Friday, October 19, 2012

Clothing and Status

I'm doing my character development homework for NaNoWriMo so I won't have to wing it in November. Right now, I'm going through a book about crafting characters.

I like this book.  But there is an idea I've come across that doesn't quite gel with me, and I've seen this idea come up in other character development guides as well, and that is the instruction to dress our characters by their social class. 

That is, a character from an affluent background is expected to wear expensive designer clothing and be well-groomed to reflect their social status while someone who is from a less privileged background should wear cheap, gaudier clothing and be less groomed. The author suggests that, with some exceptions, clothing and grooming offer clues to the readers about one's socioeconomic status. 

I respectfully disagree.

Here's how I would put it: Sometimes clothing and grooming offer clues about one's socioeconomic status OR how one wants others to perceive their socioeconomic status, AND sometimes clothing and grooming don't offer clues to one's socioeconomic status at all.

My line of thinking is influenced by living in the Bay Area, where it's not unheard of for wealthy CEOs of start-up companies to go to work in casual gym attire or for young people from underpriviledged backgrounds to wear expensive designer sneakers. And if you think someone  who is a "somebody" must be expertly groomed, I ask you to look no further than all those pictures out there of Albert Einstein with his wild bed head. 

I still remember that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie Bradshaw is admiring her closet stuffed with Chanel and Manolo Blahniks  while wondering how she'd come up with money for the down payment of her apartment. Though Carrie is a fictional character, her situation offers insight on some of the "best dressed." An individual who is always styled like a mannequin at Nordstrom as if to remind others  "I'm all money!" could sometimes be anything but. 

I've also observed some people who are exceptionally well-off financially, and their clothing choices are rather ordinary and do not hint at their wealth at all. Perhaps individuals from this group might've come from a background where thrifty spending is valued. Or they don't care about being stylish. Or they're simply comfortable with themselves and don't feel the need to prove they come from "class." It's not uncommon to come across a picture of a Hollywood A-lister totally grunged up and glammed down while they walk their dog or go grocery shopping.

Sometimes the rich and the less privileged would dress as such, respectively, and sometimes they don't. So I feel that clothing and grooming are not definitive markers of social class.

Readers, your thoughts? How do you dress your characters?


T. Drecker said...

Just found you and am following :)

I've noticed that people with lots of money are not the ones that flaunt it. More the want-to-bes. I dress my characters according to who they are and their purpose in the story. A side character who has money is dressed as one would expect (for clarity reasons). If, however, this character shouldn't be all that he appears due to the story/plot, he gets dressed accordingly.

S.P. Bowers said...

I think in today's world it depends on the location, the person and their desires. I believe that the statement is more true for historical times than now.

Laura Marcella said...

I agree. You can't go too much by appearances because a person's style doesn't always reflect their background. I think behavior is more indicative of social class, but even that can be deceptive.

Rachel Morgan said...

Hmm. I haven't really mentioned clothes that much in my stories, so I haven't thought in depth about this until now. But I agree with you. I can think of one of my own family members who is exceedingly wealthy but who wears very plain and ordinary clothes, and not a scrap of make up.

We've obviously got to use clothing choices ALONG WITH other details to give readers clues about characters' socioeconomic status.

PS - That's so cool that you saw my book on a few blogs for the Did I Notice Your Book blogfest! I only saw it on one because, um, I don't have time to visit every blog that took part!

David P. King said...

It's amazing how someone can dress without having to spend a whole lot (and amazing how expensive some grungy clothes can be, too). Great topic, Cynthia. This, too, can apply to an author's image in how they present themselves. :)

Lynn Proctor said...

well in my only book i have completed, the characters dress pretty much like my family, since the book is based on my family---in the other book i was writing--i saw my mc, very conservatively dressed sort of understated "jackie o"----fascinating subject!!

Sherry Ellis said...

I would have to agree with you. I think it's all about the character's priorities. If dressing fancy is a priority, a character will dress that way regardless of socioeconomic status.

Lionel said...

I loved this post. In a lot of instances it seems that the people with money are conservative. That's, for the most part, how the accumulated their wealth. I do think that there is some justification for this in describing characters. On paper it is certainly a way to convey certain things just by attire, but it isn't necessarily the rule. Thank you for another insightful, entertaining post.

Paul R. Hewlett

Cynthia said...

T. Drecker: Nice to meet you! Thanks for sharing your observations.

Sara: I agree that context is relevant too.

Laura: I know what you mean.

Rachel: I agree that clothes shouldn't be the only marker to point out one's socioeconomic status.

David: I know, grungy clothes can be pricey too!

Lynn: I liked the way Jackie O dressed.

Sherry: Priorities do influence how one dresses themselves.

Paul: You're welcome! I do acknowledge that people can certainly dress by their socioeconomic status, but I also wanted to point out that some people don't.

Nicole said...

I think your take on this is exactly the reason why we should break the rules at some points. ;) You're absolutely right.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I agree on this, for the most part. People don't necessarily dress the way society says their "station" would imply they would. Though I will say that when, say, an actor is walking around in grungy clothing, I tend to wonder if those are $200 distressed jeans. ;-p

Shannon at The Warrior Muse

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