Complicated Costumes Without Costume Porn

A lot of the time, you can tell a great deal about a character from what she’s wearing—rank, country of origin, social class, occupation, personality, and a lot more. And let’s face it, authors and GMs aren’t immune to the lure of this sort of thing—not just because it makes sense in whatever worlds we’re creating or working in, but because it gives us a chance to show off our own creativity in designing these things. There’s just one little catch. I bet we’ve all read (or at least run away in the middle of) something where somebody catches the dramatic spotlight in one of those sorts of outfits, and the description takes several paragraphs and would require at least half a dozen breaths if read aloud—and, for extra annoyance, is probably in the middle of something we find a lot more interesting.

So how do we reconcile that with wanting to get across all the cultural cues inherent in the clothing?

For those of us who aren’t limited to text only, the easiest way is probably to bring a picture and skip the words entirely. It might not get the exact quality of the fabric across, but it should at least manage the general idea, and then you don’t have to worry about how long you’d need to take tracing straps or discussing the beads sewn on to resemble the night sky facing southward from the tallest tower of the capital city at midnight on Midwinter’s Eve (assuming a clear night)… or the like. You’ve got a thousand very unambiguous words painted right there. There’s a lot of catch, though—you have to get a picture, and if you’re a trying-to-be-published author, you need to figure out whether the publisher is going to want to deal with the extra cost for that carpet page.

Others might go for the minimal important details, or for catching the bits where the outfit stands out from the surroundings. After all, if everyone’s wearing five-layered silk robes tied with wide sashes and has some sort of bird feather braided into their hair somewhere, the only things you need to point out are where a color or pattern differs from the norm or if someone for some reason has walked into this gathering wearing, say, leather armor and way too much magic bling.

Some go in the opposite direction, indicating the cultural cues as early as possible, and then just describing what the outfit is supposed to get across rather than requiring the reader to draw the conclusions from the outfit. Admittedly, it does avoid the issue of prolonged description, but it’s not too good for hiding details, and it can come across as rather dry and prone to telling rather than showing. I tend to avoid this one, though I might make an exception if the archetypes are already well known (and particularly if the reason why they are is that I’ve been describing my way through a culture’s favored mode of dress for chapters/sessions and my audience has probably already figured out what the archetypal costumes mean.

Since one of the biggest problems with long clothing descriptions is the growing sense among the audience that they have become unwilling voyeurs to an authorial fetish, one other way of dealing with it might be to downplay the descriptions. For instance, you might have a snarky narrator, who’s seen these things all the time and is likely, instead of waxing rhapsodic about the dozen layers of chiffon spangled with diamonds and the remarkably lifelike stuffed birds (probably made with real feathers) adorning the foot-high headdress, is speculating on how the wearer’s head must be braced to keep it upright and quietly snickering at how much rustling and clicking any attempt at a subtle gesture makes.

And still another is just keeping the nifty-complicated costumes rare, and then giving the ones that really matter the full description. This means that if an outfit really matters, you can highlight it with the attention—though as with everything else, the intent is open to misinterpretation.

How do you try to keep your characters’ nice clothing from going and upstaging everything else about the story or game?


Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Impractical Applications (The Dilemma of the Dresses) | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply