Fashion in Fiction


You’ve seen it before somewhere. You flip through the pages of a novel, thinking to yourself than the story would have so much more potential if all the words weren’t wasted on gratuitous descriptions of the characters’ clothing. It would be fine, you tell yourself, if the author were describing some elaborate elven dress or a fantastical suit of armor. Instead, though, you’re weighed down in brand name porn, and you can’t read a sentence without hearing about the protagonist’s Louis Vuitton bag and Juicy Couture sweatpants and limited edition Alexander McQueen silk skull scarf in just the right shade of red for her skin tone.

My friend, you have encountered fashion in fiction.

Everyone loves to hate on extensive label-dropping in books. It’s bad enough, we say, to describe your protagonist in excessive detail, but going into depths about her clothing is just the cherry on top of terribly written chick lit. It’s the sign of a Mary Sue, both a self-insert and a wish-fulfillment character of the author’s, it gives women in fiction a bad name, it’s such a teenage girl thing to do. It’s just so stereotypically feminine.

I find it funny how often feminine is used as a synonym for bad writing.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the vendetta against Mary Sues in fiction, specifically YA fiction, and on how this trend is a reflection of a more widespread problem of sexism in the industry (here are some of my favourite writings on the topic). It’s pretty established that teenage girls are demonized in our society, and the way this is reflected in the criticism female characters receive. It’s also been noted that male wish fulfillment characters (hello, Batman, Eragon, cough cough) are not at all resented to the same degree as their female counterparts.

I’m not here to deny that lots of fiction is bad, nor that lots of fiction for teenage girls is bad, nor that lots of fiction by teenage girls is bad. Of course there are teenage girls who will produce bad work; honing a skill involved a learning curve, and whether that’s writing YA or learning to ski or playing violin, everyone knows that the starting point of that learning curve can have some pretty horrendous results. But why does that reflect badly on young women as a whole? And why does femininity make something automatically inferior?

I love fashion. I love shopping. When I’m out on the street, I make a game out of identifying every designer bag I come across. When I’m feeling homesick, I go browsing in department stores, even if all I intend on doing is touching soft sweaters and sniffing perfume samples. A significant amount of my brainpower is spent on fashion, and that’s no less real nor relevant than anyone else’s experience, and no less worthy of being written. People don’t begrudge authors gratuitous descriptions of food, or of architecture, so why not clothing?

Without further ado, here are my tips on writing fashion into fiction:

1.       Write it because it matters to the character, not because it matters to you.

When I’m getting ready to go out, I’m not mindlessly reciting the brand names of every item I put on. I’m thinking about how fancy I need to be or how casual I need to be, should I wear this purse with this crowd or will that be too rude or too cheap, oh god, I love this top but all my nude bras are in the laundry, where the hell is my white bandeau, do I wear this with heels or will I tower too high, hang on let me check the weather too see if it’s cold enough for this scarf. I may be thinking about where my clothes are from, but there’s more depth and process to it than just inelegant name-dropping. Show, don’t tell, how fashion is meaningful to your character and story.

2.       Write it because it matters to the audience, not because it matters to you.

If you write a two-page description of your character’s fashion choices and the only thing your reader learns is that she looks good in cool colours, we’ve got a problem in front of us. Every writing choice you make has to contribute to your story, whether it advances the plot or enriches the character or expands the world. If you can’t find a way to make your fashion writing relevant, you should probably consider whether it belongs in your story at all.

3.       Write it because it matters to you, and you deserve to enjoy yourself writing

…Honestly? If you want to write about fashion in your story, you should. If you love fashion, or want a challenge, or just feel like breaking all the standard rules you’ve been taught all your life, you should do it. But don’t do it because you’re writing a mean girl and want to add to a stereotype, or because you think that mentioning BCBG will somehow bring you masses of teenage fans. Don’t patronize to your audience, because they’ll notice, and they won’t appreciate it.

What do you think of label dropping in fiction? What’s your favourite  writing rule to break?