I’m strapping on my high-heeled sneakers

by Pari

The other night, I told one of my daughters, "It doesn’t matter what you look like. It’s what’s inside that counts."

The next day I went to get my hair cut and eyebrows waxed.
Yeah, I know.

I’ve been in a dither about gray splicing my once-brown mane. I weigh too much. My clothes don’t fit right.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Welcome to the pre-booktour jitters. Those who know me, know these superficial concerns are waayy out of character. But, then it hit me, in public, I play a character. It’s the together writer. (Hah!) Gone is the soccer mom in sweats, the occasional misanthrope, the woman who worries about whether the shephard’s pie she made will be loved by her family. In her place is a well-coiffed, cleaned up gal who is witty and fun.

Playing this character made me think about the ones I write (thanks to Brett for his great post last Thurs.). And, in the weird way my mind works, I turned to superficialities. How important are looks to those we create in our novels/short stories?

Of course we need to be able to visualize our characters. Readers need that, too. Bulbous or cheerleader noses, breasts the size of champagne glasses (thanks, Arthur Koestler) or crenshaw melons, eyes the color of wet sand or pristine sky — all of these give us clues about the person. 

And, well, clothes are important — up to a point. If a woman picks horsehair over silk for her slacks, that tells us something.

But it’s about two steps beyond those necessary descriptions where I get hung up. There’s this vapidity about fashion that I just don’t understand. Brands become code words for entire character traits. Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Kanye West. Paris Hilton? Paula Abdul? Huh?

The problem is, I haven’t got any idea what the code means. I also don’t feel compelled to get the education.  Is this writing that deserves our effort or is it simply lazy?

From my POV: If a woman carries a purse, I could care less whether it’s a Coach or Andrino. What I want to know, what really matters, is if it’s big enough to conceal the murder weapon.

So, my questions today center on fluff and frippery as they are translated into crime fiction.

When do clothes matter? (Do you have an example?)
When do brands matter? (Do you have an example?)
Have you read any great books or passages where these kinds of fashion concerns are done just right?

22 thoughts on “I’m strapping on my high-heeled sneakers

  1. Catherine

    I’ve blended in a few of my references from uni…I hope its not too cheeky but I’ve also used a snippet of Mr Bruen’s work (Priest) to prove a point too.

    When do clothes matter?

    People can chose to define or describe themselves through their clothing.Lurie (1981, p5).

    As a reader I take cues, from what characters wear, as Pari mentioned. The fashion context comes from how well a character plays the game( fits in with their peers/social or job)outwardly, or miscues and separates themselves from what society may expect of them.To me clothing gives off all sorts of social cues, of belonging, wanting to belong, rebelling etc.

    ‘She was wearing tiny pearl earrings, a feature of Ban Gardai. Her face up close was plain but the vivacity of her eyes lent an allure.As usual, she was dressed a step above trailer trash, a small step…’Bruen,K.,(2006 p14)

    When do brands matter?

    Banister and Hogg (in Hines 2001, p19) deem that Brand imagery elevates a fashion item beyond its function, and is able to represent a group who share similar meanings/feelings regarding the brand.

    So to me a character wearing a particular brand could be important if it reflected a groups shared meaning, just by wearing it…or perhaps aspired to be part of that group.Or say if a recent crime victim’s body was found wearing something they would normally say they wouldn’t be caught dead in…?

    Putting Mr Bruen’s, Ridge into a little Stella McCartney number would really change my understanding of this character and would not gel so well with actions and attitudes throughout the rest of the book…at least to my mind.

    So while fashion has it’s fluff and fripperies it also does illustrate shared understandings…probably helps profilers too. lol.

    Reply
  2. toni mcgee causey

    I love Catherine’s answer. πŸ˜‰ Great examples.

    I think clothes as miscues tends to interest me; throughout book 1, Bobbie Faye got stuck wearing a “Shuck Me, Suck Me, Eat Me Raw” t-shirt, which pretty much guaranteed she’d be humiliated on TV. (She knew it and was horrified by it, so the dissonance there was a constant friction for her–I made sure nothing worked for her, not even her clothes.)

    Zoe used clothing to great affect in Second Shot–when describing Sean and how impeccably he dressed. That detail snapped him into focus for me and distinguished him for me from the other characters around him. I’d just written an Irish character named Sean and her Sean was distinctively different than mine–so much so, that I was mid-way through this fantastic book before I realized we’d named a character the same.

    And if the fashions matter to the character, then that says a lot about who they are, what they prioritize, what they aspire to or think of as an achievement. (Devil Wears Prada).

    Reply
  3. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, I just love this!

    Thanks to Catherine and Toni so far for giving some great examples. I knew I was writing the piece with blinders on — thinking in a very limited way about this — but didn’t quite know how to take them off.

    Please continue the illumination.

    (BTW — I often use clothes to describe the person, but it rarely goes into “fashion.” Ya know?)

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, you’re such a striking dresser (always that aura of the exotic, that belly dancer mystique) – that it’s sort of comforting to hear you obsess about it.

    I think dressing expresses art, and character, like our writing. That’s not to say that I don’t live in leggings and dance shirts at home, but I particularly love RT where I HAVE to dress up. I’m a good stunt dresser when I want to be. It’s a drag to have to haul all that stuff in suitcases, though.

    Reply
  5. Lorraine.

    As reader, I like to know the kinds of clothers the character wears but not by brand name because I’m never au courant with fashion so a designer name doesn’t tell me anything.The example, “As usual, she was dressed a step above trailer trash, a small step…'” is good. Conveys a definite impression – haven’t read the book, but guess it’s a young woman who dresses like I do.When I retired I gave away all of my “go to business” clothes and vowed to never put on a pair of pantyhose again, and I haven’t.

    Reply
  6. billie

    I try to use brand names in clothing when it means something more than just a way to describe a piece of clothing, if that makes sense.

    Example: in my first novel the main character has a hx of difficult mother-daughter relationship that carries over to all her relationships with women – one of the key ways I illustrated that was her mother buying her designer clothing, which the MC hated. So when her boss (who is a clothes horse and also coming on to her) invites the MC to a fancy dinner at her house, the MC’s boyfriend says no when she comes downstairs dressed in one of her antique thrift-store dresses – and goes in her closet and finds the one dress he thinks is suitable – a Halston (the one time I name the designer) dress her mother gave her the previous Christmas – and she is so intimidated she wears it.

    Of course when she arrives the boss loves and recognizes the designer, which aligns her in the MC’s eyes with her mother and very nicely brings out the whole mother-daughter thing in a very subtle way.

    Not sure how good an example that is. But naming the designer that one time worked on a number of levels, not just to describe the dress.

    Forgive my rambling – it was 8 degrees here last night and I’m still recovering from going out this morning to feed/throw hay/break ice inches thick so the horses can eat and drink!

    Typing is warming up my fingers.

    Reply
  7. Tammy Cravit

    I tend to agree with what others have written — in my own writing, I tend to include descriptions of clothes (and brand names, though I don’t normally pay much attention to those myself) when they say something about the character. Describing the $400 Betsey Johnson evening dress that a teenage character wore to a party, for example, would say something about both her personal style and the depths of her wallet.

    But I’ve noticed some writers fall back on the standard description of hair and clothes (usually in a pretty generic fashion) as a shorthand way of sketching out a character, and this works less well for me. The descriptions of the form, “she was a tall, slender woman, with long blond hair and blue eyes, wearing jeans and a t-shirt” that I’ve seen in so many novels just doesn’t do it for me unless the author is trying to deliberately paint the character as bland and generic.

    The way I look at it, we best illuminate our characters by describing what makes them unique and memorable. If that’s a taste for designer clothes (or $200 Scotch whiskey, for that matter), fabulous. But my personal feeling is that if the character’s clothing doesn’t tell us something about who she is and what’s important to her, then spending time describing it isn’t so useful.

    Reply
  8. Sophie

    A pet peeve of mine is when characters recognize or purport to recognize the designer behind the clothes another character is wearing. For some reason it’s usually Armani πŸ™‚ The truth is that very, very few people would know this. In fact it’s a pretty rare person that can determine quality tailoring from off-the-rack. Most of us see a guy in a suit.

    Plus it’s sloppy writing. Far better to pick a few telling details, as in many of the examples already mentioned.- Sophie

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    Great topic, Pari.

    I’m known to primp before any event. We want to look our best, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

    I’m still half asleep (MLK day, hubby’s home) but I use clothes, types and brands, to point out Taylor’s background without saying “she’s got plenty of money.” She wears nice things, some designer, all luxurious. She doesn’t think twice about it — it’s jeans and a T-shirt, with a sweater to her, but the jeans are up to the minute, the T-shirt costs $60 and the sweater is cashmere, her boots, be they cowboy or others, are pricey. Image is everything, even on the page.

    But you never see her shop. ; )

    Reply
  10. pari noskin taichert

    Hey all,One thing I’m doing with my new series is having a character, Darnda, who uses anti-fashion as a statement. She’s almost militant about it.

    I’ll respond more to everyone’s comments — and I hope they keep coming — but am going for four hours to a “plotbusting” session with someone in my critique group. Should be interesting.

    I do have to say that I love the term “stunt dresser.” That sums it up, doesn’t it?

    But I want to take the time to read everyone’s comments, so check back this afternoon . . .

    Reply
  11. Fran

    There’s a difference, to me as a reader, between fashion clues that help define and enhance the character, and padding.

    Do I care if the BMW your character drives is brown? Not particularly, unless it’s going to get stuck in the mud and no one can find it for days.

    Do I care if your character is wearing Vera Wang rather than Halston? Nope. I can’t tell the two apart (but then I own three…no, four pairs of shoes, so you can tell I’m a fashionista!), but if your character is wearing Vera and she normally wears Goodwill knock-off Levis, then that sets all my readerly antennae atwitter – “Why’s she wearing that?” “How’d she get it?” “Can she pull it off?” “What does something like that cost anyway?”

    Okay, the last one is a girl thing, not a reader thing.

    So fashion to make a point? Absolutely! But descriptive coloration to add to your word count? Nope, give me plot instead.

    Reply
  12. Mark Terry

    Generally speaking, what my character’s wear isn’t too big a deal in my books. Derek Stillwater, for instance, that poor man’s Jack Bauer, tends to wear jeans, a T-shirt and windbreaker because he’s chasing bad guys all over the place. Running shoes not optional.

    In The Serpent’s Kiss one of the FBI agents, Jill Church, notes that after the terror attack in Detroit, the SAC is wearing combat boots with a suit, which she notes always seemed to be the uniform of choice for politicians when they visited Iraq. So that kind of detail was interesting.

    On the other hand, I recently completed a novel featuring a different character that we should be soon marketing, and he’s a D.C. political consultant (of a very specific sort) and he’s very, very clothing and label conscious. It’s just part of who he is, wearing Armani and Brooks Brothers with Hermes ties and hand-made Italian shoes, etc. Part of it is his personality–he admits to being a clothes snob–and part of it is attention to image. Since his clients are almost always politicians, he’s careful to present himself in a very specific way and it’s a message he’s sending to his clients.

    And anybody who knows me would know that having to figure out how to dress someone up requires a fair amount of research. πŸ™‚

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    BTW — Widget wise, or as Carol put it, the dancing book covers…

    You can now run your cursor arrow along the center of the top book,and you’ll see a transparent play, or pause button. If you’d rather read the post without the scroll, click on the pause button. Should solve the issue…

    It’s also now set at random, so all the covers mix together. If this is a problem, let me know.

    Reply
  14. JT Ellison

    BTW — Widget wise, or as Carol put it, the dancing book covers…

    You can now run your cursor arrow along the center of the top book,and you’ll see a transparent play, or pause button. If you’d rather read the post without the scroll, click on the pause button. Should solve the issue…

    It’s also now set at random, so all the covers mix together. If this is a problem, let me know.

    Reply
  15. Fiona

    In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, I love the scene when Hannibal is dissecting the the character-can’t remember her name (played by Jodi Foster in the movie) and nails her background with her style of shoes & their and condition. WOW.

    Jewelry is another great one. In DIE FOR ME, Karen Rose uses pearls to define a character, and works it into a murder scene seamlessly.

    Details like that mean so much more to me than brand names. The only time brands helped me “get” a story was in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. I thought the subject required the brands.

    Reply
  16. pari noskin taichert

    Zowie,What a great discussion.

    I love the examples you’ve given and how they DO illuminate aspects of characters or of clues that might enrich our understanding of those people.

    Clothing snobs would be aware of brands.

    A clothing snob who is found dead in secondhand crap outfits would be an indicator that something was truly off-kilter.

    Fran,Your comment about clothing description as padding hits some of what I was trying so incoherently to address.

    Sophie,I wonder if there ARE people who are that good at recognizing brands? I wouldn’t know hte difference. My distinctions would be expensive vs cheap because I’d be able to tell how the suit hung on the person — but make would leave me totally in the dark.

    Lorraine,I appreciate your perspective and agree with you. That trailer-trash example is spot-on.

    Reply
  17. pari noskin taichert

    and to continue . . .

    Billie,I think your example is very good. It tells us so much about the characters and sets up some excellent interpersonal conflicts.

    Louise,I’m a Guinness gal. How about you?

    Tammy,Yes. Your point about generic description is interesting. I do see that shorthand alot. Perhaps that’s also what I’m reacting to occassionally with the shorthand of designer clothes, too. It’s the lack of creativity — or something akin to that — that stands out for the wrong reasons.

    Mark,Perfect examples. Thank you. They really illustrate using clothing in an effective way.

    Fiona,What great examples. I haven’t read Karen Rose’s book but it sounds marvelous and I’m going to look for it. Thank you.

    J.T.,”Image is everything, even on the page.” Gahhhhhh. Now my characters are going to get as paranoid about dressing as I’ve been the last few days . . .

    BTW: Thank you for fixing that widget, J.T.

    In case Murderati readers don’t know: J.T. is our web maven and designer extraordinaire. She’s done a fab job and we are soooooooo lucky to have her!

    I think I responded to everyone. If not, feel free to slap my hand . . . with some really nice silk.

    Reply
  18. a Paperback Writer

    Well, I can’t add much after all this — but I’m going to anyway.I think that both what you do say and don’t say about clothes, jewelry, etc. help create the character. If your character carries a purse for the murder weapon (as you suggested) and doesn’t mention the brand name, then the reader may assume that the brand name isn’t important to that character. If a brand name is mentioned, then it IS important. Both things tell us about the character.

    Reply
  19. pari noskin taichert

    You’re right, PBW.

    That’s why I wanted to bring up the topic in the first place. I could feel I’d thought myself into a blind corner and needed this group’s perspective to help me see the out.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  20. Allison Brennan

    Clarice Starling. (Jodie Foster) Just don’t get me started on the later books. I still think THE RED DRAGON was his best work.

    I never think about what my characters wear unless it IS important. Like Quinn Peterson dressed like a GQ model (which wasn’t really appropriate tracking a serial killer in the Montana wilderness) and in TEMPTING EVIL everyone wore snowsuits because, well, there was a blizzard. I did have one character reflect that her heels could be used as a weapon. Does that count?

    Oh, and Nick Thomas wore a cowboy hat in San Diego which really made him stand out.

    Reading all these wonderful answers makes me realize I’m missing an important part of characterization. I think I spend more time figuring out what kind of coffee and adult beverages my characters drink than I do with what they wear. I fear that reflects more on me than I’d like . . .

    Reply
  21. pari noskin taichert

    Hah!

    Allison,I don’t think you’re missing out on anything. That’s the beauty of characterization; there are so many ways to share aspects of our creations with our readers.

    You just keep on doin’ what you’re doin’.

    ‘Kay?

    Reply

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