marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.

One of the first things we learn about people in different countries and eras is that they dress funny.  It can be a quick way to set the scene and establish that Thing Are Different Here.  It can establish social statues, and relative social statuses, quickly.  It even means the character is carrying around something that could be useful -- like the classic "hat on a stick" ploy to draw out gunfire.  However. . .

Unless you're going in for the costume-loving crowd, which kinda limits the audience, describing clothing hits all the same issues as any other form of description.  Shorter is sweeter.  Even there it seriously helps to have it told in an attractive voice that the reader wants to hear more of, and have plenty of momentum from the story going on.  It takes the skill of Beatrix Potter to open a story, "In the time of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets—when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta—there lived a tailor in Gloucester." and even there, note that it was only one sentence.  Brushing lightly over the tunics and skirts and what have you can pull it off, with a few color allusions, but if it's set up for a useful piece of clothing, that has to get in, like any other Chekhov's gun.

Then there's the matter of terminology.  Everyone knows that people in far-off times and places, because of the clothing differences, also refer to them by different words.  That doesn't mean they know what the words are.  (Once got a critique complaining that I referred to a gown, and I should have been more precise to be more evocative, whereupon it reeled off half a dozen possibilities that evoked nothing for me, because I didn't know them.)  It also means that if you use the actual words, those who know the terms will assume that you talk about that culture.  Kimonos in a country not derived from Japan, or only vaguely will flavor it heavily with Japan.  But then you need to drag out the English terms, perhaps slightly archaic ones, and figure out how to describe the character's clothing in that.
Tags: choosing words, description, plot devices, set-up, world-building: clothing, world-building: social classes, writing audience

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