Clothing choices play a lot into how a reader feels s about a character. Outward appearance is very often a reflection of the inward appearance of a person. You feel bad for Harry Potter when he’s forced to wear Dudley’s old clothes, and once he dons his wizard robes, he becomes a much happier, more confident person and you start to be happy for him.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, try this example: The Phantom of the Opera. He wears a mask because he is inwardly tormented by and ashamed of his outward appearance. If he didn’t want wear the mask and so much fear its removal, he’d be a completely different person. That mask is so iconic because it is so important to who Erik is. Even with less iconic costume choices, it’s important to take note of how someone dresses because it’s a huge indication of their personality and what their current emotional state is. In BBC’s Sherlock, Irene Adler says: “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it's always a self-portrait.” Even a character in disguise must make choices about how to disguise themselves, and in those choices, the real person can be seen shining through. Next time you go out, observe what the people around you are saying about themselves by how they are dressed. You might be surprised how much you can deduce!
So, with this in mind, it is easy to see why vague clothing description or no description at all can really blind a reader to the true character. There are a few simple things an author can do to remedy this. Describing the color and fabric of a garment are easily done and can be used to tell the reader all kinds of things. Color is hugely symbolic, and you don’t have to be well versed in color theory to get the subconscious hints that costume designers use all the time to make you feel one way or another about a character. Mentioning the fabric that a garment is made of is one of the simplest ways to denote social class or wealth. Keeping the entire wardrobe of a novel in the same recognizable time period, even if the story takes place in an alternate universe (ahem, fantasies) helps to keep things consistent and gives readers even more of a reference for what is normal/ not normal, who is rich/poor, etc. Symbolism in clothing is an incredibly useful tool for developing and understanding more realistic characters.
As I always say “with the right outfit, you can be anyone.” I hope that in the next book I start, the characters won’t just be anyone though. I want them to be someone and I want them to tell me that with how they dress.
Julia is Nicole's rooommate and middle grade reviewer for WORD. She likes costuming. She did not like Throne of Glass for the reasons above. Check out her Tumblr at Adventures in Nerdland. You can find the rest of her posts on WORD by clicking here.