort to dress up to par for this professional appointment, and had only removed the shoes to protect the couch cushions), reached for her handbag.”
“Margaret self-consciously fingered the vertical ruffles and cloth-covered buttons that extended to just below her chin. Her cap sleeves were trimmed in a dainty band of lace.”
In doing this, she admits to her psychologist: “It’s like I’m acting the role of myself…I’d forgotten, though, how much faking enthusiasm can actually generate the real thing. It’s like if I make myself smile long enough, I can convince myself I’m happy.”
– By the third session, however:
“Margaret whimpered as she picked at the pills on her grey cardigan.”
“She tapped her Converse All-Stars around with her striped cotton toes.”
Aside from that, Margaret really only window-browses now when we go shopping. She’s got her comfortable, casual staples and has no qualms repeating their wear often. This isn’t to say, though, that she doesn’t still know how to turn up the Attractive Factor in her new lower-maintenance way:
– “Before he had left, however, she did not catch directly at his sleeve just as he opened the unit door so much as produce an identical effect by the way she stood at her bedroom doorway in just an over-sized t-shirt.”
Now that I’m almost finished with Margaret’s story line, I can look back and reflect that I’ve certainly been making deliberate clothing choices for her to mirror her life stages and emotional states. However, I don’t describe much more than what I have above, as I personally feel that too much physical description of a character makes me as a reader too conscious of the writer behind the story, and it inhibits my own imagination. I want my readers to be able to flesh out characters with their own brushtrokes, guided only by occasional suggestion. Hopefully, the descriptions that are there seem appropriate and are not too cliche for what they represent.
What do you think about characterizing through clothing? What does it reveal or conceal? Are appearances always as they “seam”? (pun fully intended—you ought to know how corny I am by now)
June 20th, 2010 at 14:27
It’s true that clothing can reflect our moods. Years ago, when I was very down about life, I used to wear these hideous HUGE men t-shirts and a baggy pair of trousers, and went around with no make up, I looked horrid and I felt horrid anyway. Glad that’s way in my past long ago! 🙂
June 20th, 2010 at 17:10
I’m so glad it’s past, too! I completely understand how clothing can reflect a mood or instill one–when I first moved abroad and was unemployed for several months, I had nothing to dress up for, so didn’t, but feeling dumpy every day on top of the sense of lacking purpose didn’t help my confidence. Not that I don’t looove my days in sweatpants and without makeup (this entire weekend, for example–hurrah!), but you’re right about not feeling good inside when you think you don’t look good outside. I feel like it sounds superficial when I say it, but it’s not that, just one’s want to be the best version of oneself on all levels–healthy and happy 🙂
June 21st, 2010 at 06:38
Great post about how clothes can reflect a character’s personality, style and mood all at once! I think when I write my first drafts I underrate this influence but I try to fix it when I revise; there is a big difference between a character who never wears anything else but stilettos and a character who never takes off her converses… Also, what she picks up in a vintage store can tell a lot about the character as well! The way you displayed Margaret’s inner world through her clothes and style was remarkable! 🙂
June 21st, 2010 at 16:54
Why, thanks, m’dear! I think what you said about adding in that detail when you revise is a good strategy as well, as by then you can look on it as a whole and make sure all descriptions are consistent with what you ultimately want to convey. Often when writing dialogue, I’ll let myself plow through the dialogue itself, then retroactively feather in the descriptions of what the characters are doing or look like as they’re speaking.
June 22nd, 2010 at 14:01
Good topic indeed! I usually don’t include the clothing unless it makes sense, as I think it’s getting too obvious and clumsy (the same goes for the outer looks and features). Having said that, I tend to write biographies about my characters including loads of stuff that often doesn’t make it into the story (watch out for one of my next blog posts ;)). Because for my own knowledge it is more important than for the reader’s. My opinion, anyway.
June 22nd, 2010 at 18:33
That does make a lot of sense…because if you’re able to so fully visualize the character, that understanding will come through in their language and actions, even if description surrounding those is minimal. “Clumsy” is a good word for it–I’ve read books where the clothing/appearance is so obviously described that it makes the author sound juvenile…and perhaps, for example, what an author might consider trendy or edgy is really dorky to me, so that kills a visual right there! It’s like watching the film version of a loved book and the actors not being quite what you’d expected/hoped from your own imaginative engagement with the story. This post was helpful for me to go through and extract all those bits of description to lay them on the table for evaluation. I’m quite relieved that that’s all that’s there, diluted in a whole lotta other words 🙂
June 23rd, 2010 at 07:35
Hey – couldn’t agree more. I think all these exercises are helpful. Am just too damn lazy to do them myself – so fair play to you from the start. And I appreciate the inspiration that seeps through you to me. 🙂
August 6th, 2010 at 23:20
I loved your description of clothing. Your subtle details so enriched your characters and meaning. One of my favorite short stories is “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield. The ending always makes me cry as she goes to her closet.
August 7th, 2010 at 09:05
Ooh, I’ll need to read that story. One clothing scene that sticks with me is Gatsby and his shirts 🙂