Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dressing Up, Dressing Down

The Opera Box,
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1874,
Courtauld Collection, London.

(The male model is Renoir's [very suave] brother.)

They say that guys like to read descriptions of cars and guns, and male writers seem to place more emphasis on how clothing fits, before and behind, than on any colour, style or co-ordination -- but that women are keen on clothes.

I have always enjoyed dress details in period novels.

Descriptions seemed to fit with those milieus that place great emphasis on proper apparel to determine social strata and status.

Perhaps it's a female thing.

My reaction to descriptions of contemporary clothing, however, is more subdued; and my interest depends more on whether the character can run-and-jump within the restrictions of her outfits, and designer labels make me cross my eyes. They often sound self-conscious.

Still, the same social/character indicators provided by fashion apply, regardless of the time setting, and I usually read them with interest, if without any special enthusiasm.

I am exasperated -- for several reasons -- by Anita Blake's girlish indecision and fulsome descriptions over her wardrobe and her dress du jour and how she may conceal her specially modified pistol and clips.

Perhaps it's primarily because of the first person.

Perhaps because those passages smacked of the sloppy staring-in-the-mirror trick.

Perhaps third person is a more amenable POV for garments, raiments and garb.

I have noticed in my WIP that my own characters might as well be naked most of the time ( though I haven't arrived at that point in the plot.) My descriptions of clothing are cursory.

I don't think that is a Good Thing.

Visualization aids are a Good Thing.

I think I shall have to be more forthcoming.

How do you feel about clothing detail in novels? Does a lack of those descriptive items annoy you?

Impure Pimpage:
Yesterday I received a request from Lucy Orbach, the co-founder of BooksPrice.com, to publicize their site.

BooksPrice purports to provide a free service for finding the best price for new and used books, CDs, and DVDs, from on-line stores by means of real-time search engines and an RRS price watcher, as well as other features and tools geared to enable customers to compare and track such factors as shipping, currency and condition.

Since I am a recovering Luddite who just made a first purchase from Amazon ( having relied on my Tech-Children to navigate any cyber commerce needs in the past), I can neither vouch for nor verify the site.

I have no idea whether it falls under a caveat emptor or a carpe diem.

I do believe, however, that anything that expedites book buying is a Very Good Thing, and so I venture to mention the service.

Besides, though she assured me that the gift was irrespective of any vulgar quid pro quo, a charming best-seller book bribe was attached.


StarvingWriteNow said...

It depends on the story, and the time period. I like more detail in historicals, because it really gives me a sense of place, helps me to fall into the story easier. The same thing with fantasy, paranormal--anything that is outside my everyday experience.

Conversely, I get kind of annoyed in contemporary works when there is too much detail--unless it is crucial to showing character or setting. I don't need to know over and over that her handbags are by Prada or Givenchy or whatever--unless there is a reason for it, like, say she's lost everything and she's holding on to that Prada bag as a talisman or a reminder of how shallow her former life was, something like that.

My, aren't I running on this morning?

Savannah Jordan said...

It's all semantics. For me it is a matter of why the clothing description is there, and what the clothing description has to do with the given scene. Superfluous

At one time, in my green, fresh from the seed writing I used descriptives heavily. A sound spanking from an editor or two has curtailed that enthusiasm. Now, I leave much of the character's visual specifics up to the mind of the reader.

Savannah Jordan said...

please nevermind the superfulous dangling there *sigh*

Carla said...

I don't think I differentiate between settings. I like enough to form an idea of what the character(s) look like, or if it says something about character, status, values, etc. I don't need to be told what colour the girl's frock or the hero's shirt is in every scene, though.
Designer labels in contemporary novels tend to go over my head because I don't recognise half of them.

Jaye Wells said...

Re: Contemporary dress, you've got to be careful. I can't tell you how many romances have left me wondering if the author watched waaaay too much Dynasty and has a shrine to Alexis Carrington in their closet. However, I really enjoy descriptions in more historical settings.

Julie said...

I've recently been influenced by Stephen King on writing - cutting out superflous adjectives and picking only 'key' ones where necessary to get a balance between no detail and too much fuss, but agree that historical (costumed) fiction has to be considered apart.

We only have to watch tv these days to know what people are wearing now - do we need laborious details?

Agree on references to 'brand' names - so much proliferation now means that what is in with one group isn't heard of by the next or is simply passe.

Bernita said...

Starving, thank you. I like it when people "run on."
And maybe because such descriptions in historical and fantasie are just interesting, no more no less.
We agree that clothing can assist time and place.

Dress description should "show cause," and justify itself, Savannah, I agree.
Does she wear a red dress because she wants to excite or because it makes her a target later on, or both, sort of thing.

Neither do I, Carla!
And maybe contemporary clothing no longer asserts definite facts about a character's taste or status as it once did.

Bernita said...

So far, I've kept my descriptions generic, Jaye.

Yes, Julie. One doesn't really need to add "sensible" if she's wearing something from Marks and Spencer.
Still, some details can help readers visualize characters as they move through the scenes, though I think description should serve more than one purpose.

bunnygirl said...

I like description in historical novels when it's done correctly. I'm a bit of a stickler for accuracy on that sort of thing and get a bit peeved when someone is wearing velvet before such was available, etc.

Then there's contemporary description. It's interesting to consider that while we may find it interesting to read Thackeray's description of Becky Sharp's dresses, it may have been as boring to the readers of the time as detailed descriptions of designer jeans in a novel of today.

Personally, I think description of clothing is like description of anything else-- there's no need for excessive detail or even to mention it at all unless it's important to the plot or character development.

jason evans said...

Descriptions are like characters. I'd be nervous if clothes and appearance became a central character. It's probably not the focus I'd enjoy reading. Using appearance to give a sense of scene, however, especially if it conveys a certain feeling, is great.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Bunny.
I guess the point is "how" important are extensive descriptions of clothing and physical appearance to plot and character development.
Are sketchy subtlities enough for most readers?
Do they expect a solid picture or are they content to build up an image bit by bit?

"Nervous." That's exactly how I feel about it, Jason.

"Descriptions are like characters" - that's an interesting observation and something to think hard about.

Julie said...

A 'detail'writer will attract a 'detail' focussed reader - so isn't it horses for courses in this area?

Is the key to descibing modern clothing everyone's acceptance of 'Off the peg' - (when did mass production really come in?) In historical fiction, wasn't the detail tied in with the unique quality of the garment, and therefore worth the comment.
It was a matter of some importance to know the right tailor(ess)...

I like detail when it builds up an effect, but not for its own sake.

SzélsőFa said...

Like Carla and Bunnygirl said, I don't care much about reading someone's clothing unless it is REALLY important to the story for some reason.
Like the story is set in historical/future times, or the character has a special attachment to certain types/pieces of clothing. But that should be made justified.
I don't want to read a catalogue on contemporary clothing.

Bernita said...

Not sure the correspondence applies necessarily, Julie.
Someone who likes Bruegel may also like Matisse.

Bernita said...

"I don't want to read a catalogue on contemporary clothing"
My natural reaction too, Szelsofa!
But I like to re-visit my prejudices. They may not match what a reader likes to see.

Anonymous said...

In writing historicals I think clothing description adds to setting the time period and building the world. However, continued references to swishing petticoats and rustling silk, or the cerulean blue (from the hero's POV???) of her dress will result in skimming.


Charles Gramlich said...

For period pieces I am interested in dress, but I tend to lean toward a description of the utility of the clothes and the weapons attached thereto. I also rather enjoy this in fantasy settings because I like to see some exotic elements of dress. For stories set in modern times I generally couldn't care less about the clothes. A very brief mention is fine

raine said...

Hmmm. The gentleman in the painting seems attractive, but not at all interested in his companion, lol.

Agree. In period pieces, I like the details. It helps 'place' me there, especially if it's a time/clothing I'm unfamiliar with.

Second or third round of edits.
That's when I finally get around to remembering to occasionally mention that the characters may be wearing something. Just not important to me...
EXCEPT when it's useful to the storyline, as in the case of a certain unfinished wip in which the heroine is terribly finicky about her appearance and designer labels, as opposed to the hero, who prefers jeans and Jack Daniels.

...a charming best-seller book bribe was attached.

Why do I only get offers to help enlarge my penis? :-/

Bernita said...

oh, Seeley, you know that even the heroes in regencies were positively obsessed with dress!

I feel much the same, Charles, on all points.

Obviously, he's more interested in another beauty in another box, Raine.
I am so glad I'm not the only one who neglects couture.
I get an infinity of those too!

Gabriele C. said...

I'm not a typical girl, so I don't need detailed desciption of lacey goodness and spotted musslin. Some hints to clothes particular for the time (Hessian boots, lorica segmentata, trousers and plaid cloaks, or plummeted hats) suffice. On the contrary, lengthy descriptions of - mostly female - robes put me off. Have you ever noticed how little actual description Jane Austen has, and it still gives you a clear image how people dressed.

I never played with dolls. :)

calderwoodbooks said...

I'm reading a lot of slush right now, and what bugs me is endless description about clothes the second a new character is introduced.
Clothes can convey weather, personality, or some sort of message.
But saying that so and so came to the door wearing an emerald green blouse and crisp white pants, with clip-on earrings and high heeled sandals, is just asking for a rejection slip.

Bernita said...

I did play with dolls, Gabriel - in between building forts and trying to make molotov cocktails and other such unfeminine activities - which is why I don't want to treat my characters as dolls.

Sam, I am delighted to read that!

Ello said...

I barely notice what other people are wearing let alone what characters in a book are wearing. But I do find that certain period pieces can be heightened by a well done description of garments.

kmfrontain said...

I spent some time writing about a pink puffy winter coat with fuchsia fur trim in a recent short I did. And I also mentioned the tiny pink bikini underneath, pink boots with pompoms... I wanted the character to stand out as a bit rebellious in the "I am going to girl you to death" department. Clothes are a good way to get a character to show personality. But once I took the coat off, I didn't bother mentioning the color again.

Oh, and hi, Bernita! I've been visiting, just not blogging or commenting much these days.

Carla said...

"And maybe contemporary clothing no longer asserts definite facts about a character's taste or status as it once did."
Maybe. The sumptuary laws are certainly gone :-) I think clothes can still say something about a character, eg designer clothes cost serious money and therefore the character is either wealthy or considers clothes a high priority or both, and a male character turning up to a business meeting in ripped jeans and a ponytail may suggest he is an old-style programmer, a pop star, the boss or about to get the sack. But I rarely need to know any more than that to get the picture.

On the devil's advocate side, it's notable that PD James almost always gives detailed descriptions of characters' clothes, jewellery etc, usually when Dalgleish is interviewing them for the first time. I think that's because Dalgleish, being a police detective, is trained to notice such things.

Bernita said...

In fact, Ello, it may be one of the expected pleasures.

"But once I took the coat off, I didn't bother mentioning the color again."
Exactly, Karen. Nice to see you -
I noticed that your blog hadn't been updated.

"I think that's because Dalgleish, being a police detective, is trained to notice such things."
I agree. For him to not notice as a trained observer would be character inconsistent.

kmfrontain said...

I've been very busy. Right now, I'm updating the blog, the blog template, and my website to show Debbie's new release, and also blogging the release on every other blog I have. Takes a good hour to do all that. Meanwhile, I have this poor author wanting edits... I is guilty of slow.

The Anti-Wife said...

When the details slow down or detract from the story, it's time to start hitting the delete key.

Bernita said...

No, no, Karen!
I just meant you hadn't posted on your blog much.
Of course you're busy, probably insanely so!

Lean and mean, AW!

Zany Mom said...

I try to use clothing descriptions when they are crucial to the plot. Such as if a woman is wearing stilettos while trying to outrun a villain -- across a cow pasture. ;) Or the character who was brought to the hospital sans shoes is now escaping with nothing but hospital-issue booties on her feet, doctors in white coats or just a dress shirt and tie, or a character in tight jeans (ie when a male character is noticing a female character).

IOW, it needs to be important to the scene or to characterization. If I mention a designer name, it will be important.

spyscribbler said...

It's such a difficult balance! I sometimes notice that my characters are blanks talking in a blank room. LOL.

But then too much description, or boring description, is ... boring. :-)

Bernita said...

Nice to see you again, Zany!
Yes, I think clothing has to be more useful than just covering an ass.

Funny, Natasha...I just finished writing a scene that on re-reading is much like that.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I like clothes in novels as long as it's pertinent. I've been called out for my bare-chested males, or even nekkidity. But I do use it as a device. For instance, one time a 20 year old was changing clothes and his dad walked in on him, talking about something particularly difficult. The dad didn't care that the kid was naked, but the kid sure did! Mostly it symbolized more the "naked soul" than the body. And I've had girls say "Guys don't care about hair or clothes" and then had guys conversely say: "Yeah, we do!"

And I had one guy say of my description of Aidan and Kaelin, which included hair and eyes (the big boring no-nos) "Sheesh. I know guys just like that--footballers, popular with the girls. Man I hated them in college."

That told me he got the gist of the description, hair notwithstanding.

Sorry so long. :)

Bernita said...

Oh fiddle on "long," SS!
I don't set word count restrictions.
"But I do use it as a device." --bingo!
I think hair and eyes ( and for me, mouth) are the most important items in a facial description.

Julie said...

I think I've been compartmentalizing the clothes issue - struck me later on that if a character is imagined in a holistic sense, then their choice of clothing is as much part of their identity as anything else; so that would need to be represented in as natural a way as possible given the genre and expected 'depth' of the writing...?

Shauna Roberts said...

I love to read descriptions of beautiful clothing and beautiful jewelry. (Also beautiful furniture and luscious food, for what it's worth.) So I like a lot of description in historicals and fantasy. In books set in contemporary times, I tend to skip over description of the clothes and accessories. I don't know enough about brand names to get any information from their brandishment, and most modern clothing isn't particularly interesting. Actually, I do see some beautiful and intriguing outfits in women's magazines, but in real life tee-shirts and jeans seem to be de rigeur.

writtenwyrdd said...

I like the overdescription of clothing in the Anita Blake novels, personally. But for me, the preferred level of world description is too much for others. I like lots of detail; but, conversely, I do not have a fondness for stories that crawl along slowly, either.

From the bits of your work I've read, you haven't had a need to have a clothing description. Your character, lillie, isn't all about the clothes and they aren't relevant to the story; hence no need to really describe clothes.

Lisa said...

I think this is a matter of reader taste. I prefer minimal detail on physical appearance. I don't like to be told what color a character's eyes or hair are. I'd rather get something that describes facial expressions or mannerisms and develop my own vision of the character. I like spare details about clothing -- I think we normally need a little more for women, if only to give us some clues as to her character. Colors and fabrics normally don't do much for me, but I want to know if my character is more likely to be in jeans and a t-shirt or in tailored suits. I think it's like all description and should be considered carefully and it should serve a purpose.

Bernita said...

Yes, Julie, I think it's often best for a writer to avoid the "mirror" or photo type of description - though Carla's example provided a clear exception - because they may produce a two-dimensional effect.

Lisa, Written, Shauna - thank you very much. Valuable imput.

JLB said...

I recently had a chance to read Old Rose and Silver by Myrtle Reed - it was a sweet little romance and lots of fun to read, but I practically choked to death on the endless descriptions of dresses, hairstyles, and accoutrements. I suppose I never did acquire a proper sense of style, so perhaps that's why I fail to take an interest. Now that I think about it, my work probably often fails to address the subject of attire... I'll have to think on it.

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