Dressed to Kill: Clothing Is Clue to Character


young couple dancingBy Katherine Sharma

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society,” remarked Mark Twain. Clothes, even if sketchily observed, make the fictional character, too. OK, naked characters rule in erotica, but you still want to know about clothes taken off; a tux or a leather jacket (ball gown or sundress) inspires a different fantasy. Clothing is such a key psychological and social expression that I attire characters carefully; chic, businesslike, sloppy, outmoded, provocative or thuggish, the clothes must fit the personality. I also have to decide if the character’s clothing choice is natural and unstudied, or a conscious effort to present a certain persona. And to make sure clothing is interpreted similarly by most readers, it pays to check research on clothing psychology. Consider one study that found it took only 3 seconds for people shown pictures of men in tailored suits versus off-the-rack suits to make a more favorable judgment of the strangers in tailored clothing. I guess a sophisticated hero needs a tailored suit! Fashion choices can be especially tricky for women characters, especially women in positions of authority. In another study, when people were shown pictures of faceless “senior management” women all dressed in conservative business attire, varying only slightly in terms of skirt length or blouse buttons fastened, they expressed negative opinions of the “provocative” managers (meaning only a slightly shorter skirt or an extra button undone). So, if a heroine is aiming for the executive suite, I don’t risk reader disapproval by dressing her in a tiny skirt and low-cut top, at least not at work. Clothing not only speaks to observers, it speaks to the wearer. A new outfit really can lift its owner’s spirits. And just donning the trappings of competence can improve performance: A recent study found people asked to dress in a doctor’s lab coat to perform a task were more careful and attentive than people performing the same task dressed in a painter’s smock. If you’re interested in clothing psychology, especially for women, check out Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s book You Are What You Wear: http://www.amazon.com/You-Are-What-Wear-Clothes/dp/0738215201


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.

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