You Are What You Wear in Fiction

In the real-world we’re not always defined by our clothing, we have moments in private when we shed our public persona, we contradict expectation, have off-days, and lapses of judgement. Fictional characters, on the other hand, are totally defined by their clothes and look, because their attire communicates valuable information to the audience. Their clothing gives us important clues about their self-perception, and how other characters view them. Their clothing reveals their place in the world, their state of mind, how effective they are in their role, their stress level, and their moral core. The most extreme use of clothing in storytelling tends to emphasise masculinity (which is usually associated with physical strength), and femininity (which is commonly associated with beauty). It’s in the fantasy and superhero genres where wardrobes are liberated to their fullest expression, instantly defining characters as good or bad, beautiful or monstrous, ethical or morally void.

Immaculate clothing (especially incorporating rare or precious fabrics, gold and jewellery) is a sign of luxury, affluence, magnificence, power and control, and sometimes a sign of social superficiality. A bedraggled appearance indicates poverty, hardship, lack of personal pride, a character who is stressed, on the run, out of balance. The significance of clothes can take on subtle connotations, a bedraggled appearance, for example, might not reveal an impoverished character but an affluent partygoer, living for the moment, or show an artistic spirit and nonconformity. A plain or simple appearance may suggest humility, spirituality, moderation, possibly locating a character as an ‘average’ person. Mismatching clothes, outfits that are too large or too small can make a character appear absurd, or mindless. Clothing takes on extra meaning when different characters’ outfits are contextualised, the beautiful princess in her white and gold, jewellery encrusted dress next to the peasant in his dirty, sackcloth smock.

In storytelling, audiences are fed different visual clues that feed together to create a more complete mental picture of who and what a character is. These ‘clues’ are part of the game storytellers play with the audiences, providing information (sometimes deliberately withholding it). Clothing is part of this toolset, helping to convey if a character is good or bad, strong or weak. Traditionally, good characters wear light or white clothes and the villains wear black. Darth Vader in the Star Wars stories is clothed in back with a mechanistic mask covering his face. Brown is often the colour of humility with monks clothed in simple brown smocks. Green is symbolically the colour of nature and forests, what better colour for Robin Hood’s men? Purple is a fancy colour, associated with the decadence of royalty or the outlandish paisley taste of Austin Powers. Wardrobe artists can use colour symbolism, specific fabrics, patterns, and textures, to reveal an aspect of a character. Soft textures (luxury, wealth), harsh textures (toughness), exotic motifs, and historical or futuristic looking cuts.

In Waterworld the clothing has obvious maritime associations with references to fish scales and fishing nets. The fantasy genre regularly produces great examples of outlandish clothing designed to complement exotic locations and cultures, alien planets and strange worlds. The steampunk-like clothing in the Mad Max series of films is just one example. It combines punk with a post-apocalyptic mend-and-make-do aesthetic where the clothing blends into body armour. A harsh, post-apocalyptic environment demands an uncompromising wardrobe, one that suggests the violent physical struggle necessary to survive. In Mad Max Max wears a black leather jacket and trousers. His highway Police uniform references the rebellious biker outfit that Brando wears in The Wild One. In Mad Max 2 the marauding bandits visually reference American footballers and native American Indians (their shoulder pads accentuating their masculine appearance). In Mad Max: Fury Road the women wear flimsy white outfits with much of the bodies exposed, emphasising their femininity, innocence, and vulnerability. The crazed War Boys mob are decorated with the weirdly ecliptic spoils of their violent thuggery. They are shirtless, mixing military grunge with maximalist thrash-metal and Goth. Their leader, ColonelJoe Moore, sports a toothed oxygen mask, a plastic translucent muscle-look chest adorned with an assortment of military medals (no-doubt awarded by himself). Barbarella the female astronaut in Barbarella is a classic fantasy story figure — her provocative outfits designed to titillate the male gaze — a mish-mash of the ‘space age’, tactile textures, and futuristic fabrics and plastic. She’s presented as a sensual object of desire, and clothed like one.

Historical fiction is another genre where the clothing plays an important role, both in terms of setting the scene, as well as describing the characters to the audience; the men commonly wearing grand military uniforms, and the women glamorous dresses. In Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor dons a series of visually stunning dresses to reveal her beauty, wealth, and power as the Queen of Sheba. In Maleficent, the central character, Maleficent, goes through a series of wardrobe changes, each one echoing her transition from innocence to malevolence. The transformation uses her clothing and colour symbolism: changing from green (harmony with nature), brown (earthy), and on to black (for spiritual emptiness).

The superhero genre takes a character’s outfit and elevates it into a visually identifiable brand. The colourful, body-hugging outfits reveal perfect health — the perfect physiques a kind of extension of the national ego, and national health (American patriotism). The superhero characters are larger than life, empowered by superhuman abilities, and yet even with their extraordinary strength, they retain a common ‘humanity’. The supervillains may also possess superpowers, but their physical strength comes at a terrible price. It has corrupted their sense of right and wrong, taken them over like a disease, turning them into a monstrous or machine-like shell that is devoid of humanity, and this is reflected in clothing that appears to be poisonous, reptilian, insectoid, non-human, beast-like or part machine.