Describing Clothes in a Novel

I attended a Civil War Fashion Show this morning, as part of research for my next book, Masks.  I know I’m going to need to come up with a second plot for the story, and since the modern day part of the story ties into the Civil War, I’m playing with the possibility of the second plot being during the Civil War.

This got me thinking about clothes in the story.  A lot of writers don’t describe characters or clothes.  Some of the reasons I agree with.  I read a few of the Chick Lit books, and they dropped designer names left and right to describe the character’s clothing and shoes.  I was bored because it felt like it was just showing off designer label knowledge.  Telling me a pair of shows is a Givenchy didn’t add anything to the story.

Yet, I always bring clothes into the story in some way.  But not like that.  And it’s for a very simple reasons:  Clothes are setting.  With my contemporary fantasy thriller Miasma, it’s set in a place like Hawaii.  So it would be typical of the characters to wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals.  If a character wears something different, there’s often a story-related reason.  I have a running joke about shoes, because the main character and his sidekick can’t wear the standard footwear.  Kind of makes it hard to fight monsters or run from them in beach shoes. 🙂

Likewise, if a character ended up in a situation where what they were wearing was completely inappropriate the environment — no jacket, and it snows — clothes suddenly become a very important part of the plot.  With the Civil War, things like patterns might denote what social standing a character has.  Someone who is wealthy might have a dress with a large print or lots of trim.  Or an enlisted man’s pants might be stained and worn.  So describing clothes can have a big impact on not just the setting, but the story and characters as well.

By the woman the model in the photo made the dress she is wearing.  She said that a lot of the materials dresses were made of from the Civil War can no longer be found today.  No one’s making them, and where they are available, they are terribly expensive.

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