Characterization Through Fashion

Fashion plays a huge part in our life whether or not we believe it. The way we present ourselves to those around us gives clues as to the kind of person we might be. If you are fashion oriented, all of this can be woven into a fiction narrative to better build your characters.

Who They Are

Expression of character can be found through a number of creative techniques, but reflection of character can also be found in the usage of fashion. What they wear can just as easily give hints and clues as to the character’s personality as a facial expression or save the cat moment.

In my most recent young adult MS, I use clothing to help build the characters on the page. My protagonist is a bit of a mess, but tries her damnedest to be her true self. She leans toward darker fabrics, all ripped and frayed. She wears DIY t-shirts and colors her hair. By mixing the bright and dark with a frayed, punk-style fashion, I can encapsulate the sass and history that make her who she is.

Think about the things your character might wear when no one is looking. What do they reach for? Is it the silk robe that reminds them of how far they’ve come in life? Is it the threadbare sweater gifted from a lover they still hold a candle for? Weaving these small details into your writing subtly adds a layer of characterization that doesn’t require pages and pages of backstory.

If you want, try to make a Pinterest closet for your character. Pinterest is a great way of saving and storing images for inspiration. I like to keep some of mine as secret boards to avoid cluttering. You’re welcome to do that with this.

Try to save all the images of clothing your character might wear. Ask yourself why the character likes this. Is it because it’s simple and soft? Is it because they can move easily? Would they look utterly badass? A lot of this reflects upon your character.

How They Want to be Seen

On the other hand, I have characters who wear near perfect ensembles in an attempt to portray a perfect visage. These characters use fashion as a tool to hide the troubles they’re going through, either literally or metaphorically.

There’s an adage that says to dress for the job you want, not the job you have. There will be people who dress exactly as they are, but many will dress as they want to be seen. Characters who want power will reach for structured or disarming outfits (depending on their methods of obtaining power). There is a front presented, but what lays behind the front? How can you use that misdirection to fool the reader and the protagonist?

This goes hand in hand with my favorite writing tip: every character has a secret. Clothing can be a kind of distraction, pulling readers and characters away from the reality of a character’s true by by subtle, or not so subtle, subterfuge. By putting a character in dainty dresses and bows, it indicates a kind of frailty. That is how we see those things since they are associated with innocence and youth. But, the clothing doesn’t have to BE the character. The person in the dress could be using it to lower defenses. No one suspects the frail and dainty character dressed in bows and ribbons to know that a well placed dagger in the armpit can reach the heart.

Both methods of clothing as a misdirection can pull the reader’s view of a character in a specific direction based on how you dress them. The reveal, metaphorically (if not literally) stripping them, can open new veins for your story and leave readers pleasantly surprised. The power craving antagonist dressed in structured clothing is secretly falling apart at the seams. The dainty character could sidle up to your protagonist and hold them at knife point.

What Happens at the Intersection

Who a character is and how they want the world to perceive them will not always alight. More often than not, there is an intersection between the two, probably somewhere along a sliding axis.

Some characters will present as more of themselves and strive to look like the person they want to be. This character will be more comfortable as themselves and either grow into the person they want to be or realize the clothes were uncomfortable because it wasn’t meant for them. If this is where the intersection happens, decide who your character is and who they want to be. Who they are at the beginning of the story will define what they are comfortable in. Who they want to be will change their appearance, but in an awkward and fumbling way until they find the balance or a truth about themselves.

At this intersection, I like to imagine someone who is comfortable in sweats and loose tees. They’re the home-body type, but maybe they want to be the stereotypical prom queen/King. This might prompt them to make fumbling attempts at mascara or wear clothes that they think the prom queen might wear.

Inversely, we arrive at another intersection. This is the character who dresses the way they want to be perceived. This is the person who might wear clothing as armor. Using this as a defense hides what is truly beneath. While the inside might be a bit like the outside, there is always a soft spot they’re trying to defend (I’m looking at you, Evangeline Samos).

The intersection between who a character is and who they want to be seen as will create a depth and open doors for character arcs. Figure out where your character falls upon this axis. One end of the scale creates a character who portrays themselves as honest, while the other end creates a layer of falseness and misdirection.

What Happens When that Is Taken

Stripping a character of their fashion, in a prison or controlled setting, can be a physical representation of being stripped bare. It can cause the character to question who they are.

By being forced into clothing they normally would not wear, they can suffer from a loss of self. The persona they are forced into can attempt to overwhelm the person they are, creating a tense internal conflict on the page. To do this, you can either strip them of everything leaving them in something bland like a jumpsuit or even naked, or you can choose to force a character into something opposite their choice.

The bland or even naked option confronts the character with the loss of self. It is unavoidable and must be reconciled with emotionally, furthering the character’s arc. A character forced to deal with this must think quickly and realize themselves or fall into a pit of questioning. That’s up to your discretion.

Forcing the character into clothing opposite of what they’d choose for themselves begets a much slower process of change. At first, the character could cling to their idea of them-self. Slowly, over time, that idea will bleed into the image of what they see, turning into the kind of person that would wear those clothes.

Now, this could be used for both good and bad. A character could be forced into a role and rise to the occasion. It’s a glorious moment of self exploration. On the other hand, this tactic could be used to torment a character’s state of mind. If you’ve read King’s Cage by Victoria Aveyard (Sorry, not sorry for all the Red Queen references), you’ll recognize Mare Barrow’s situation at the hands of Maven and Evangeline. Over and over, she’s forced into dresses that are ornate and regal, and not at all her. Slowly, you can see her mind twisting into the situation. It’s used not only to showcase Mare as a kind of symbol for their tricks, but as a kind of psychological warfare.

The Power of Creation

If you’re fashion oriented, you may want to add a character who creates the fashion. This can be anything from a seamstress in a fantastical nation to a cyberpunk teenage blending tech with clothing. Allowing your characters to create gives them not only an outlet of expression, but gives them power in a world that might not hand them a whole lot. Creation is ultimate control, as you might know from writing.

Small expressions of the character with the power of creation should shine through. It’s like their signature. From a hidden dagger sheath to cloth with the power to hack computer systems (it may not be proper science, but fiction is fun), these additions are reflections of the way the world has effected and nurtured the character. Someone who has little might try to find their way into more through a combination of passion and lucrative. Combining a family trade or passion for clothing with lucrative computer technology shows wit and ambition. On the other hand, combining tailoring with hidden weaponry shows a second nature and a rebellion against patriarchal norms.

Fashion Through Fiction

Go ahead and write off the style choices of your characters, but there is much to be said about the usage of fashion within fiction. Not only does it give a feeling for the setting and genre, but it can be used to create complex characters, build their arcs, craft twists for the reader’s enjoyment.

If you loved this post and want to work on your characters through the lens of fashion, I’ve created a simple and free printable. Click the link below to download yours today!

Character Fashion Worksheet

Fashion Worksheet Preview Image

2 thoughts on “Characterization Through Fashion”

    1. I try to do two posts a month at this point. I’d love to write more, but life is just too busy. Sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to keep up with all the latest posts!

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