Character Clothing, Part 2

Welcome back, everyone – this is part two in my series on clothing. As promised, today I’ll talk a bit about symbolism, fashion trends, and tradition.


I’ll begin with symbolism and the importance of color.

When it comes to clothes, the easiest way to symbolize something is by using color meanings. Different cultures assign different meanings to different colors; I’m going to focus on western symbolism today. Here’s a quick run-through of the basic color meanings:


Red – passion, love, anger, danger

Yellow – blindness or illumination, sometimes at the same time

Green – birth, rebirth

color wheelPurple – royalty

Pink – femininity

White – purity, life

Black – death

Gray – life and death at the same time

Gold – wealth

Brown – of the earth


Of course, you’re welcome to use another culture’s symbolism, but keep in mind that your readers will assume you’re using what they know. If you want to use something else, make sure you at least hint at its meaning.

(For a more in-depth look at cultural color symbolism, check out this page.)

In the same way, you’re welcome to make up your own color meanings – just make sure you explain them. (This is where a foreign character is helpful; his ignorance of the culture opens the door for natural explanations and helps you avoid exposition.)

Another thing to take into consideration when choosing what color someone is wearing is the cost. Some colors are harder to manufacture, and therefore carry a higher price. For example, greens, yellows, and browns come from plants and are fairly cheap to make. Blues and purples, on the other hand, come from materials that are difficult to gather, like snail shells and lapis lazuli. There’s a reason purple is the color of royalty – it’s a cheaper version of blue, the most expensive color.


ribbonsNext, a word on fashion trends.

Now, some of you will have no problem understanding what drives trends and have a great time deciding what’s in style in your world. For those of you like me, who have no idea, don’t panic. Unless you’re writing a novel about a dressmaker or high-society lady, you’re not going to need to go in-depth.

Basically, just be aware that trends exist. Certain classes will follow them almost religiously: the nobility, for the status and show of wealth, and the middle class, in an attempt to copy the nobility and appear high class.

For a writer’s purposes, trends can be as simple as “beaded trim is the latest thing” or “bright colors are in right now.” The level of detail is entirely up to you.


Finally, we’ll end with tradition.

This can be as basic as peasants wearing simple clothing because it’s practical, or as complicated as avoiding a certain style due to a social stigma. You’ll want to think beyond “we’ve always worn our sleeves like this” to what’s considered modest, inappropriate, or forbidden.

kimonoIs a certain color only for the nobility?

Is black thought to cause bad luck?

Are there any punishments for dressing above your station?

Is it socially acceptable for girls to wear pants?

Where is the line between modest and risqué?

Does style or color signify profession?

Tradition, if used correctly, can add a wealth of depth to a setting.


Hopefully this has given you something interesting to think about – as always, thanks for reading!

Character Clothing, Part 1

This post is actually the first in a two-part series about clothes and character dress. The first section focuses on why clothing is a valuable tool in fiction and how to design unique garments. The next section will talk about tradition, trends, and symbolism.


clothes babyFirst off: why is clothing important? (Apart from the obvious, that is.) After all, some writers say a character has a blue shirt and leave it at that. However, this leaves the reader with very little to go on. Having a level of detail, even if only in your head, will show through in your work and help others visualize. If you can’t picture what the character’s wearing, you can hardly expect your reader to.

In addition, clothing can be a valuable tool in establishing setting. If your heroine is wearing a floor-length, velvet dress, we clearly aren’t in modern times. If she’s wearing jeans and a tank top, we’re unlikely to be anywhere else. Unless we’re in a time-travel story. In that case, good job achieving maximum contrast.

(On a side note, if your story is set in a specific time and place, don’t make things up – do the research and match your setting. Anything else will take readers out of the story.)

Clothing can also tell a lot about the character wearing it. Dull earth tones could mean the hero can’t afford bright colors or simply doesn’t want to stand out. Elaborate stitching or embroidery shows that the heroine is well-off, or at least has access to hand-me-downs from someone who is. Black leather and chains definitely screams ‘rebel’ (and probably ‘delinquent’). When we first meet a character, what they’re wearing can be our best indicator of personality and circumstance.


sariNow, let’s move on to the fun part: designing.

Don’t panic – you don’t have to invent a totally new style for your character to stand out. There are plenty of places you can draw from. Once you find something you like, steal it, adapt it, or mix it with something else.

So: inspiration.

The most obvious place to look is at different cultures’ traditional wear. (Everything I’ve said in other posts about Eastern vs. Western cultures also applies here: If you want exotic, go east. Close to home, stay west.) It also helps to be specific when you search. Plug “traditional Japanese clothes” into Google and you’ll get results. Put in “Japanese women’s clothes warring states era” and you’ll get better ones. You can get much more if you search a specific time period – just think of how much fashion changed between the 70s and 80s.

Another potential source is modern clothing. Today’s fashions can be great inspiration, but generally work best for more futuristic stories. Even if your society is very progressive, it’s going to seem odd to have contemporary-based clothing in a more medieval setting. In some cases, material or manufacture would make it impossible.

holo2The last source I have for you is anime and movies. When it comes to fantasy clothes, I have yet to find a more varied or unique selection. Anime in particular has some very creative costumes, once you get past the blatant fan service outfits. And the best part is, there will be plenty of pictures floating around the internet.

(Note: be careful about using movies as sources for period clothing; they’re not always historically accurate.)

Remember, when you find something (or even part of something) that works – steal, adapt, mix, or combine.


That’s all I have for you today – come back next time for section two!