WriteSpa #36 – Writing about Clothing

Wonder Why When You Read About Someone Wearing
a Pretty Blue Dress You Want One Too?

My husband went through a Perry Mason phase a while back. He’d be dozing through the pages, then he’d suddenly jump up and pour himself a glass of Scotch. Or he’d have an urge to make a steak. Or he’d glance over at my bare legs on the couch, and I’d know that Della Street had just stepped out of the cab and Perry was eyeing her ankles.

Any avid reader knows the power of a book to transport you into another world, be it a magical realm in a fairy tale or a fast-paced thriller.

But apparently this is not just because we’re wildly imaginative readers. Researchers have found that our brains simulate the events of the book in the same way they process events in the real world. In a study described in the journal Psychological Science last summer, it was shown that the way our brains process images and written words is linked to the way they process actions we perform ourselves. For example, reading an active verb such as “button up” or “put on your hat” activates the same region of the brain that is activated when we actually do button up or put on our hat.

One thing I love about noveling, as I call it, is that I can make things up. This is especially fun when I think that the reader is actually experiencing (sort of) the actions of my characters. For example, take clothing. Personally, I don’t really have an eye for clothes, I’m a bit of a slob, I tend to grab comfortable, and not the most flattering, outfits. And yet I love to imagine myself having a glamorous, aesthetic eye and a bottomless wallet.

Describing clothes is a terrific way to enjoy dressing up, without having to. Let your brain simulate the feeling of slipping into a satin black sheath. The shiny fabric gleams in the moonlight, and the pleated bodice might give this deceptively simple gown a unique flair. And are those black diamonds that sparkle as she kicks off her ankle-strap heels and leans back against the sofa to wait for the doorbell to ring…?

The wonderful thing about dressing your characters is that you can ‘wear’ all the clothes you either can’t afford or wouldn’t look too great in. Let your imagination run wild and dress your characters with fun and abandon. If you’ve coveted that wine-and-black silk and lace slip, let your heroine have it for a few hours. Or if that Stetson is something you wish you were brave enough to wear when you visited your mother-in-law, give it to your hero in the interim.


Fun Writing Practice – Writing about Clothing

Describe a character by only describing their clothing. You can use metaphors and similes, and you can tell a story about the clothing (“He wore the sumptuous purple cashmere bathrobe that he’d gotten when he was in Milan the summer before – that had been a good time, and wearing the bathrobe reminded him of it.”) Or: “He wore the sky-blue silk cravat high against his pink, closely-shaved chin, as though he were setting off to his private gentleman’s club on Songbird Street.”

Or maybe you imagine a woman walking down the cobblestone street just as the sun is rising, wearing a linen print of coffee, cream, and powder blue, with a sweetheart neckline, and large black buttons up the front. Lace-up espadrilles give her an easy stride. As she nears, you see that her mascara is smudged from her night out on the town and her hair’s in tangles – she’s had a wonderful time!

Or she’s wearing a flowing gown printed in large blocks of lagoon blue, teal, and fog grey – she spreads out the blanket on the beach, takes off her bottle-green sandals, and muses as the sun sets…

Color is one of the juiciest details when you’re creating a character through their clothing, but don’t just say, “He wore a red vest,” and hope that it evokes the character you’re describing. Instead say something like, “The red vest he wore made her think of a swashbuckling pirate,” or “His suit was somber black, until he reached over to shake her hand, and she was startled by the fire-engine red silk vest he wore underneath. Was he mocking the man who lay in the coffin, just a few feet from them?”

The type of fabric is also good: ruffles, lace, flowing, translucent stuff, smooth, stiff. Avoid words like ‘elegant’ or ‘sophisticated’ and instead show how the outfit is elegant. “The gown shimmered all the way down her back like a waterfall and cascaded to the floor” – you’d assume that gown is elegant, so you don’t have to say so.


Daily Happinesses

  • Swimming at Swift’s Beach
  • The oldest pine tree in the world
  • A printed party invitation
  • Late afternoon in an almost-deserted town
  • Seeking truth
  • Eating ice cream during the short, hot night
  • Iranian folk music

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