Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If the clothes make the man....

....what are the words that make the clothes?

I don't want to sound too harsh about the Writing Excuses podcast. It's a lot of fun, potentially informative, certainly thought-provoking, and I'm happily listening to it.

But an episode I listened to recently rather underlines why I'm not completely satisfied with it. Said episode was on fashion. The majority of the episode was spent on explaining that you have to think about what fashion says about a character, and further, about their society. And they went out of their way (extensively) to explain that different characters should notice fashion differently.

Okay, it is a bit unfair; I have studied costuming for the stage. It's pretty much the first thing we learn is that you chose the costume to underline things you want to say about the character. And then, research? That's sort of 101 territory there. You research everything. If you haven't realized that, in a certain period, linen is the cheap stuff because cotton is only imported from Egypt, then you haven't done your homework. And if you aren't interpreting everything through the eyes of your POV character, in every aspect of the environment, then you aren't doing POV right, either.

It was all just a little too basic for my taste. I have questions, most certainly I do. But they appear to be a little more advanced. Question; getting period garb right is hard enough. What are good resources if you are writing 20th century, where the changes come very fast and are more meaningful to the modern reader? (A modern reader may not understand the significance of a leg-of-mutton sleeve, but they totally grok the statement being made by a pair of bell bottoms.)

Here's another; how do you describe fashion? What are the pros and cons of using the correct historical terms (even though they are likely unfamiliar to the reader) versus attempting to visualize the thing? How much can you even assume about the reader's knowledge? Do they know what padded shoulders in a woman's business suit of the 80's mean? Are you better off with term like "power tie," which even if you don't know what it looks like is self-describing its functionality?

Heck, how important is it really for the reader to see the color and silhouette, feel the texture of the fabric, etc., versus the informational and emotional impact -- aka, how rich is this person, how ostentatious, how tasteful, how fashionable? (In re the latter, particularly...I feel a lot more comfortable writing "She was dressed at the height of fashion" rather than risking describing a "silk Dior blouse" or something and not realizing I'm being hopeless out of date or otherwise sending a completely different message than the one I had intended!)

And here's a related one? How much is appropriate? How do you know when it is too much?

(I mention because I felt obligated to describe clothing in my current fanfic. Clothing is a big part of the Lara Croft character; whether the eclectic and elegant clothing shown off in the movies -- particularly the second one -- or the controversial and memorable outfits of her game incarnations. So I've gone out of my way to describe not just her clothing, but that of the rest of the cast -- even when I had to reach for a walk-on POV just to get some descriptions in!)

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