Clothing Descriptions for Authors
Ideas on describing clothing if you are not a fashion minded fiction author.
My character, Katrina Schuller wore a gray housedress in a certain scene in 1954. It so happens, I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and therefore would have a general idea of what makes a housedress different for other dresses.
I do not know all the possible terms and descriptions for clothing. I recently learned some differences for pumps from flats when it comes to women shoes, but not on how a lady would choose either. Although I am a man, I doubt I can do much better describing men clothing and fashion.
Still, our characters need to wear something, most of the time. We need not always say what they are wearing, but an occasional reference to clothing and accessories help a story and might say a lot about particular characters. So, what to do if you simply are not into studying fashion and clothes?
The less said might be the better rout. Let your readers imagine what they will about a character’s attire, that is, if they are even concerned. Too much detail to attire, even if an author was so skilled, could turn a reader off, or they will flip over a page or two to get past it. It may be worse if, like me, we are not good at clothing detail.
You can use clothing and accessories to bring out the mood, ambience or personality quirks and preferences of given characters. Not much needs to go into many of these opportunities.
In the 1954 scene, I wanted to set a mood for Katrina. She wore a plain gray housedress on an overcast day, defeated, depressed, seeking a quiet escape from her problems. Gray worked.
Gray housedresses were for the subservient woman, the quiet, unassuming female of the 1950s. That was Katrina at that moment in her life, beaten and abused by her now imprisoned husband.
Her two little boys, on the other hand, played quietly; saw the move as an adventure. They wore ‘blue’ blue jeans.
Styles on the Internet
I looked up housedress on the internet. They were practical dresses for mornings, quick errands and household chores. They were rather plane from the late 1800s through the 1940s, and somewhat stylized and made attractive in the 1950s.
Much is learned of the culture of the era, and the general attitude towards women’s role in society. This look at housedresses and their common use helps in generating your characters of the era.
Sherry Neary, author of Two Lives of Annie McGraw: Transcending Adversity, introduces a subservient, yet narcissist wife and mother doing her makeup and hair. Lorraine wears fine clothing and a proper, but stylish hat selected to hide the bruises around her eyes and the secrets behind the façade of a perfect marriage and well-kept woman.
Neary is effectively attentive to fabric and design, their uses and advantages. Even then, Neary spaces the descriptions through the other scenes rather than take the readers to the back stage wardrobes.
Show the era
The brief reference to some clothing draws the reader to the period in time, social developments and over all setting or scenery. A fair number of my characters are Baby Boomers.
Sam, short for Samantha, has long hair falling in a gentle wave at the shoulders and then cascading a hand’s length behind her. In one place, she had a short skirt and a pink blouse, top button open and the next button straining at the eyelet.
I elected not to detail the skirt. I would probably have faltered if I tried. The length of short is up to the reader. We can assume the blouse had a close fit, but otherwise I said nothing about the tailoring, nor if it had a collar or what kind. The blouse was pink.
In other scenes, she wears delectably tight jeans that detail every curve from the waist through the calves.
The designs for jeans varied and changed rapidly in the later 1960s through today, particularly for females. I looked up photos of jeans in the 60s to refresh my memory, yet declined to give brand name, style or cut. I simply wanted to give the general notion that Sam looked like a typical Baby Boomer teen. She was not a hippy. Her sense of style does not go to the edge of wild, but she was conscious of her appearance. This was much appreciated by Randy Vanwesterdyke and the other guys her age.
Their study of Sam’s appearance permitted me to avoid detail. I rarely say anything about shoes. This is not just a typical ‘guy’ thing of not noticing shoes, but also of not knowing much about shoes.
The shortened name Sam, as opposed to Samantha, is a gentle nudge to the Woman’s Liberation Movement of the time. That can suggest things about Samantha’s attire, deportment and possible accessories. She would likely have a small purse on a strap rather than limit free spirited and creative use of her hands and arms to the guardianship of a larger hand held purse.
Fads and Fashion as Moral and Political Statements
A few of the male Boomer teens and young adults in my books have shoulder and past the shoulder length hair. Weather permitting some prefers sandals to shoes, and wears their jeans tight. Randy, Erik, John and eventually Dean go to great length to wear their jeans ultra-skin-tight. I present these same individuals as good moral examples, but not without fault.
That was accepted style in those days. The look was, to an extent, a social revolutionary statement. They were leaving the Red Scare, Communist hunting days behind and leaning to the liberal left. It was a time of transition.
I also utilized the popularity of tight jeans in that era to portray the conflict of innocence and culpableness. Adam and Eve did not know they were naked during their innocent days in the Garden of Eden. Their nakedness became apparent after they turned from God and sought their own glory. They sewed fig leaves to cover up not just nakedness, but who they were, or what they had done or become. Try as they might, everything was still exposed.
The tight fit of jeans on my characters symbolically speaks on one hand of their innocence and goodness. Then, it exposes their guile and egocentricity, their maturing, so to speak. Reflective of Adam and Eve’s revealing, one of the teen’s fathers remarked, “He who gets too big for his britches will be exposed in the end.”
One monk rests a sandaled foot on a deck rail. The cuffs of his jeans peek beneath his long flowing monk’s habit. That is a discreet reminder that none of these characters has achieved saintly perfection, regardless of their genuine good intentions.
You might get away with mention of one or two accessories and never mention a particular character’s clothing. Let your reader dress the character.
Poindexter repaired the left temple of his heavy black frame glasses with white tape. His pocket protector was well marked from ballpoint pens, mostly blue with a few red or black lines.
We have a genuine brainy nerd.
We can picture Poindexter’s lack of attention to neatness. He probably wears loose clothing, unless he is absent minded to the fact he has outgrown some pieces. His hair might suggest infrequent or random trips to the barbershop. There is no urgency to mention much if anything beyond the glasses and plastic pocket protector. (You might have to explain what a pen holding pocket protector is to today’s younger generation.)
Poindexter’s own behavior may suffice for whatever type of clothing the reader or a later screenwriter or movie director would want to consider. We as authors have no obligation to fill in the unseen blanks.
Only the main character in the short story, Like a Dog, is described fully clothed. We can assume the others are too, but I detail only one item for most of the others. Only the protagonist has a name. My narration names the other characters by one of the items each wears. There is Red Finger Nail Lady, Ms. Opaque Creamy Nails and Mr. Coffee Stained Tie.
Other characters have no description beyond the fact we know at least two men wear trimmed beards and that there is at least two other female employees in the office. The trimmed beards are what are left of the men’s former college hippy days. They since compromised their dreams of making a better society, perhaps out of need for employment.
The government sponsored work relief office is made up of losers. Once idealists, they are satisfied with inside jobs that require no creative input. Fingernail polish and a coffee stained tie are about all Paul sees in them. He was a loser, now a recovering alcoholic with places to go and dreams to fulfill. The other men are envious and hold him in distain. The women are hot on Paul.
Greater description of clothing for all but Paul would ruin that story.
Sherry Neary gives delightful description of six women pilgrimaging in a hot car in her short story, After the Spirit – Prophet.
Neary is one author that can skillfully use clothing and fashion description. Here she simply states:
All of the women were dressed in variations of ’60’s polyester: hot and irritating to the skin.
Her previous paragraph began with a description that was so true to form, and yet made me laugh, that I ended up illustrating six cartooned tomato-ladies squashed into an old car. That sentence reads:
The six women were packed in like soft tomatoes.
Sherry Madden Neary’s book, The Two Lives of Annie McGraw is available from Lulu.com, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and iTunes in paperback or as an e-book. (Note: Amazon carries only the paperback version.) View her page on my website.