A Novel Discussion: How Important Are Characters Clothes?

A Novel Discussion

I recently reviewed Carrie Ryan’s YA Mystery Daughter of Deep Silencewhich I gave 3/5 due to its lacklustre characters and plot. However, one thing I didn’t like about the novel that I didn’t actually mention was the style of one of the characters. Sounds petty, I know, but as soon as Greyson Wells, the love-interest, was described as wearing ‘pressed khakis and a light pink button-down shirt’ to a posh fundraiser, I knew I would never grow to ‘swoon’ over this supposedly handsome love interest. Not a chance.

Who wears khakis to a respectable event? What are you do wearing those monstrosities? I immediately imagined the short khakis, not the long trousers, which I’m presuming he’s wearing because it’s summer and they’re by the beach, but still. Unacceptable. And khaki with pink? Don’t even go there.

Yes, I am well aware that I sound like the fashion police right now, but of course I’m exaggerating (just a little). I’m pretty sure ‘pressed khakis’ are much more popular in the USA (where the novel is set) than the UK, so khakis might sound extremely normal to any American reader. In fact, when I google ‘pressed khakis’, there are only results for American retailers, no British ones. But for me, it just sounds like a fashion disaster. Invest in some nice suit trousers, Greyson Wells, not khakis. I think of khakis and I see Donald Trump, and I really don’t want to imagine the love-interests in novels as young Donald Trump’s.

So, this got me thinking; how important are the clothes characters wear? Clearly Greyson Wells’ fashion sense was enough to put me off him a little, but his personality wasn’t great either. Sure, if he’d had a great personality, I’d have forgiven the khakis, because I read novels to learn about and enjoy these fictional people, not lament over their dress sense. But still, it clearly affected my overall attraction to him as a character.

Of course, in Fantasy or Sci-Fi novels, clothes are often used to convey status, such as the use of flashy armour, family insignia’s, jewellery. Even today, clothes still convey status. A man wearing an Armani suit? Must be rich. Maybe a businessman. Or a celebrity.

Let’s use a TV programme as an example here. Arya Stark in Season 1 of Game of Thrones wears a thick cloak, a fresh dress, her hair clean and plaited. Arya Stark in the most recent Season is wearing rags, her hair limp and greasy, her skin dirty. You don’t need to watch Game of Thrones to understand that something bad has happened to Arya between these two stills. Clothes show status, but I don’t like Arya any less for being dirty and in rags. So why did Greyson Wells’ outfit put me off him?

Maybe I expected him to dress well because his father is a rich senator, but wealth doesn’t equate fashion sense (yes, Donald Trump, I mean you). Or maybe, because he’s the love-interest, I expect him to dress in a style that I like on men. Just a normal suit would have sufficed. But I can’t expect every girl in every book to dress how I do, or every boy to dress how my boyfriend does.

However, you do expect a love-interest to be one thing: handsome, in some way or another. I don’t expect every man in every novel to look like Tom Hardy, although I can dream, but they do need to have something that’s attractive about them. Whether that be their face, their personality, their physique or style, you want to be attracted to them, you want to root for them to end up with the other main character, be they man or woman, if there’s a romance.

Let’s take another example from a TV series, Peaky Blinders:

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Now, let’s ignore the fact that Cillian Murphy is very pretty and focus on the clothes. Clean, sharp (I’m not talking about the razor blades in their caps here), layered. You know they’re organised, that they care about looking good, that they have money. Their suits say power and confidence. Clothes tell us immediately what someone is like before they’ve even opened their mouth. John, on the left, hat slightly askew – what does that imply? That he breaks the rules? You’d be right about that, but then again they all do. Tommy, in the middle, hat straight, arguably a nicer waistcoat than John’s – he’s the leader. Arthur, right, coat buttoned-up – things he wants to hide? Yes, but I do watch the show, so I’m probably just reading into it. But still, you see what I mean, their clothes can tell us what they’re like. And also, those suits are way more attractive than khakis and a pink shirt. I’d make my boyfriend dress like the Peaky Blinders if I could (yes I would, Mark).

So how important are the clothes that characters wear? In my opinion, quite important. They tell you something about the character. Even if it’s a knight in armour, you know they’re strong and respected. Clothes will tell you if someone conforms or rebels, what their personality may be like, how much they value their appearance.

On the other hand, some authors never tell us what their characters are wearing. Do I mind? No, I just imagine them how I like, or how I think best fits their personality. Yet this still proves the importance of clothes; not just as something to cover people up with, so characters aren’t running about naked in our heads as we read a book, but so that we can project what clothes we like and want onto them. It gives us a sense of ownership, makes us like them more. In the end, clothes, to me, are an important factor of characterisation. But does it matter a lot? No, unless your character is personality-less and dresses like Donald Trump, in which case, yes, it matters a lot.

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So, over to you; how important are the clothes characters wear? Let me know in the comments below, whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d love to hear some other opinions!

Caitlin (1)

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10 thoughts on “A Novel Discussion: How Important Are Characters Clothes?

  1. I completely agree that a character’s style, especially one who is a love interests is so important! If you feel that they look silly, you wont find them attractive and will be turned off the story! x

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  2. I really can’t stand descriptions of character’s clothing. In fantasy novels it’s just about pardonable because it represents personality/status/magical powers etc. but in modern novels, it just isn’t necessary. I’m not going to remember if John Smith wore a blue shirt with black trousers or a black shirt with blue trousers and it doesn’t develop the character/plot at all. I’d rather leave it up to my imagination to decide how they look and dress, with minimal description from the author! x

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    • I agree, I hate long descriptions of clothes too, I think that’s unnecessary, but I do appreciate when we get a small description if it’s relevant; such as highlighting aspects of their personality, as I think this can be used to develop the plot and character. It’s interesting to hear that you don’t care about clothing at all though, and I do agree that sometimes it’s just better to imagine what they’re wearing yourself. Thanks for the comment! x

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  3. This is a great question! I’ve never really thought about it. So I guess that probably means I’m not that picky about character clothing? I do recall one review in which I mentioned I liked how the character dressed simply because he had unique style and stayed true to himself by dressing that way. But the more I think about it, I guess I do sometimes, let’s say, appreciate a character more if he’s dressed in something I would find hot, haha.

    And yes! I paused on the Peaky Blinders picture for a moment just to look at Cillian Murphy, haha, and then I saw your comment about him. I’ve never actually seen the show, but yeah, I’d totally be into a man wearing that outfit. I think I’m getting sidetracked now lol.

    I do appreciate when an author mentions what someone is wearing though. I mean, obviously my brain fills in the details without me really noticing since no one is just going about naked in my head, but I still like to actually know so I can make a clearer picture. So I suppose clothes are a somewhat important detail.

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    • Thank you! I don’t normally think about it too much, in all honesty, but sometimes I think it can be quite important, and it’s always interesting to know. Haha exactly, as shallow as it is we do appreciate someone more if they’re dressed in a style we like!
      Hahaha how anyone can’t pause to stare at a picture of Cillian Murphy is behind me! Peaky Blinders is a really good show so give it a watch if you ever find the time!
      Yeah thankfully our brains fill in the clothing details haha but it’s always interesting to know what the character would actually choose to wear. Thanks for commenting!

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  4. I think that clothes only need to be mentioned in novels if they’re a plot point (a stolen jewel, a hat that’s going to blow away in a later scene and force the characters to chase it, a watch handed down by a grandfather, etc.) otherwise, readers will do a pretty good job of mentally clothing the character to fit the occasion, and their own pre-conceptions. I honestly can’t picture described clothing that well, so paragraph upon paragraph about the embroidery on a poofy dress is just going to make me want to stop reading.

    TV, film, even graphic novels, it’s a different story. There, you have to dress your characters appropriately because it’s a visual medium and there are very few circumstances where the completely starkers look is acceptable (though GoT manage it a lot.) Everything is there and being (ahem) looked at, so you need to cover them up with uber-talented costume departments.

    Yes, clothes can say a lot about a character – and in visual media the directors, producers, etc. can use them to say things that took up pages in the book – but overall, clothes should be used wisely. They’re supposed to compliment a character, not overshadow them.

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    • I love your last sentence in this comment, totally sums the discussion up! I agree that long paragraphs on clothing are just boring and that clothes should only really be described if they further the plot or enhance the character. I think my opinion of Greyson Wells in Daughter of Deep Silence would have fared better if the author had just never told me what he was wearing in the first place. It didn’t serve the plot at all, and I just hated his clothes haha! But yeah, in TV etc clothes are much more important, obviously, simply because people can’t run about naked (unless it’s GoT, like you pointed out haha) and because someone wearing a t-shirt and jeans in a Victorian drama would look extremely out of place. Thanks for your comment, it was really interesting!

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