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Thread: Descriptions: Clothing and Makeup

  1. #1
    Bring on the Sweet, Sweet Coffee MissMacchiato's Avatar
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    Descriptions: Clothing and Makeup

    Okay, I figured women's fiction was the best place for this. I find a lot of women's fiction books do a paragraph like this at the beginning of a scene:

    I threw on a neat high waisted skirt and a matching bolero style jacket over a coral silk top before struggling into pantyhose and heels, and dashing out.
    That's from my almost finished first draft, and is likely to be changed, but... It seems to me that this is a fairly common thing in chick lit and especially romance. How do you feel about it? Info dump? Something you quite like? irrelevant?

    I know you could put it into the scene, as in...

    I brushed off the sleeve of my bolero jacket as I approached Chuck. God, I could hardly breathe in this high waisted skirt, and these heels were crippling. Still. It was a business meeting. Of sorts.

    I guess I like that little info dump. I imagine her as she looks in the mirror or whatever, and then I slot her into the scene. It's a more complete picture, rather than giving me time to envision my own outfit, only to be disappointed.

    What do you guys reckon?
    Last edited by MissMacchiato; 10-08-2010 at 07:54 AM.
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  2. #2
    Girl Detective AW Moderator Stacia Kane's Avatar
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    Done well, I like to know what the characters are wearing, at least some of the time. I do that in my books; characters put on jeans and a sheer black top, or a red top they know someone they're going to see likes. Or they see someone else wearing a gorgeous charcoal suit, or imagine how they must look in their plain blue shirt over a black long-sleeved t-shirt, black jeans, and dusty worn-down boots. It can be a character point, and it can show the reader what the character is doing/planning.

    In the above examples, frex, if you didn't know the woman in the sheer black top was going out to a bar you would guess from that. She puts on the top she knows a character likes because she's hoping to soften him up a little and wants to look her best. She notices the charcoal suit and that shows the reader that perhaps she feels a bit insecure, or that she's really paying attention to that person in it, or that the suit-wearer will be a more important character in the story and probably has money and self-confidence. The jeans and long-sleeve shirt, in the context of this character working with the public, is a sign that she wants them to not take her very seriously or see her as a threat; she's deliberately presenting an image of herself as someone poor and/or disorganized.

    In the Demons books my MC wore a couple of evening gowns, and I described those because A) they were gifts, and expensive ones, and I wanted to show how expensive they were; B) they were a symbol/clue as to how close the MC and her potential lover/lover were, and how much merging of their lives they had done; and C) it was lots of fun to describe them.

    So it can show a lot.

    For me the problem comes in when it's done too often or in too much detail, or the clothing is just plain silly. I don't need to know that the Nike swoosh matches the stripe on the socks and the t-shirt. I don't want to read about men in thigh-high boots. I don't want to sit through a paragraph about clothing in every scene. Just like any other detail, it should be used sparingly, and it doesn't need to be thrown in right in the beginning or all in one hit, as you know from your second example.

    I don't want to read about things that are too trendy, either, unless that's a major character point. I still remember a few years ago reading a book where the heroine wore a silk jacket with sheer sleeves, and it just sounded so 1990 and it really bugged me. I try to keep the clothing generic.

    So basically, no, I think it's fine to do it that way as long as it isn't a constant, and as long as you're not going into so much detail that it's annoying or just too hard to picture. I can mention black jeans and a blue polo over a black long-sleeve shirt and you have a pretty decent idea how that looks. I can tell you about a minidress of leopard-print lycra, with only one strap and that strap has a bow of the same lycra material, that it has black fringe around the hem. That's way too much detail, IMO. It sounds tacky and icky (again, IMO) but it could actually be a beautiful dress; it's just that so much detail is given here that if it doesn't match the reader's specific tastes they'll be turned off by it. Do you know what I mean? Whereas if you just say she wore a leopard-print minidress, they can fill in the other details; they may not like leopard print but they can kind of skip over it a bit.

    This is all just my opinion and how I do it, of course, but I generally try to avoid too much detail in clothing descriptions.

    And as a nitpicky aside...why is your character up there putting on her pantyhose last? How is she getting them around her waist when she has a high-waisted skirt on already? If that's a character point it's a pretty good one, because I've honestly never even heard of anyone putting on pantyhose last; it would be like putting underwear on over your shirt. That really jumped out at me.
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  3. #3
    Bring on the Sweet, Sweet Coffee MissMacchiato's Avatar
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    LOL!

    I wanted to point out that it's the kind of thing that would require panty hose for, but as soon as I typed up the second line as an example to add to to this post, I realised i liked it way better and cut what I'd originally written.

    I didn't like that paragraph either, if I'm honest!

    Eta - I agree that it can become irritating or look dated. It's something I plan on going over during this round of edits.

    I hate it when the outfit seems really dated too!
    Last edited by MissMacchiato; 10-08-2010 at 09:16 AM.
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  4. #4
    Back at it san_remo_ave's Avatar
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    I agree, sometimes physical descriptions about appearance and clothing can often come across info-dumpy. That's one of the reasons I try to only describe fragments, and those because they are important to mood or motivation.

    That's what I like about your second version --it shows so much more about the character. I see that no only is she dressed well, why she's dressed well (bus meeting) and that she's very uncomfortable, but willing to suffer it for the importance of the meeting.
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    practical experience, FTW readitnweep's Avatar
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    Honestly, unless it's important to the plot I'd leave it out - especially the really detailed stuff like the color. You can, however, give an impression of how the character dressed without going into details, which as a reader I much prefer, but that's just me.

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    It reads like an info-dump and I can't see what relevance it has to the character's...well, character. Or the plot.

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    I think what a person wears and how they think about their appearance can say a lot about a person's character. Your second example above is more compelling to me, however.

    I read a lot of Jo Beverley's work (NY Times bestseller in historical romance) and she frequently describes clothing, not only as an insight into the hero or heroine's character, but also as a way of establishing background and setting.
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    A brief, no more than a sentence, description of clothing can tell me about the character, their setting, etc. Anything more than a sentence, though, and I start skimming. I really loath description, especially in first person, where the character tells me how sexy she looks in her outfit. Ugh.

    I like your second version.


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    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    Details about clothing make my eyes glaze over and I tend to skip such descriptions unless they have to do with the plot. Read how Janet Evanovich works clothing into the narrative along with character description. No need to reinvent the wheel when someone else has blueprints to follow.


    If one of my female characters requires an inventory of what she's wearing, I keep it minimal:



    I put on my "come eff-me" dragon lady stilettos, shortest mini, and a leather halter. It wasn't trashy enough, so I gunked my lashes up like a raccoon on steroids.

    "You playing hard to get?" asked my roommate. She had on much less, but knew how to carry it better.

    "I'm getting a nosebleed from these heels."

    "You'll live."

    "I'll never make it to the car. My feet are screaming." I kicked the shoes off and laced up my hot pink Doc Marten boots. "No date is worth that agony."

    She stared at them. "Those are a bad choice, but on you they work. Let's go."








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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post






    Nice boots!

  11. #11
    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    I want 'em!

    Hot pink looks good on me.

  12. #12
    Bring on the Sweet, Sweet Coffee MissMacchiato's Avatar
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    oooh love the pink!

    And, on a semi-related side note, am i the only one that keeps a file of the type of clothes that my characters would wear? When I shop I tend to think, oooh, MC would wear that, or, Oh, secondary character would totally be the type to buy that...
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  13. #13
    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    See my above comment about eyes glazing over.

    Figure it has to do with me not cracking a fashion magazine since the 1980s. I'm still stuck with a drawerful of those danged leg warmers!

    Maybe I can cut holes in them to make sweaters for wiener dogs.


    I leave it up to the imagination of the reader. I'll mention that a character was dressed like:

    a banker on a budget
    a shark who was into Armani
    a colorblind used car salesman
    a schoolmarm with a bondage fetish of which she was clearly unaware

    I can see all those characters!


    Donald Westlake taught me about clothes.

    One of his heroes described his girl friend putting on "the kind of clothes that made me want to rip them right off her again, and she smelled like that morning's shower."

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW L.Jones's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    I leave it up to the imagination of the reader. I'll mention that a character was dressed like:

    a banker on a budget
    a shark who was into Armani
    a colorblind used car salesman
    a schoolmarm with a bondage fetish of which she was clearly unaware

    I can see all those characters!

    Agreed - that's the way to do it. Descriptions in detail dates a book for me because that was a major point in books in the 80s - read an old one, sometimes the details of clothes, hair and makeup (you know all those things it was assumed women loved to hear and dish about) can go on for almost a page each time a character appears (it reminds me of all those movies from the late 40s to the early 60s that had fashion shows in them for the ladies).

    Historicals are different, clothes play a different role, but should still not be a checklist, they should support the story not hold it up. In doing research for my wip, that goes from present day back to 1970, I describe clothes in the past because they really matter to the pov character but not in the present because they don't to that pov character.

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    They've been very bad, Mr Flibble Mr Flibble's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    Details about clothing make my eyes glaze over and I tend to skip such descriptions unless they have to do with the plot.

    Me too!

    Maybe a hint if we're in a historical to help set period, a fantasy where you need to set a visual (because they could be wearing anything!)or the clothes reveal something about the character.

    I've honestly never even heard of anyone putting on pantyhose last;
    People put on tights first? Why? Always last for me, about two secs before I put on shoes and head out the door - less likely to get laddered while I'm getting ready.




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    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    If I HAVE to wear a dress I don't go to the event. Panthose are an evul alien plot to cut off blood flow to the brain.

    Okay--I WILL wear a dress if it's historical costume! Steampunk is just fun.



    There are still churches around my area that don't allow pantsuits in the sanctuary. Why God is so strict on fashion and makeup is beyond me, you'd think there were more important things afoot.

    I think it would be a more fun church if the signs read "No pantsuits in the sanctuary."

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    They've been very bad, Mr Flibble Mr Flibble's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post

    I think it would be a more fun church if the signs read "No pantsuits in the sanctuary."

    I was reading today about the sexual equality in pay movement here in the Sixties and Seventies (because of the film Made in Dagenham, it's something of a topic here atm). At one point, the BBC banned trousers for women. One (rare) female journalist wore her favourite shirt/jerkin/trouser outfit to work and was told in the lift of her transgression. She immediately took her trousers off, leaving her in a very short 'mini-skirt' It appears the ban lifted shortly thereafter.

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    Grumpy writer and editor Absolute Sage Gillhoughly's Avatar
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    Hur-hur-hur-hur!

    Good for her.

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    Must find boots! Off to shop.

    ETA: OMG they come in metallic purple too!

    I forgot what the original question was - sorry.
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  20. #20
    Plotting something Ambri's Avatar
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    At one point, the BBC banned trousers for women. One (rare) female journalist wore her favourite shirt/jerkin/trouser outfit to work and was told in the lift of her transgression. She immediately took her trousers off, leaving her in a very short 'mini-skirt' It appears the ban lifted shortly thereafter.

    Hur-hur-hur-hur!

    Good for her.
    I second this! Talk about ballsy

    Oh, yeah, I don't have much to add to the topic at hand, but I do think that a brief mention of clothing can be a nice detail, if used sparingly. I do think it's more important in a historical or fantasy than it is in a contemporary, where any detailed description might be out-of-fashion by the time it prints, anyway. Something that comes to mind that hasn't been mentioned yet (I believe) is describing clothing (or a character's looks) through the eyes of one of the other characters. Like, don't tell readers the heroine is wearing a full length blue Versace gown. Show readers the HERO's reaction to her in said gown.

  21. #21
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Creating imagery is a very effective tool in writing. So yeah, why not describe the characters' clothes? It helps the readers establish the scene.

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    Super Procrastinator Kallithrix's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    See my above comment about eyes glazing over.

    Figure it has to do with me not cracking a fashion magazine since the 1980s. I'm still stuck with a drawerful of those danged leg warmers!
    Oooh, did you miss the 80's revival a few years ago? You coulda worn those leg warmers with a pair of electric blue leggins, ripped denim shorts and a flurescent orange t-shirt dress with pride! Don't forget the fingerless lace gloves and fluffy hair tho.... ;-)

    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    Maybe I can cut holes in them to make sweaters for wiener dogs.
    Aww, my dachshund would have looked cute in a bright blue legwarmer... RIP Bruno :-(


    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    I leave it up to the imagination of the reader. I'll mention that a character was dressed like:

    a banker on a budget
    a shark who was into Armani
    a colorblind used car salesman
    a schoolmarm with a bondage fetish of which she was clearly unaware

    I can see all those characters!
    SEE them? Jeez, I think i KNOW most of them! lol


    Quote Originally Posted by Gillhoughly View Post
    Donald Westlake taught me about clothes.

    One of his heroes described his girl friend putting on "the kind of clothes that made me want to rip them right off her again, and she smelled like that morning's shower."
    Yeah, you have to describe clothes subjectively, from the POV you're writing in, and make it contribute to characterisation to be interesting.

    In my historical novel I have a peasant girl who is forced into endendured labour to pay her father's debt. The owner of the linen workshop who takes her on as a weaver inspects her, and notices what low grade quality the linen of her dress is, how badly it is frayed. He will obviously notice these things because manufacturing fine linen is his business. It says something about both his trade, and the girl's poverty.

    I hate info dumps on clothing and appearance - paragraphs that just randomly tell me the MC is wearing a pair of black slacks, a beige turtle neck, has long blonde hair and green eyes make me gag.
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