After I got back one of my latest book edits, I noticed that my editor had crossed out about half a page. The note next to it said something like this: “unnecessary description.” And then, “I think you might be a little obsessed with clothes.”
Well, she had me there. I am—as all of my friends and family can attest to—more than a little obsessed with clothes. But it’s not just that I have a lot of them (and I do, trust me). I also like to talk about them. I want to know where you got that shirt and those shoes, I check about ten different style blogs every day, and when I’m reading a book I have a rabid curiosity about what the characters are wearing at any given moment.
As an avid romance reader, this isn’t usually a problem. Chick lit and romance genres tend to obsessively describe clothing. In Jennifer Crusie’s popular contemporary romance Bet Me, for example, she makes sure we know what Min, the main character, is wearing every single day—usually bland and shapeless outfits (apart from some very flashy shoes). From her clothing we immediately know that Min is practical and self-conscious, with an inner-spark that she can’t fully repress. Later, when Min finds love and becomes more comfortable with herself, her clothing becomes brighter and more flattering. There’s a scene toward the end of the novel where she puts on a sexy dress—a style she’s always been discouraged from wearing—and stands in front of a mirror with the hero, Cal. He shows her through clothing that she’s beautiful. For the first time ever, she sees herself as desirable. Her clothing literally transforms her.
So while fashion is a natural and easy way for an author to help describe a character, it can also get to the heart of who they really are. The Guardian has a great article exploring the clothing advice to be found in literature, and they include this quote from Virginia Wolf’s Orlando: “Clothes have more important offices than merely to keep us warm; they change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” This is exactly the journey that Min goes through—her outfits become a metaphor for the way she views herself, and a way for the reader to see her progression in love and life.
But is clothing always that important? Or, as my editor pointed out, is it sometimes excessive? In Jane Eyre, it only takes a few short lines to understand exactly what type of person Jane is: “I dressed myself with care: obliged to be plain – for I had no article of attire that was not made with extreme simplicity.” Not a lot of detail, but I suppose we get the picture. And Jane Austen rarely describes clothes, choosing only to point out when someone is dressed outside of societal norms. Sometimes, clothing can just get in the way. Or maybe even mess things up. Like for Robinson Crusoe, who famously strips down, swims to a wrecked boat, then fills his pockets with food.
Okay, fine. Constant descriptions of clothing might not always be that necessary to get the point across. And I completely understand why my editor cut a page of me waxing poetic about a silk dress. But I can’t help it—I want as much fashion in my literature as I can get. For me it goes beyond simple curiosity; it helps set the scene, and further immerses me in the story. Clothing tells us so much about a person. Probably more than we even realize.
Because whether we like it or not, clothing is a defining mark of character. Think of Scarlett tearing down the curtains in Gone With the Wind, showing us that not only is she resilient and resourceful, but she knows how important the façade of clothing is. Even when she has nothing, she can fake her way through society by dressing well. Clothing is a way for Jay Gatsby and Pip to travel up the social ladder, a way for Holly Golightly to showcase her glamorous lifestyle, I could go on and on . So please, fellow writers, don’t be afraid to pile on the fashion-scenes. I’ll read them all with pleasure.