The series I started some time ago called Writing from a Sense of Place, is all about how we put our readers in our location. Note I said in, not at, our location. You want your reader to be with you, in your location. So how do we set the scene so that our readers are with our characters? Clothes are one of the most obvious, yet wonderful tools, used to achieve this goal.
Never take clothes for granted. In the historical genre, you can use what people wore to make your reader feel uncomfortable, rather than comfortable. Describe feelings instead of simply saying, she was wearing a long skirt. How does it feel to wear a long skirt? What sound does a long skirt make as it swishes around the ankles? How easy is it to stand-up? Sit down? Can you make your reader feel how unwieldy, uncomfortable or awkward it can be to wear a long skirt? Especially if the hem is wet? Would wool itch?
Also in an historical sense, what about men’s clothes? In Death in the Mountains I constantly used clothes to put the reader in my environment, the rural, mountainous Tuscany of 1907. From research I found that the men did not wear belts, they wound bands of cloth around their waists. The men felt they could bend and move with more flexibility with cloth, rather than leather around their waists. They would put a hole at the top of an oxen horn, put their knife in the horn and wind the horn through the sashes at their waist. It was a unique practise and if written into the story correctly, would add depth to the farmer’s clothes and therefor the way my reader imagined them. Using this information as part of the story would help place the reader in the field with my farmers.
Another example of clothes taken from Death in the Mountains is Bruna’s apron. She had huge bosoms. Every morning Bruna strapped her apron around her rib cage and sighed with relief because her apron doubled as a bra. The idea for the apron came before the idea that Bruna had big bosoms. As in, the apron led to the bosoms.
In more contemporary settings, clothes are just as important. Ask yourself these questions about your character’s clothes. These questions can help you think about how the clothes make the character.
How do the clothes hang? Are they lose, sloppy? Tight and neat? What colour is your character wearing? Mousy brown? Or is he/she limited to a certain colour or style because he/she does not buy her/his own clothes? How does that make them feel? How do they wear the angle of their hat? Are their clothes clean or stained or smelly?
Of course you can choose to ignore your character’s clothes completely. However, if you start to think about the kind of clothes your character chooses to wear it gives your reader a good idea about your character. What kind of watch, sunglasses, earrings or tattoo would your character choose?
Even if you don’t put those objects in your story, they still give you, the writer, a greater understanding of who your character is. And the more you understand your character, the more your readers will too.