WTCB September: The Costume Department

The thing about being a polymath is that most ideas rotate back to one another – cross-curricula practises, you might say – and costume design rings from the actress in the back of my writing mind, especially as Downton Abbey will be back on English TV screens soon. I’ve been reading the behind-the-scenes things; and the show is currently in the perfect era for research – just before the flirty thirties of A Game of Murder, on the cusp of the 20s in A Belgium Mystery’s prequel – and after the turn of the 20st century, the style of which features in When the Clock Broke.

Edit: I am currently flailing over this site – The Gentleman’s Gazette – about the attire and manners of the best gentlemen, for instance, that of M. Poirot. Check it out if you have an interest in early 20th Century men’swear.

So, I pay attention.

Now, I used to be one of the writers who described every piece of clothing for every character, but now I despise the same idea. Well…‘despise’ is too strong a word, but I do find it annoying when writers list clothing unnecessary. “He was wearing a y-coloured x and z-coloured ws…”

However, that doesn’t mean that we writers have to avoid the clothing aspect altogether. In When the Clock Broke, clothing is sometimes used as a tool for indicating status. Most of the Costellos are constantly in dress clothes and look alike, so it would be pointless to describe more than the occasional “unlike his brothers, Phillip had not dressed for dinner” or “he stoppered the blood from his nose with the cuff of his pinstriped shirt”, but when personality is shown through clothes, the set up becomes more interesting.

For instance, I show the butler’s sycophancy by his immaculate uniform; I show maid Tia’s opposite anarchic will by the fact she has customised her uniform.

pre-editing sketches of young Aidelle’s outfits
pre-editing sketches of young Aidelle’s outfits

‘Costume’ for characters is, just as in the acting world, so important for showing era and world without saying as much. That’s why the stereotypical sci-fi has everybody in grey armour-like suits or black one-pieces. Editing WTCB, one of my largest posts to jump over was portraying the alternate earth where 2010 is more like 1910 (though not exactly…). Samantha Shannon had a specific point from where her world splits from ours, but I have no such luck with that, since the entire genesis of society, the movement of the tectonic plates, came differently to my world as it did to ours. This is still Earth, but its evolution has changed. That’s an idea writers have played with for centuries; I’m simply taking it back a step.

Anyway, I’ve never been a fan of dystopia, and that is even shown through the unconscious choice of attire I gave my characters at their genesis. The generation above Aidelle and Phillip might as well step into Downton, for their period dress suits. However, it is in combination with geography where the world becomes modern. In fact, in present-day 2010, Aidelle’s generation are more prone to a more modern style of dress.

Whilst women have recently been allowed to wear trousers, most don’t; even in Zara’s time, 2050, trousers are considered odd clothing for a child-bearer to wear, though Zara and Zoey are most comfortable in them when working on mechanisms.

On the other hand, Aidelle wears a blouse, knee-length skirt and bolero in the first chapter, something which would have been quite controversial in her lifetime, even for someone under 30. It doesn’t sweep to the floor with grandeur, nor does it really flatter her feminine shape. Most of all, it’s not glittery or shimmering, not made of materials that look like riches, though they are not; it has the air of something handed down. Though it’s not a hand-me-down, the appearance is of more importance than the actual fabric or the prettiness of the clothes. I happen to think Aidelle looks very dashing in her first outfit – and so does Phillip! – but, had she chosen her clothes differently, maybe she would have been in a different mood that morning.

Octavia Costello’s favourite evening outfit, in emerald, modelled by yours truly

Of course, it depends on the character themselves, as well as their surroundings; some are more prone to bouts of anarchy, where they shall not wear the same as their parents (though, I don’t believe any character has ever feel constrained in their costume), whereas are happy to be seen as their parents’ offspring. Each will always have their own style, even those who are more fashion-following.

On a similar line, check out Alex Hayman’s post ‘Fashion in Fiction‘, where she shares my sentiments on excessive description.

And sure, Aidelle is a tad obsessed with The Continent’s fashion at times, but, as she herself notes, she hopes it will make the socialites cease their cruelty. We’ve all been the bullied outcast at times; we’ve all tried to drop our own personalities in exchange for admiration or a softening of hate, just as Aidelle does.

That’s why the costume design of a fictional set can be important.

When thinking of description of clothing, do not go overboard. Provide what is relevant not only to plot but also to personality and setting. Don’t forget POV when describing clothing – a tweed jacket may be day-wear to one person; to their friend, it may be a sign that they’ve gone snobbish; or to another, a sign of overspending…

In some genres, this will more vital. For instance, a character wearing a striped scarf might provide vital clues for a murder mystery, but for science-fiction, it might not add anything (unless you’re The Fourth Doctor!).

What’s wrong with my scarf??

4 thoughts on “WTCB September: The Costume Department

  1. Scarves are cool. Scarves are definitely cool. 😉 I tend to focus on what people are wearing a lot too in my writing. Perhaps it’s because it’s what I notice when I see people. By the way, your evening outfit looks very elegant. It’s like you were in Casablanca. 🙂

    1. Sadly, none of my characters wear scarves. At least…not whilst I’m around… But yes, scarves are cool. The new Doctor should wear scarves! 😉
      Do you see your scenes in your head? Weirdly, when I do, I don’t actually see many of my characters IN clothes, per se. More like, fleeting images, clothes, and only when needed. I had to change Aidelle’s clothes in the first scene, because originally she wasn’t wearing a jacket and that proved troublesome when the first line had her slipping something into her pocket.
      I’ve never seen Casablanca. A little before my time 😉 But thank you. The dress is definitely not a party dress; I can only really wear it as costume as it is structured taffeta and has a giant bow velcroed to the base of the back.

      1. I think Casablanca is a little before anyone’s time. A film school must though. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it actually, seems like it would be right up your alley given your style of writing.

        It depends on the story or the scene. Some of my characters I get definite clothing visions, others it’s more generic.

        1. Tehehe. Ah, I’ve not seen a lot of classical films/movies. I do like classical films, but I’ve got to be in the right mood to watch them. Sometimes, black and white films just get on my nerves…

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