by Ruth Harris
The nip slip and wardrobe malfunction make good fodder for the gossip sites, but, for writers, wardrobes — clothes and accessories — are a powerful tool in the arsenal.
1. Clothes and accessories show, not tell.
Clothing and accessories instantly convey status, setting and mood.
They have their own language and vocabulary and can do a great deal of heavy lifting for writers.
The way your characters choose to present themselves through their coats and blouses, puffers, dresses, and workout wear, bracelets, belts, ties, and lingerie can foreshadow clues in a mystery, signal progress (or lack of) in a romance or provide unsettling events in a psychological thriller, represent an era in historical fiction.
- Is that eye-popping bling the real McCoy? Or a thrift shop bargain?
- A character attending a party in a drab outfit in need of a trip to the cleaners can feel off balance and vulnerable. Or indicate a tendency to making poor choices. Or underscore a determination to rebel that can reverberate through a novel.
- A pricey but unflattering (or inappropriate) suit or dress can imbue a character with a false sense of security the writer can then use to complicate or twist the plot.
- Camo purchased from a mil surplus site can indicate aggressiveness — or conceal weakness. Is your character a wimp? A fighter? A fashion victim? Or a trend setter?
2. Clothes instantly convey (and define) time, place and character.
- Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie writing code, getting mega-rich, and ending up in deep doodoo.
- And what football coach, Bill Belichick, and his hoodie stalkng the sidelines?
- Einstein in his cardigan mulling theoretical physics on the grounds at Princeton.
- Anna Wintour and her trademark sunglasses in the first row in Paris.
- Monica and her thong at the White House.
- The Former Guy and his too-long ties in the Oval Office.
- Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck changing the world.
- Elizabeth Holmes and her black turtleneck. (She copied Steve Job’s look as she fleeced investors.)
- Another Holmes — Sherlock — and his deerstalker cap.
- Hillary and her pantssuits.
- Audrey Hepburn and French designer Givenchy.
- Kate Middleton and English designer Alexander McQueen.
- Diplomats don’t dress like bulldozer operators.
- The Temptations ID’d by their color-coordinated suits.
- In the time of Covid, nurses and doctors wear their PPE — a perfect disguise for any character in need of one for whatever reason. Or a marker of authority. Or a sign of caring and kindness.
- Pitchers and short stops don’t dress like quarterbacks or wide receivers. Or riders in the Tour de France.
- Figure skaters don’t dress like hockey players.
- Mountain climbers don’t dress like Formula One drivers.
- Wimbledon white.
- MAGA red.
- Antifa black.
- WFH sweats vs button-down office attire.
- And who wears pants for a Zoom call? Anyone?
Whether you’re writing sci-fi set on a faraway galaxy in the distant future, romance with a fire fighter, a medical thriller set in the present, or a spy story set during the Cold War, the clothes/uniforms/safety gear your chracters wear — or don’t wear — are a significant part of the story.
3. Clothes conceal — or reveal.
Whether you’re writing about a big city fashionista or a suburban stay-at-home-Mom, a tomboy in a small rural town, a 1920s flapper, a 1960s go-go dancer, a 1980s exec headed to the corner office in her jacket with power shoulders, a young skate boarder, a starving artist or a Queen, modern or otherwise, the characters will be different and their clothes will be different.
Whether you’re writing about Cardi B or Lady Gaga, Angela Merkel or Greta Thunberg, about Catherine the Great or the girl next door, their clothes are your secret weapon, a crucial part of the author’s tool kit, an essential way to bring your characters into sharp focus for yourself — and for your readers.
By the way, speaking of writing about a Queen, did you know that the hems of Queen Elizabeth’s skirts are weighted so that no errant gust of wind can blow her skirt up?
Never a photo of Her Majesty with her underpinnings revealed.
And, by the way, what’s in that purse she always carries over her arm? A candy bar? A flask? A .45?
Wouldn’t that be an intriguing plot point?
Not to forget, but doesn’t MarkZ look awfully shifty as he testifies before congress? Is he lying? Is he nervous? Or is he just uncomfortable in a suit? Reader wants to know.
And what happened when Anna Wintour lost her glasses while on a fashion shoot in a remote area of Borneo? Was the heat getting to her? Or was it something else? Who — or what — took Anna’s sunglasses? Reader wants to know that, too!
4. Shoes. They’re made for walking. Or for running.
Actors say that finding the “right” shoes for the character they’re about to play is key. Our characters’ shoes also matter.
Shoes can (and will) evoke characters who will look different, who walk different, whose lives, motivations, goals will be different.
- The fashionista’s stilettos as she hunts for Mr. Right — or tracks down the bad guy.
- The surfer’s flip-flops.
- The tomboy’s Nikes.
- The downtown rebel’s Doc Martens.
- A pair of magic shoes to whisk the character to another world..
- A glass slipper to lead the Prince to his true love.
- The treads of the killer’s sneakers ID the brand and help investigatore solve the case.
5. Scarves, jewelry and accessories — lethal or not.
Lots of possibilities here—
- The heiress with a bloody shirt in her Vuitton bag in Park Avenue Blondes. Did she kill the billionaire? Or was it her fortune-hunting husband?
- In Anne’s Ghostwriters in the Sky, Camilla Randall arrives at the writers’ conference on the back of an outlaw biker’s motorcycle, but she’s wearing Fendi pumps and an Hermes scarf.
- A grocery store tote holding a baby bottle and Pampers. Is she a Mom? A nanny? Or an actress auditioning for a break through role?
- The killer uses a paisley scarf to strangle his victims — and, later, signal for help by tying it to his car’s antenna when he gets caught in a blizzard. And don’t forget the fashion-savvy dectective puts the clues together and solves the case.
- The surprise inheritance of a Victorian brooch can lead a smart, contemporary heroine into another era — and unexpected adventures.
- A receipt for a diamond bracelet found in the glove compartment can prove to a wife that her husband is cheating. Or is he planning the bracelet as her anniversary gift? And how does he explain himself and convince her that her suspicions were mistaken?
- Any competent assassin or bad guy will have the appropriate accessories — an AK15 or a weaponized drone.
- And what about the twisted serial killer? A bow and arrow? A medical kit with poison? Or is it that damn paisley scarf again?
6. Twists and surprises.
Looks can reveal the truth or looks can deceive. The twists and turns are up to the writer but wardrobes accurately described, can launch an engaging, twisty plot.
Take the socialite out of the snooty bistro, put her into vegan lunch counter and you have the beginnings of a plot. What will she think of the bearded video artist who, apparently needing to make a little money, serves her the organic sprout sandwich? What will he think of her? Intrigue? Disdain? Conflict maybe? Leading to sparks?
Then the twist: the “starving” artist working in an organic luncheonette turns out to be a good-guy Department of Health Inspector and the fashionista turns out to be the devil in (knock-off) Prada.
7. Red balconette bras and sequined thongs.
Whatever your character wears — or doesn’t wear — underneath his/her clothes can be turned into a plot point.
In The Big Six Oh!, narrator Blake Weston’s frenemy, the Glam Gourmet, is famous for her red balconette bras and jackets unbuttoned down to the Mason-Dixon line. When Blake worries her husband might be straying, the GG offers advice, but Blake resists.
“Red balconette bras aren’t my style.”
“Maybe they should be.”
Maybe she was right.
- Then there’s the unexpected shock of basic Fruit-of-the Loom white cotton under the fashionista’s haute couture?
- Does the suburban Mom flaunt lacy, silky undies from Paris?
- A sequined thong for the tomboy?
- A va-va-voom bikini for that prim, uptight third grade teacher?
- And what about the rule-breaking downtown artist? A bullet bra maybe? Or a dowdy old-fashioned girdle?
If you’re writing historicals, don’t forget that corsets were abandoned in the 1920’s, that underwire bras became popular in the 1950’s and that recently a bra dating from the Middle Ages was found in Austria.
8. Briefs, boxers, tighty whites or Calvins?
Let’s not forget our heroes, either, the bad boys and the good ones.
- Does the powerful executive in his custom-tailored Saville Road duds indulge in a silk g-string underneath? Comfy? Or kinky?
- The electro-punk musician in tightie whities?
- What does that superhero wear under his tights and cape?
- What, if anything, comes between that cool and clever superspy and his Calvins?
- Is that honest politician (this is fiction we’re talking about, right?) wearing Spanx under his drab off-the-rack suit?
9. What if clothes could talk?
What would they say?
- Does that grungy sweatshirt the MC has had since college remind him of his glory on the baseball diamond?
- Or the time the villain struck out when the championship game was on the line?
- What about that come-hither dress she wore on her first date with The One?
- The unlucky tank top she wore the night The One dumped her to marry someone else.
- The cozy scarf his/her favorite aunt made for him/her that she left in a taxi.
- The sad, neglected sweater in the back of his/her closet that only wants to be worn.
- What would happen if clothes could talk and tell their version of what happened?
Would there be truth? Or consequences?
Only the writer knows.
And only the writer can tell — and show.
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) January 30, 2022
What about you, scriveners? I love adding accessories to my characters. Camilla has her Hermes scarves and designer shoes left over from a more prosperous life.. Do you use clothing to identify or define any of your characters? I think Ruth has given us a wealth of writing prompts here as well!
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Big Six-Oh by Ruth Harris
“Loved it! One ex-cop who doesn’t want help solving a murder. One current wife whose help he needs to catch the killer. One couple meant for each other who fall in love all over again after decades of marriage. Funny, exciting and very romantic.” —Reader Review
Blake Weston, is a smart, savvy, no BS former fashion editor. Her handsome, sexy husband, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop and head of security for an international media company.
When Blake buys a faux Chanel bag from a sidewalk vendor, the danger starts—but doesn’t end—with a scary mugging in broad daylight. From there, it escalates to face-to-face encounters with a gun-toting jailbird, a lovelorn Afghan war lord, and a celeb chef in a red balconette bra.
Meanwhile, Ralph is about to hit the Big Six Oh! and he’s not happy about it. Not that Blake is exactly thrilled. Especially now that she suspects Ralph might be cheating on her. Again.
Right when Blake and Ralph are forced to work together by his über-neurotic boss to bring down a deadly global counterfeiting ring—and save Ralph’s job.
“Funny and charming and a delight to read!
Really yummy. It is a rare author who can bring to the page such vivid and believable characters with so much sly wit and style.” —Reader Review
“Perfect for those of us not looking for bubble gum chick lit.
The relationship between savvy Blake Weston and her ex-cop husband Ralph Marino is realistic and down to earth. And yet the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in kept me flipping the pages well past my allotted reading time. If you’re looking for a wonderfully fast-paced read that will take your mind off whatever you’re stressing about, Harris’s The Big Six-Oh! will fit the bill.” —Reader Review
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