Posted On August 20, 2012 by Print This Post

Dressing–and–Undressing Your Characters…Plus How Did They Do the Laundry on Downton Abbey?

Does your heroine prefer yoga pants and a holey t-shirt or is she wrapped in Prada from head-to-toe? Author Ruth Harris steps up to the lectern to discuss why dressing (and undressing) your character matters.

Welcome back, Ruth!

Clothes, said Mark Twain, make the man. And the woman, as any woman in her right mind knows—whether she’s shopping at Saks, at the mall or on her iPad. Clothes also make the character, as any writer knows.

Whether you’re writing about a fashionista or a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom), a tomboy, a 1920’s flapper, an East Village artist or a Queen, modern or otherwise, the characters will be different and their clothes will be different. An Annie Hall look projects one kind of heroine; a little black dress and sunglasses à la Audrey Hepburn another; those Katherine Hepburn-type nifty slacks still another. Whether you’re writing about Madonna or Lady Gaga, Michelle Bachman or Michelle Obama, about Catherine the Great or the girl next door, their clothes are your secret weapon and a crucial part of the author’s tool kit, an essential way to bring your characters into focus for yourself—and for your readers.

By the way, speaking of writing about a Queen, did you know that Queen Elizabeth’s skirts are weighted so that no errant gust of wind can blow her skirt up? Never a photo of the Queen’s underpinnings. Interesting tid-bit and just the kind of info that can give a scene or a character another and very intriguing dimension.

Shoes matter. Some actors say that finding the “right” shoes for the character they’re about to play is key. Shoes on chick lit covers have edged into chiché territory. Cliché—but effective! Jennifer Weiner went even further and acknowledged the importance of footwear in a title: In Her Shoes.

The fashionista will be hobbling around in stilettos, the SAHM in flip-flops, the tomboy in Nikes, the artist in Doc Martens, the Lauren Hutton type in jeans and Topsiders. They look different, they walk different, they talk different. Your dialogue will take its cue: a bit of faux French for the fashionista? Chat about pediatrician recommendations for the Mom? NFL standings for the tomboy? References to Renoir and Renaissance for the artist? Safari tips from Lauren Hutton.

The fashionista will lunch at the latest, trendy bistro, the SAHM will eat whatever the kids don’t, the tomboy a hot dog at the baseball game, the artist will go organic or maybe vegan. Where they go, who they meet, who they fall in love with—in essence your plot—will all derive from their personalities as revealed by their wardrobe choices.

Take the fashionista out of the trendy bistro, put her into a vegan lunch counter and you have the beginnings of a plot. What will she think of the bearded video artist who, apparently needing to make a little money, serves her the organic sprout sandwich? What will he think of her? Intrigue? Disdain? Conflict maybe? Leading to sparks?

Then the twist: the “starving” artist working in an organic luncheonette turns out to be a good-guy Department of Health Inspector saving the public from cooties etc. and the fashionista turns out to be the devil in (knock-off) Prada. Looks can speak honestly or looks can deceive. The twists and turns are up to the writer but clothes, well-described, can launch an engaging, twisty plot.

So does whatever your character wears or doesn’t wear underneath her—or his—clothes. Come on, we’re writing romance. We’ve got to get them undressed, too, don’t we?

The unexpected shock of Fruit-of-the Loom white cotton under the fashionista’s haute couture? Does the SAHM flaunt lacy, silky undies from Sabbia Rosa on the Rue des Saints Pères in Paris? A sequined thong for the tomboy? Or is super sexy Victoria’s Secret the secret our tomboy is hiding? And what about the downtown artist? She’s in black: black bra, black panties. Isn’t she? But don’t forget scarlet, acid green or electric blue. If you’re writing historicals, don’t forget that corsets were abandoned in the 1920’s, that underwire bras became popular in the 1950’s and that recently a bra dating from the Middle Ages was found in Austria.

Let’s not forget our heroes, either, the bad boys and the good ones. Does the powerful executive in his custom-tailored Saville Row duds indulge in silk boxers? Or satin briefs? The grunge musician in tightie whities? Is that honest politician (this is fiction we’re talking about, right?) wearing Spanx under his drab off-the-rack suit?

To finish where we started, I’ve got to make a confession. I (ahem) cut/edited M. Twain. His entire quote reads: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Much as we love, respect, and admire you, Mr. M. Twain, we beg to differ. After all, we’re romance writers and we know better!

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Who’s more fashion conscious, you or your characters? Do you dress vicariously through your character’s wardrobe? 

Have you wondered how the elaborate gowns worn by heiresses and ladies of the ton were kept in tip top shape? Check out this fascinating article from the NY Times on the maintenance of period clothing which features the splendid fashion of Downton Abbey.  

The Dirt on Clean – Laundering Fashion’s Most Elaborate Creations

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Michele DeWinton presents Pushing the Passionate Pen on Tuesday, August 21st.

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ZURI, Ruth’s latest release, is a different kind of love story.

Zuri’s a love story with a difference. A triangle. He’s a scientist, prickly and critical, an expert in animal communication.

She’s a veterinarian accustomed to praise and success. Zuri is the sad little orphaned rhino they’re trying to save. They both love Zuri but can they learn to love each other?

***

Bio: Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books (with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St.Martin’s Press) have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Ruth started out in publishing right after she graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to a textbook editor, an unpromising start if there ever was one, but she was soon promoted to copyediting—much more interesting.

She’s been a copywriter, assistant editor, editor, editor-in-chief and, eventually, publisher at Kensington.

Ruth blogs with author Anne R. Allen and WG2E. She can also be found at: http://ruthharrisblog.blogspot.com/

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22 Responses to “Dressing–and–Undressing Your Characters…Plus How Did They Do the Laundry on Downton Abbey?”

  1. Hi, Ruth –

    I really enjoyed your post today! Do you tend to know your characters’ dressing habits from the get-go or do their styles come to you while you’re writing scenes?

    Happy Monday,
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | August 20, 2012, 6:53 am
    • Hi Kelsey, In general, I know from the get-go because I’m visual & “see” my characters.

      In HUSBANDS AND LOVERS, though, an essential part of the story is Carlys Webber’s transformation from a wallflower & a loser into a successful & desirable woman. In one scene, we actually watch her learn how to upgrade her wardrobe for the job she wants rather than the fairly lowly job she has.

      Later in the novel, when she has become confident & successful, George, a noted architect, is seated next to her on a plane & glimpses the red lace of the slip she wears under her sober executive clothing. He is curious about her—and attracted—by the difference between the outer & the inner woman.

      Posted by Ruth Harris | August 20, 2012, 7:19 am
  2. Hi Ruth,

    Like my heroines, I like comfortable shoes. When they have to dress up, they complain about the shoes.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 20, 2012, 10:05 am
  3. It’s interesting that you mentioned Annie Hall and Audrey Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn’s image has become iconic – her fashionable clothes now seem almost a part of her character. And even though Annie Hall is a fictional character, the instant I hear her name I picture her clothes.

    Boy, I wish I’d thought of weighing down the hems of my skirts when I was working in Chicago. Walking from the train to my office was always a challenge, with one hand trying to anchor my skirt!

    Great blog, Ruth – thank you so much!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 20, 2012, 11:22 am
  4. It’s true. Annie Hall did have a classy, sophisticated, yet artistic way of dressing, didn’t she?

    And why for all goodness did Woody Allen think that HE could cast HIMSELF as her love interest?

    I dislike Woody Allen so sometimes, but I did like Midnight in Paris, at least the male character was rightly attractive to other women.

    Posted by Marla Rose Brady | August 20, 2012, 11:30 am
  5. Marla—The answer to your 2nd question is: The Male Ego. 😉 But I bet you knew that anyway!

    Posted by Ruth Harris | August 20, 2012, 11:46 am
  6. Hi Ruth!

    I’m still trying to get over the vision of a politico in Spanx. 🙂

    I put a lot of thought into what my characters wear. A man who wears custom made shirts in the boardroom and a ratty concert tee when he’s at home makes for an interesting character study.

    Clothes and accessories also play an important role during the first meet. He’s wearing a Tom Ford suit that fits him like a glove. She’s in a faded Cal Bears shirt, grubby jeans and Keds. She notes that the Phillipe Patek on his wrist exceeds her personal net worth.He thinks she’s one step from being homeless. The perfect couple!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 20, 2012, 12:28 pm
  7. Evening Ruth…sorry I’m running late today! =)

    I’m always fascinated with the clothes on my heroes/heroines…sometimes consulting a friend of mine who works in the business….but one thing that I don’t get (besides the shoes, because I only wear white tennies!) is purses. The deep fascination with purses, wallets, bags, clutches, etc. And do men still carry wallets? Or is it money clips? What about fanny packs? Backpacks?

    I make my heroines carry a purse, simply because they must have “stuff” available to them for the story line, but for many women, the purse thing seems to go much deeper than I can grasp.

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 20, 2012, 4:00 pm
    • Carrie—I’m with you! Much as I enjoy shoes & bags, I don’t get the obsession either. In fiction, though, shoes & bags can have an essential function: a stiletto as a weapon? A way to prevent the wearer from running? The stuffed-to-the-brim bag another weapon? Or a pillow in a pinch? Or maybe there’s a gun (or a baby bottle, a computer, a screwdriver) in its depths?

      Clothes—and accessories—can be a writer’s best friend. The imaginative possibilities are endless!

      Posted by Ruth Harris | August 21, 2012, 5:28 am
  8. Hi Carrie–I replied but my comment hasn’t shown up. ??

    Anyway, I’m with you. I don’t get the obsession with shoes & bags but they’re a fiction writer’s best friend.

    Stilettos as a weapon OR as a hindrance, as a turn-on OR a turn-off. Ditto the bag.

    Their fictional uses are limited only by the imagination!

    Posted by Ruth Harris | August 21, 2012, 9:27 am
  9. Ruth,

    Thanks for another engaging and informative post!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 22, 2012, 4:17 pm
  10. *giggle fits* I had no idea the Queen wore weighted skirts. Bravo to the designer who thought of that (I do know that Kilt Pins are used to the same purpose).

    Clothing is indeed an interesting issue, and one I love, especailly when it comes to designing fashion for my Fantasey novels.

    Case to your point about clothing saying something about the character – The Princess in one of my tales had a special skirt made, based upo n the design of the Victorian riding skirt – it’s really pants, but if she walks like a proper Princess no one at court knows, but once she’s out withthe plains people – watch out! She can RIDE!. *giggles*
    (and she’s not even the main character lol)

    Posted by Cathryn Leigh | September 28, 2012, 7:48 am
  11. Cathryn—A “special skirt” proves the point. Love it! Thanks!

    Posted by Ruth Harris | September 28, 2012, 8:28 am
  12. Love the tidbit about the Queen’s skirts! Camilla Randall, the sleuth who stars in most of my mysteries, is a socialite on the skids, so I have great fun with clothing (and shoes–which are her weapon of choice.) Somebody once asked me why an old Birkenstocks-hippie like me writes about a fashionista, and I had to say it was the only way I could ever find out how it feels to be fashionable. 😉

    Posted by Anne R. Allen | September 29, 2012, 10:30 am
  13. Did you know there’s a bra purveyor to the Queen? Rigby & Peltier (sp?)…their bras look bullet-proof. Suppose would come in handy in case of an assassination attempt.

    Posted by Ruth Harris | September 30, 2012, 1:22 pm

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