A while back I was watching the movie “Sky High.” It’s a little cheesy, yes, but I think it’s cute. I’ve watched this movie several times but this time something blatantly obvious smacked me in the face.
The main character and his love interest are always wearing the same colors. Not the same as each other, but always the same in different iterations. If you’ve seen this movie, you know that it’s about a high school for superheroes-in-training (and their sidekicks-in-training) and that the MC’s parents are pretty much the best superheroes there have ever been. His parents’ colors are the same as the colors he’s always wearing and they are quite often depicted wearing those same colors in their day-to-day lives.
This got me thinking about the subtle ways we can reveal things about our characters. To go off of the above example, the colors can become sort of an idee fixe. Their alter egos are so much a part of their lives that it seeps into everything, including their son’s choice in fashion. On his side of it, we could view it as a manifestation of his want to live up to what’s expected of him, to go into the family business. It doesn’t have to be so complicated as that, but these are just some ideas.
I never consciously try to put a theme or moral into what I write. It’s too easy to fall into preaching territory that way. But we can weave in subtle revelations about our characters and they way they view the world, and one way is through their costuming.
Think about it. Bella would have come off as a much different person if she’d gone and flat-out refused to abandon her Arizona wardrobe in favor of clothes that would be more appropriate to the Washington climate.
A guy who wears polos and sweaters tied around his shoulders is a very different character than a guy who wears wrinkled t-shirts and cargo shorts.
In the tv show, “Bones,” as another example, there was an interesting subtext played out through clothing. Booth, the male lead of the show, is an FBI agent. Wears the suit and tie, all that, looks very buttoned-up and straight-laced. Except for the flashy ties, large belt buckles and wacky socks. One season, the FBI sent Booth to therapy after he shot an inanimate object just because it was annoying him. The therapist was there over a series of episodes (later replaced by another therapist who is now a cast regular) and at one point he made Booth stop wearing the ties, buckles and socks. Everyone commented on it and after a while the therapist told him to start wearing them again.
The therapist tells him one thing about these items, about why Booth wears them, other characters think other things, but it takes one line of muttered dialogue to really show the truth behind them, but the dialogue isn’t important. You can take what you want from the clothing, be it they’re his rebellion against the stricter wardrobe guidelines the FBI has in place in the show’s world, his dislike of the “privileged” (read, wealthy and arrogant, the ones who think they’re all that and a bag of pretzels because they were blessed to be born into a rich family), or him just trying to be the winning peacock. But the clothes say so much without one single word uttered by a character.
We can also use clothing to set up our readers for their expectations to be shattered. Take the guy who wears the polos and sweaters tied around the shoulders. Now, he might be the stereotype: wealthy, full of himself, pretentious, and would never be caught dead holding a toilet brush.
Or he could be the world’s greatest superhero living on the lam after being framed for a robbery that was committed by his arch-nemesis.
See? You can take the guy with the cargo shorts and wrinkled t-shirts and turn him into anything you want if you’re aiming to toss expectation on its head. You just have to know what sort of character you want.
Have you ever though much about clothing and such as a means of showing readers the sort of character they’re reading about? I know I have, at least on a secondary level in much of what I write. Though with Lodestar it plays more of a role than in other works I’ve written.