What She Wore

Descriptions of characters are the bedrock of fiction. Clothes are an essential component of these descriptions for many authors. Romance novelists may linger over the ball gown of a debutant, but they are not alone. All sorts of writers rely on clothing to help shape initial impressions or to place a character into a particular context.

James M. Cain introduced his ultimate noir femme fatale with this classic first person narrative in “Double Indemnity.”

“A reputable agent don’t get mixed up in stuff like that, but she was walking around the room, and I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.”

Bram Stoker wrote Jonathan Harker’s first encounter with the count in “Dracula,” with a description that helped create an enduring stereotype of vampires dressed in black.

“Within stood a tall old man clean-shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck if colour about him anywhere.”

I think some authors “vamp” with excessive descriptions of clothing and accessories. I recently read an otherwise intriguing lawyer/investigator mystery in which the character’s clothing — her casual “walk-the-dog” outfits, beach volleyball athletic wear, suits for court, jeans for burgers — started to wear (pun intended) on me.

Of course, some references to clothing are so precious and precise that they reveal insights into more than one character. This is true of the often-quoted line of Daisy’s in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

“It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

And then there is Jane Austen. She stands alone in wit and wisdom about fashion. This is from “Northanger Abbey.”

“It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of a man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire… Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.”

Sometimes less is more when authors describe what she wore.


  1. As a reader, I’m not a fan of opulent description in most cases, but for some reason I covet pastoral description with a fervor. When I was going my student-teaching with ninth graders, I was all excited about Wallace Stegner and incorporated an audio clip as part of a description activity. Well… let’s just way ninth graders aren’t too keen on Stegner 😉 I have had some fun though describing my protagonist’s clothes in my novel because she wears things like polyester slacks and 99 cent flip-flops.

    • Candy Korman

      Polyester slacks and 99 cent flip-flops… Fabulous! I have an immediate picture in my head and some specific ideas about the character’s priorities, lifestyle and how other characters in the novel view her. Clothes can do that. I just get bored if I’m getting know everything in the walk-in closet. (Unless, of course, if the walk-in closet is significant in the plot.)

  2. I’m not terribly fond of long, drawn out descriptions of any sort, including those by George R.R.Martin, but the odd rave about clothing can be fun, and really set the mood. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      Yes! I think it’s dependent on the character. If clothes truly reflect the individual’s insides, then dwell on the outsides. It can also be fun, in the chick-lit at its best mode. The time in annoys me is when it’s ALL on the surface. One of the many books I could not make myself finish this year had more clothes than plot. It was dreadful!

  3. I get bored when a writer uses the clothes as a crutch to describe the characters. It tends to feel like a laundry list of things they feel need to be said instead of a natural part of the scene. Sometimes all you really need is the sparkle on the hero’s teeth to give the ready the perfect mental imag.