Dressing Your Characters
by Marg McAlister
I'm willing to bet that, most of the time, you tap out a sentence or two about what your character is wearing
almost as an afterthought.
(Hang on, you think, I've got to help the reader picture this guy. What'll I dress him in? Ummm... he's the kind
of guy who wears a cap, so he can have one from the local hardware store. And an old football jersey, and jeans...
right, THAT'S done.) Then away you go, getting on with the 'real' story.
It's easier if you're dressing a female character for a night out, or sending a male character off to play golf.
You tend to think more about what they actually might wear.
However, by glossing over your character's apparel, you're losing a golden opportunity to tell the reader a lot
more about him or her in subtle ways. Readers can learn a lot about a character not only by WHAT your characters
wear, but HOW they wear it. You can also guide readers to make assumptions about your characters by the way they
look after their clothes. Are clothes neatly folded, or dropped in a heap? Are they put in the laundry after one
wearing, or worn until they reek? Are they laundered carefully, or ruined after two or three trips through the
washing machine: pilled, still stained, or pale pink from colour runs from other clothes? If clothes are hung
up or put neatly away in cupboards and drawers, are they colour-coded?
Let's move on to the clothes themselves. Junk mail is a wonderful resource. You'll save yourself a lot of
trouble if you keep a file of sale catalogues and magazines. The library is a great source of magazines, too: of
course you can't tear out pages, but you can photocopy any pages you like. Look for ads for clothes by exclusive or
expensive designers, and note how clothes are described.
Now you're ready to dress your characters. Your catalogues and magazines will tell you the style, colours, and
cost. Does your characters shop at Kmart? Sears? Target? The designer floors at big department stores?
Keep a list of designers and well-known brands - and don't ignore the 'sporting' labels: everything from golf to
Some Suggestions for Lists:
- Designers/Brands/Bargain Stores. (See above.)
- Clothing Catalogues from companies that specialize in hiking/camping/fishing/extreme sports/everyday
- Colours. (Be creative about the way you describe colours. Think like an artist: be accurate. Take a
tip from the copywriters who look for ways to invoke a colour in the reader's mind. For example, not 'orange' -
but 'pumpkin'. Not 'warm brown', but 'copper'. Not 'red', but 'ruby, or 'crimson', or 'scarlet'. Not 'blue',
but 'cerulean'. You can come up with creative descriptions by relating colour to food: 'At first
he thought her shirt was black, but then he saw it had a purple tint, like an eggplant'.)
- Fabrics. (To know what different fabrics are called, look for ads from craft stores/fabric stores.
Note how clothes are described in catalogues. Look for reviews of fashion shows - how do they describe what the
designers came up with?)
- Shoes. (So many of them! Joggers, sandals, flip-flops or thongs (depending on which country you're
from), stilettos, polished leather shoes, loafers, boat shoes... again, look for catalogues from different
- Cut and style. (Do clothes flow, pull tightly, or stretch? Do they fit your character or not? Are
they comfortable - or will your character wear anything to be fashionable or accepted, whether they feel
comfortable or not?)
You can also get inspiration from a quick trip to a shopping mall on a busy day. Buy a cup of coffee and sit
there and watch. You're sure to see your share of fashion disasters, latest trends, grandma clothes, toddler and
baby fashions... and don't forget the accessories: what kinds of bags do people carry? What jewellery/piercings do
they wear? What about glasses/sunglasses? Does their footwear complement the rest of their outfit?
You'll find that if you have a stack of catalogues handy - or if you're really industrious, a binder full of
plastic inserts stuffed with examples you've collected - then the next time you have to describe what a character
is wearing, you'll find it much, much easier!
And finally... here's the resource to end all resources:
There's a huge range of catalogues here - the link on this page takes you to clothing, but you can also
equip your characters with furniture, cars, and pretty much anything else they'll need!
This site encourages you to sign up to get catalogues delivered (USA only), but most catalogues featured here
have a link to the merchant's website, and there you can browse the latest collections to your heart's content.
(For example, when I clicked on Chadwicks of Boston's website link, I was able to access the current season's
I'll leave you with a couple of examples of the way characters' clothing is described from books on my
From RUN FOR YOUR LIFE (James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge):
"Behind his Diesel sunglasses, the Teacher squinted into the bright sunlight that hit him as he cornered the
sidewalk off Eighth Avenue and onto 42nd Street.
He was into his next chameleon act, now wearing a Piero Tucci lambskin jacket over a distressed graffiti T,
Morphine jeans, and Lucchese stingray-skin boots - an outfit that looked casual, but people with eyes for that
sort of thing would know it cost more than a lot of monthly paychecks. He hadn't shaved, and his fashionable
stubble gave him the look of a rock or film star."
From HOLD TIGHT (Harlen Coben)
"Jill's backpack had a New York Rangers insignia on the back. She didn't care much for hockey, but it had
been her older brother's. Jill cherished Adam's hand-me-downs. She had taken lately to wearing a
much-too-large-for-her green windbreaker from when Adam played Pee Wee hockey. Adam's name was stenciled in
threaded script on the right chest".
© Marg McAlister