Do clothes maketh the man?

A response to Costume

A character in a story must be believable. Not necessarily in the sense that they could be standing next to you at the bus stop, but more that they must be three-dimensional. An actual human being – or little green alien – just not a flat caricature. Trawling the internet for stories, I regularly come across stories where the author thinks the best way to introduce their principal character is to list that character’s physical attributes. Some at least attempt to insert the information into the body of the story, while others don’t even try. In both cases, it’s a cue for me to move on rapidly.

Others have given their craft a little more thought, and manage to describe their characters within the frame of their story. However, these authors then believe that the best way of bringing their characters closer to the reader is to describe what they’re wearing in minute detail. Often with specific, real brand names thrown in for good measure which are repeated ad nauseam. What exactly am I meant to glean from the fact that someone wears Armani jeans, or another carries a Gucci handbag? Yes, I can gather that perhaps they have a lot of money, or that they like status clothes and accessories, but that’s pretty much it. Superficial.

It gives me no sense of them as people with thoughts, emotions, an inner life. Why should I want to know any more about these characters when there is nothing for me to grab hold of? To empathise with. I want to care about what I read. Whether that’s to like, love, hate, despair, or stare in disbelief at a character’s actions. I want to become part of them in some way, whether that’s at the arm’s length view of third person narration, or perhaps, right in their head as they see the story, and their part in it, unfold. Whether the writer’s character is an outlandish alien, a murderer, an elderly person, or whatever – I have to make that connection.

As a writer myself, I know that a character’s clothes are a necessary part of making that person believable. But it’s not often just for what they are. Yes, sometimes they be useful in that way: somebody wearing old, worn, shapeless clothes might give you an idea of the character’s current situation, but not how they came to be there. Or what they themselves thought of wearing such garments. So we’re back to believable characters with a back story, thoughts, emotions.

I have a character in one of my stories who wears such shabby clothing. He does so because he’s retired, on a very restricted income, he has very few social interactions, has lost interest in his life, and lacks self-confidence. And that’s pretty much the point where my story starts from. Will his clothing change over time to reflect any changes in his life? Possibly – another of his traits is that he’s just not interested in clothes. What he wears is just one facet of a complex human being, set in a detailed landscape.

Of course, you can have all sorts of fun with costumes as a writer if you’re writing fantasy, or historical fiction. You might even have to spend a considerable amount of time doing research, but they are still only props. Props which are no substitute for properly developed characters which are what will keep your readers reading. So, do clothes maketh the man? In a writing context, the answer has to be ‘no’.


2 thoughts on “Do clothes maketh the man?

  1. I have to agree with you. Clothing can make a character only in the context of that person’s life and story. If an author felt inclined to show a person’s career by her ensemble, instead of by her workplace interactions, fine. If the character is a vain, foppish dandy, then painting that picture with clothing can be useful. But such characters are hardly common to all writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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