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Do Clothes Make the Character? Or, Can I Wear My Slippers Out of the House?

Do Clothes Make the Character?  Or, Can I Wear My Slippers Out of the House?

My mom bought my boyfriend a pair of slippers for Christmas, and he’s been wearing them constantly. “Do you think it’s OK if I wear my slippers to the bank?” Paul asked me the other day.

“Sure. I guess.” He’s gone on errands in his pajamas before, without giving it a second thought, so I wasn’t even sure why he was bothering to ask me. Besides, the slippers are loafer-style. Except for the soft soles and fuzzy fleece insides, they could almost be considered shoes.

I told Sergiy, my Ukrainian ESL student, about Paul wearing his slippers to the bank, and Sergiy shook his head with disapproval. “In Russia and Ukraine,” he told me, “people are always dressing up before they go outside. People want to look nice and fashionable.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Americans aren’t really known for their fashion.”

Sergiy told me that on a recent flight he’d taken, two teenage girls had walked onto the plane wearing pajama pants. “It looks lazy for me,” he said. “And you know what is really disgusting? When I see these women in New York wearing a dress and, how do you call it– sneakers? It’s so ugly.”

“That is bad,” I agreed, but I knew I had no room to complain. Lately I’ve taken to wearing yoga pants around town, even when I don’t plan on going to yoga. I enjoy an elastic waistband, what can I say?

Eva wearing yoga pants.

Eva wearing yoga pants.

Over the years, my clothing style has definitely gone through phases. As a shy, introverted kid, I wanted everything to be plain: shirts with no writing, jeans with no embellishments, jackets that were all one color (a difficult style to find in the bead-dazzled and hyper-colored world of the late eighties and early nineties.)

When I hit puberty, though, I suddenly became aware of fashion and wanted to have more fun with my clothes. I became disgusted with the way all the kids at my middle school wore the same boring things every day: nylon soccer shorts and t-shirts, or straight-leg Levi’s jeans with Addidas sneakers. I couldn’t afford the name-brand soccer clothes like Umbros and Sambas (and I didn’t play soccer anyway), so I wore sparkly tights and patterned thrift store skirts. I borrowed my mom’s tweed blazer for a jacket and wore a purple felt hat with a zipper around the brim.

That was sixth grade, the year I became best friends with D–, a mousy, freckled girl who wore her curly red-hair in a long braid and, in my memory at least, had a wardrobe consisting of nothing but pink and purple sweatshirts and sweatpants. I don’t know if it was becoming friends with me that encouraged D– to ditch the sweatpants, but soon we were both shopping at the thrift store and wearing more and more bizarre outfits. Now that we had each other, we didn’t have to worry quite so much about what the other kids thought.  In eighth grade, D– and I instituted the weekly “Make a Statement Day,” in which we encouraged others to join us in wearing something unusual. A few girls joined us, looking for an opportunity to wear that daring outfit they’d bought on a whim at the mall, but for the most part, D– and I were alone, and our clothing reflected that.

In high school, D– and I banded together with some of the misfits from other middle schools. Our new friend Nikki, for example, had come from a rough middle school where she felt she had to wear a puffy Starter jacket and NFL gear to avoid getting beaten up. She wasn’t as interested in clothes as D– and I were, but she enjoyed our outings to the thrift store. “I like wearing loose dresses that feel like sacks,” I remember her telling me once. She wore sack-like hippie dresses with jeans underneath – usually over-sized mens’ jeans,which she had probably stolen from a boy. (She had a habit of borrowing other people’s clothes for extended periods of time.)

Meanwhile, D– and I had discovered a treasure trove of retro fashion:  D–‘s mother had been a catalog model in the seventies and had saved all of her old clothes from the shoots. We got them out of storage and began wearing the bellbottom jeans and velour jumpsuits to school. To supplement, I bought a leather jacket, platform shoes, and a pair of tall leather boots with spike heels from the thrift store. I had an orange velour jacket I wore and a pair of Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals.

I think I wanted to prove to myself, and to everyone else, that I was different, that I was creative, that I was special. I began donning more and more daring outfits. I wore my great-grandmother’s slip as a dress (and almost got sent home from school for it). I wore my aunt’s old automechanics cover-alls, I wore an apron over a dress, I wore old men’s polyester pants. I once even wore a towel to school as a skirt. I wonder now what my teachers thought of me.

photo (31)

Eva, D–, and Nikki in high school. We are all wearing my clothes. 

I brought all my crazy, vintage clothing with me to college, but by my Senior year, my style had begun to morph again. Now I was in my twenties and hitting the club scene. I started buying more short dresses and heels. I moved to New Orleans, and for a while I was very into knee socks and short, pleated skirts. By the time I was twenty-five I could probably count at least twenty mini-skirts in my closet. I wore big earrings, bright colors, and tight clothes. “When I turn thirty, I’m going have to stop wearing mini-skirts,” I remember telling my friends in dismay. “What am I going to do?” Luckily, I discovered leggings, which is what my wardrobe now consists of. Nine times out of ten these days, I’m wearing a short dress, leggings, and a pair of boots. Like I said, I’m a fan of the elastic waistband.

All of this brings me to two questions: Does what we wear tell something about our personality or state of mind? (I would say yes.) And, therefore, should we writers be describing the clothing of our characters?

This is a tricky question. I recently read something by a famous author (and frustratingly, I cannot for the life of me remember which author it was) who said that he/she never describes a character’s clothing because it’s “boring” and “unimportant.” That struck me, because I’m often describing clothes, and I’m often struggling with it.

For one thing, describing clothing can date your characters. If I described a girl wearing a mini-skirt and Uggs, or a boy wearing cargo shorts and a pair of Crocs, you could probably get a picture in your mind of these characters and maybe even generate some stereotypes about them, but what about people twenty or fifty years from now? Will Uggs and Crocs still be household names? I remember once reading a book in which the characters wore Izod shirts and topsiders, and that was supposed to communicate something important about these characters, but having never heard of Izod or topsiders before, it didn’t have the intended effect on me.

Also, describing clothes has a tendancy to get tedious, or to sound a little too juvenile. “Jessica was wearing a scoop-neck black shirt and tight jeans. Her blond hair was swept up in a swinging ponytail, and she wore expensive-looking four-inch heels.” I don’t know. It starts to sound a little too Sweet Valley High.

So should we not describe clothing at all? Is that the answer? Of course not! We just have to do it well, and at the right time. No need to describe every article of clothing in every single scene, but some well-placed clothing description can do a lot to help the reader visualize a character and understand his/her personality.

For example, I recently started reading The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, and I came across the following description:

“Today Charis is wearing a sagging mauve cotton jersy dress, with a fuzzy grey cardigan over top and an orange-and-aqua scarf with a design of meadow flowers draped around her neck. Her long straight hair is grey-blonde and parted in the middle; she has her reading glasses stuck up on top of her head…”

“Roz is packed into a suit that Tony recognizes from the window of one of the more expensive designer stores on Bloor. She shops munificently and with gusto, but often on the run. The jack is electric blue, the skirt is tight. Her face is carefully air-brushed, and her hair has just been re-coloured.”

And therefore, I say, if Margaret Atwood can do it, so can I! And I need to be paying attention to passages like these – those that describe clothing in a way that help to reveal character. Because I think clothes can reveal a lot. Maybe it’s a teenage girl who is seeking identity and recognition. Or maybe it’s just a man who is feeling a bit tired and lazy and wants to bring the comforts of home with him as he ventures out of the house.

Speaking of which, this morning Paul told me he was considering wearing his slippers to work. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” he asked.

“Well, if you think it is, then go for it,” I told him. He must have decided no, however, because his slippers are still in the bedroom where he left them:

Paul's slippers.

Paul’s slippers.

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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