How to Describe Clothing in Writing Without Boring Everybody
If you’re trying to learn how to describe clothing in writing, you’re probably like me:
You’ve only pretended to know what organza is. When you’re shopping for yourself, you know what you like but you don’t know how to describe it. And ninety-nine percent of the clothing descriptions in your first draft are just “jeans.” I get it. Clothing description is something I have to actively choose to create, too. It’s not an aspect of character design that bubbles up naturally from the depths of my creative soul. And as a reader, nothing bores me like an entire paragraph of detailed clothing description.
But I’ve also noticed that artful clothing description does make a character, a setting, and even a moment more engaging. It’s all in the craft.It’s good that you’re here to learn how to describe clothing in writing, because it’s a powerful tool. What your character wears reveals where they come from, how they rank in society, how they want to be perceived, and even how they feel about themselves.
These shallow details help us go pretty deep on character.
The good news is that attire is not only important, it’s also kind of fun when you start digging into it. You find that it’s about more than throwing out fashion terms and listing articles of clothing. It’s about building a life and a world, and that is something you can do.
Let’s talk about how to use clothing description as a storytelling tool, how to dress your character for their personality and setting, and how to make clothes interesting to anyone. Because it actually is possible.
Why Clothing Description Matters
One very important aspect of describing attire well is understanding why you’re describing it in the first place.
What exactly are you trying to communicate about the character, setting, or situation?
The answer to this question gives you a ton of clarity. You suddenly know which details to include, which to leave out, and whether to call it a “blood-red cloak” or a “goji berry wrap.
”Let’s take a look at how clothing description indicates your character’s identity, goals, and culture.
Clothes That Fit Your Character
Those of us who don’t get all jazzed about writing clothing descriptions often fail to consider that a good wardrobe has layers.
I don’t mean camisoles and cardigans. I mean what your character wears provides a clue to how they see themselves, how they want to be seen, and even how others see them.
Clothing description also presents an opportunity to play with different points of view. Maybe your character heads out on the town wearing a “daring leopard print jumpsuit,” only to have their best friend immediately ask where they got the “kitty costume.”
When you use clothing to define who your character is, remember that it can also clarify how they feel about themselves and how they fit into the world around them.
Here are some classic characteristics you can draw out through clothing description.
Conveniently, a lot of high status positions come with outfits or accessories that telegraph a person’s position in the hierarchy. This includes things like a pilot’s uniform, a tiara, or a Pink Ladies jacket.
But status can be communicated in more subtle ways, too. One of the first things I learned when I moved to L.A. is that writers do not dress “professionally” for big meetings in Hollywood. As a friend told me, “Wear jeans and glasses and have a favorite pen. Otherwise they won’t take you seriously as an artist.”
What are the rules of your character’s world? What’s the respected “uniform,” and does your character wear it?
It’s fun to play with power in clothing, because it's a relative concept.
One character might demonstrate their power by showing up to prom in a designer gown. Another might claim power by striding in wearing torn jeans and a tank top.
Both can lose clout simply by the way their peers respond to their wardrobe choices.
Play with the question of presentation and power! It’s a good time.
A band t-shirt. A velvet scrunchie. A pair of starched Wranglers. A vintage polka dot dress with a sweetheart neckline.
I’d be willing to bet each of these items immediately brought to mind a semi-clear character. If you stopped to think about it, you may even notice yourself imagining things as specific as age, hobbies, and ambitions.
It really doesn’t take much. We naturally link clothing and identity, which is why wardrobe is such an effective tool for building a vivid character.
This one is simple, right? Give your wealthy character a pair of Louboutins and dress your non-wealthy characters in hand-me-downs.
That works. But it can also be fun to play with the confidence and ease that comes with wealth.
Your trust fund character might be completely confident showing up to a party in board shorts and flip-flops. Meanwhile, the character who works two jobs while going to school full-time might scour the Goodwill rack for a designer tag to help them fit in at the same party.
If I’m wearing lipstick with no plans of going out, one of two things is happening:
I’m in a great mood or I’m feeling like I have zero control over my life and failure is inevitable.
What your character wears can tell us a lot about how they feel or how they want to feel. A self-conscious kid tries to disappear inside their oversized sweatshirt. An anxious college student buys a flower crown in the hopes of feeling young and free at Coachella.
Clothes can betray our greatest joys and our deepest insecurities. So have fun with that.
Clothes That Fit Your Character’s Goals
As I write this, I am wearing jeans that are too big, a gray t-shirt I inherited from a former roommate, and a pilled hoodie from a lighting vendor that works with my friend’s husband’s company.
Given that I am writing alone in my apartment, you might rightfully conclude that my goal is to be comfortable.
But put me in a job interview wearing the same outfit, and you’d probably start making new guesses about my intentions. Am I trying to blow the interview? Impress someone with my indifference? Slog through another meaningless day in a world where nothing matters?
Or is comfort just that important to me?
Clothing tells your reader a lot about your character’s goals and motivations within a given scenario.
Which of these clothing types is your character most likely to reach for when starting their day?
This includes items like steel-toed boots, heavy denim, or tech-forward, snag-resistant superhero spandex.
If sturdy is a top consideration, your character might be expecting trouble or adventure. Maybe a bit of both. They’re probably less concerned with how they look (unless they want to look intimidating) and more concerned with things like survival or victory.
Is your character trying to attract positive attention? Then this is their category.
Maybe they’re hoping to impress the cool kids or please their parents. Maybe their goal is to entice a mate. Or it could be that they want to be charmed by their own image when they look in the mirror. Either way, their goal is to be desirable, whatever “desirable” means in this situation.
Details about fit, cut, and material go a long way when describing the clothing of a character who longs to attract. Non-visual senses are big, too. Think touchable fabrics and the light scent of lavender soap.
Maybe your character is snuggled up in their fleece pajamas while the blizzard rages outside. Or they could be frantically running errands in leggings and a t-shirt.
Whether it’s a matter of indulgence or survival, feeling good is a deeply relatable goal. Help your readers feel the relaxed, organic cotton or the memory foam slipper, and they’ll feel your character’s priorities deep in their own souls.
This is a fun one. Does your character need to hide? Sneak around? Blend in?
Stealthy clothes bring to mind burglars clad in black outfits and soft-soled sneakers. But the definition of “sneaky” depends on your character’s situation.
Do they need a ghillie suit to blend into the natural environment? Or are you writing a spy character who dons Lululemon to infiltrate an upscale yoga studio?
Is your central conflict a life-or-death situation? Odds are, you’ve got a character who dresses to stay alive. Think armor, bulletproof vests, and bandoliers.
Your character might also have a job or hobby that requires protective clothing. Whether it’s a beekeeping suit, climbing helmet, knee pads, or sun-protective fabric, what your character wears provides a clue about what’s at stake in the coming scene.
Clothes That Fit Your Character’s World
The first time I joined my family for our biannual Minnesota fishing trip after moving to L.A. from the Midwest, I found myself constantly losing my aunt and mother.
Every time we got separated in a public space, I discovered myself in a sea of mature women with the same haircut and pastel tops. I never thought of there being a uniform for Midwestern ladyness. It took leaving the Midwest to recognize it.
But that’s the case wherever you go. Our wardrobes are influenced by our age, geography, culture, hobbies, and a million other aspects of our worlds.
Even the non-conformists are influenced by societal norms. The surrounding culture dictates what they can’t wear if they want to be seen as free-thinking individuals. (Huh.)
All this to say: there is substantial storytelling power in a coral “Life is Good” t-shirt.
Here’s how to describe clothing in writing to show your readers the world to which your character belongs…
…or the world they’re desperately resisting.
Clothing is one of the easiest and most immediate ways to establish an historical setting. If your protagonist is donning a tri-cornered hat, loosening a corset, or strutting through town in a new toga, your reader has a good sense of time period.
Or at least they know what century they’re in.
Now, if you write historical fiction, it’s important to research the clothing of your chosen era. More on that in a bit.
Clothing reflects the resources available in a specific time and place. When describing clothing in writing, consider:
- The time period of your story. (Has denim been invented yet?)
- The geographical location of your story. (Would people living in this area have access to leather goods?)
- Your character and community’s financial resources. (Where do they buy their clothes? How long do they need their clothes to last?)
You can also use this aspect of clothing description to paint a vivid picture of the world you imagined. Would the fashion designers in your fantasy novel make use of dragon scales? Are the characters of your dystopian novel forced to make do with burlap and mud?
Where does your story take place?
The answer can guide you towards certain fashion trends to inspire your character’s wardrobe. The geographical setting might suggest that your characters are expected to abide by strict rules for modesty or are celebrated for being wild and free.
And of course, location provides a clue for what it takes to be comfortable in the world of your story. If your character comes home and immediately sheds three layers of down and fleece, I’m going to assume they’re not in San Antonio, Texas.
Do your characters care deeply about looking respectable, or are they more afraid of putting on airs? What matters more to them: fashion or function? Do they strive to be humble before their god or do they want to spend this one and only life as their bold, ostentatious selves?
What is the prevailing value in the society of your story? Do all your characters embrace it? Who's your rebel, and how does their clothing reflect their defiant spirit?
How to Describe Clothing in Writing Without Dragging Down the Story
Hopefully, you now have more wardrobe ideas for your characters than just “red shirt, blue pants.” But what about the process of actually sharing these details in your novel?
Let’s talk about how to describe clothing in writing organically. Like all forms of exposition, your goal is to deliver this information without pulling the reader out of the story. We’re trying to avoid, “Isabell gazed out the window, and by the way, she was wearing a white terry cloth robe.”
Here’s how it’s done.
Focus on Building the Scene and Character
First and foremost, remember that clothing description is still storytelling. You’re not infodumping. You’re working essential details into the narrative at the moment when they are most relevant.
It’s okay if Todd’s checks his designer watch three pages after you mention his silk tie. The reader does not need the full outfit in one go.
Also bear in mind that not all clothing descriptions have to be presented as “She put on x” or “He was wearing y.” You can draw your reader’s attention to an item of clothing by having your character draw on their jeans or fiddle with their collar.
Characters can also comment on or react to one another’s clothing, as long as the exchange reveals something about the world or relationship.
Don’t Show Everything
Our imaginations can do a surprising amount with just a few key details. If you tell your readers about Nanette’s light pink cardigan and string of pearls, you don’t have to say much about the shoes and skirt and silk blouse. They’ll see it automatically.
Select the most striking details and move on.
Use the Senses
One reason clothing descriptions can start to feel like a tedious laundry list (see what I did there?) is because we get stuck on what things look like. But there is so much more to the experience of clothing than that.
Tell us how the wool of your protagonist’s sheath dress scratches the skin on the underside of her arm. Mention the familiar swooshing of the neighbor’s tracksuit as he runs by the house every morning or how the aunt’s jacket always smells like cold air and pine needles.
Fabric, Fit, Quality, Color
If you’re good at talking clothes, you can sit this one out. But for writers like me who get stuck in the “white socks, green dress” rut, here’s a quick reminder:
Details about fabric, fit, quality, and color are super effective when it comes to creating a sense of character, place, or moment.
Baggy jeans. A scarlet pantsuit. A four-layer, bubble-gum pink taffeta skirt. The only cloak in the world made with silk spun by the cat-sized spiders that live in the forbidden mountains.
These images all go a lot further than “white socks, green dress,” and most of them don’t require a lot of extra words.
Make It Significant
Consider whether your character’s attire might serve as a symbol, highlight a theme, or represent a conflict.
Maybe they’re wearing an article of clothing that once belonged to someone they’ve lost. Or they’ll be living off soda crackers and peanut butter for the next week because they drained their checking account for a suit to impress at their job interview.
What would “high stakes clothing” look like in your story?
Let the Clothing Tell a Story
Really, the topic of this article is not how to describe clothing in writing as much as it is how to tell a story with clothes. Because like all other character details, it’s not enough to paint a picture. The image you create has to play a role in the narrative.Consider the character arc. Who is your character at the beginning of the story, and how can you dress them to establish their “normal”? How do they change, and how does their clothing reflect that change?
Be specific and accurate. In other words, research.
If you write historical fiction, you’re probably way ahead of me. You’re already obsessing over hat styles and what the undergarment situation was at the time of your story. Not to pile on, but don’t forget to make sure you know which materials were—and weren’t—available in the world of your novel.
And if you don’t write historical fiction? You’re still not off the hook. Make sure you know what’s hot and what’s not in your specific setting, as well as what specific words the locals would use. Are they overalls or coveralls? Sweaters or jumpers?
Get it right, and you transport your readers to a vivid world.
Dabble with Depth
If there is one thing I hope you take from all of this, it’s that none of this is about describing what a character looks like. Not really.
Sure, it helps your reader to know how you picture a character. It makes for a more entertaining read. But your reader is going to picture something whether you guide them or not. The reason we fuss over physical descriptions is not because it’s so important that the reader’s imagination gets it right.
It’s because concrete details are incredibly effective in communicating abstract concepts. In writing, the clothes kind of do make the (hu)man. Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham said, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” Try applying this philosophy to clothing descriptions in your writing and see what happens.
What does your character wear to feel safer in their world or in their own skin? How does their attire reflect what they want, what they fear, or where they’re going?
These are deep questions. And if you need a place to organize your complex responses, I recommend Dabble’s Character Notes feature. You can keep track of your character’s signature style, upload photos, note how their style evolves, and keep these ideas right at your fingertips as you write.
Not a Dabble user? No problem! You can try all Dabble’s premium features for free for fourteen days. Just click this link and don’t even think about touching your wallet. You don’t need it to sign up.
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