Using Clothes to Construct Character

A better title for this post might be An Excuse to Share Costume Porn. I mean look at this:

Hot pink corset


Sometimes I think if it wasn’t for costume dramas, we’d have convinced ourselves that Victorians dressed entirely in sepia tones.  One of my favorite parts of researching the Victorian era has been discovering all the amazing and colorful clothes wealthy women wore.

When I started writing, I had no idea how character development could dictate costume or how useful descriptions of clothing could be for conveying small nuances of character.

Before I get into specifics, I want to note that I almost never use just one image to help me describe clothing (or for that matter faces). Half the fun for readers is using their imagination and I don’t think they particularly like to be told “No, this is what that dress/face really looks like.” But I like to use visual aids while I’m writing. It helps me keep things historically accurate and reminds me that my male protagonist will never unzip my heroine’s dress.

In the prologue of my first manuscript Ruled by Desire, my heroine Francesca is young enough that she’s still being told what to wear by her guardians. Hence these otherwise out of character inspirations:

The scene is in the hero James’s point of view. Pretty though the dress is meant to be, he takes a dim view:

“Rows of white ruffles covered her from neck to ankle. All that fabric obscured her figure, but she might be hiding a decent bosom under there for all he knew … She was a perfect debutante. Girls like her thronged the ballrooms of London during the season. If he discovered they assembled them in a factory somewhere, he’d feel only mild surprise.”

The description of the dress is brief but it tells us that Francesca is following convention when it comes to her wardrobe, something that has changed by the time we meet her again:

“She’d cast aestheticism aside for less practical attire, taming and restraining her unruly curves. The ruby-red silk, though vivid and unashamed like its wearer, revealed no more than was proper. He saw a hint of upper arm bracketed by short sleeves and long white gloves, and the gentle swell of her décolletage almost always concealed behind the black feathers of her fan. She didn’t go out of her way to display herself, but she disdained to hide.”

This red dress is one of the few times I didn’t use something from the era as my guide. Instead I used this costume from The Age of Innocence:


I’ve loved this costume since I saw the movie back when it first came out.

As for James himself:

“He put a clean handkerchief into her hand. “Take care of it. It’s very fashionable.”

She tried to smile, but it came out wobbly. “A fashionable handkerchief? I never heard of such a thing.” She accepted the small white square and unfolded it. His valet must have slipped it into his pocket this morning. Four neat creases divided it into precise quarters. So much care taken over something insignificant.”

James is rich and privileged, from a set and rank that take fashion very seriously. But whereas an aristocrat might be socially prominent enough to flout the rules, James, as a mere gentleman, must make sure he dresses the right way. We also see how puzzling and trivial all this seems to Francesca.

One of my favorite items that I found was this brooch:


Isn’t it awful?

In my story, it belongs to James’s aunt, Mrs. Price.

““What an extraordinary brooch,” he said, after he’d taken a sip of tea. Actually brooch didn’t seem the right word for what was in fact the stuffed and severed head of a hummingbird, its beak dipped in gold, pinned to the breast of her lemon yellow gown. It must have been a beautiful creature once. Even now, its feathers shone red and gold in the light.

“You like Freddy, do you?” She stroked the bird under his chin, pursing her lips in thought.

Mrs. Price isn’t an out an out villain, but she’s extremely selfish. It doesn’t occur to her that there’s anything cruel or macabre about this bit of jewelry. She sees nothing inconsistent in her naming of the dead bird. Similarly, when she commits a cruelty, it never occurs to her that she might be in the wrong or that there’s any other point of view.

Poor Freddy. Since I can’t bring myself to end the post on that image, here’s a quick slideshow of dresses that I loved that didn’t make it into the story.

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(All images via Pinterest)

Getting Inspired : Pinterest

Whenever I get stuck, I turn to Pinterest. Yes, there are more ads these days, but when the page stays determinedly blank, I find a store of images on which to focus invaluable. I make a pin board for each story I plan to write, and fill it with anything that sparks an idea, no matter how minor that idea might be. I use everything from paintings by old masters to songs and music videos to snatches of poetry.

Here are just a few examples from the board I made for my second manuscript Heart of Ice.

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Image 1: This painting by Kelly Vivanco (You can buy her art at raises so many questions. The girl looks innocent and sweet but I can’t help but think there’s a little more than tea in that pot. Helen Grey, the heroine of Heart of Ice, has been locked in an insane asylum for ten years. Her nurse is physically violent. In the circumstances, who could blame her for occasionally spiking the tea?

Image 2: Dr. John Butler’s Electric Massage machine. Rumour has it that the vibrator was invented by Victorian doctors as a cure for hysteria. As to whether it’s true, in her book Unmentionable Therese Oneill says definitely not. But then I read The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel P. Maines which is literally an entire book about how it is true. It certainly makes one wonder about the mentality of the doctors who administered this “cure”. Helen doesn’t undergo that particular indignity but the Victorian obsession with female sexual desire was definitely front and centre in my mind while I wrote.

Image 3: Floor plan of a Victorian kitchen. I don’t know about you but I don’t have a scullery (or a pantry or a larder) and when I realised I needed to set scenes in the kitchen, I didn’t want to get things wrong. I don’t describe the kitchen in great detail since it’s not important to the story and I didn’t want to get bogged down in unnecessary detail, but still needed to know what it looked like so that I wouldn’t make my characters walk through walls, jolting the reader out of the story.

Image 4: Water is an important motif in Heart of Ice. I knew there’d be several scenes that involved bathing of various kinds and, when I saw this painting by Jean Baptiste Mallet, I knew exactly where I wanted to set some of them. The stone and stained glass make this a bit different from your usual bathroom.

Image 5: I’ve saved the best till last. Will, the hero of  Heart of Ice, has a dog. He’s called Hector and he’s awesome. He was going to suffer from melancholia but then I re-read Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You and realised this was not the brilliant and unique idea I’d first thought. (Just to clarify, it is a brilliant idea but Crusie’s already done it). These days Hector is relatively well-adjusted and often shows better sense than the humans around him.

If you get the chance, check out my boards. Many of them are to do with my writing and my research into the Victorian period, and I also have a board for my Top 100 Romance novels. I know I couldn’t write well in this genre if I didn’t also love it as a reader.