Lessons From Costume Design: How Clothing Creates Character

Lessons From Costume Design: How Clothing Creates Character

Hello, everyone! My first year of college is officially over, which means I have spent the past two weeks “reflecting on my experience.” (Aka, basking in nostalgia as I weep and scroll through my camera roll.) I was lucky enough to take many incredible classes, but one of my favorites was costume design.

I’ve always been interested in fashion, but I’d never had any formal training, unless you count watching over twenty seasons of Project Runway. Since most people do not, in fact, count this, I decided to take Costume Design — I figured that I’d learn about some things about sequins, theatre, and silhouettes.

But when I arrived on the first day of class, our professor handed us a massive stack of reading. “If you want to design costumes,” she said, “you’re going to have to understand characters.”

Costume Designers need to express characters through clothing for the stage and screen, but this class made me think about how much a wardrobe can reveal about a person. How can writers harness the power of clothing to create characters?

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What Clothing Can Tell Us

First, let’s establish clothing’s power. It’s easy to dismiss fashion as a fluffy or superficial field, but our clothing is one of the only elements of our appearance we control. Think about it – you were born with your height and your nose, but you choose what t-shirt to put on. (Of course, you can alter your height and face with the help of shoes and accessories!) Therefore, what clothing we wear says a lot about us. It’s also important to think about when we don’t choose what we wear. Why? An overbearing mother? Not enough money for new clothes? Catholic school uniforms? This can be just as telling.

What else can clothing tell us?


If your character’s wearing a corset, we know that we might not be in the present day. If they’re sporting hipster glasses, we might be able to pinpoint the year to 2012. (Remember when we all wore mustache suspenders that year, too?) Clothing choices can reveal or emphasize what time period you’ve set your story in.


If you tell me that your protagonist has a bathing suit on, I’m going to assume we’re near a body of water. Additionally, cultural garments can tell us more about where your character is from.


Anything from a nun’s veil to a hijab to a yarmulke could express your character’s religious views – or lack thereof. Is there a cross necklace hanging unworn in their jewelry box?


The word “tweed” has powerful aging effects. Equally interesting: is the character dressing older and younger than their actual age?


Ooh, this is really endless. Consider all the clothing subcultures! E-girls and E-boys. Goth. Pastels. Are you the sort of person who does every single button? Do you remember to bring a jacket when you go to the movie theater? Are you wearing practical shoes for what you’re about to do? (That last one was a self-own.) What clothing does your character feel most comfortable in, and why?


Brand name clothing may indicate that there are some dollar signs at play. Hand-me-downs might imply that your character is making do. (Though, real talk: hand-me-downs are the best! Secondhand clothing is great for the budget and the environment.)


Consider the obvious: scrubs, hardhats, white coats. Also consider the not-so-obvious: how does a poet dress? An ice-cream taster?

Gender Expression

What you wear certainly doesn’t determine your gender, but fashion can be a way to express gender identity. Playing with traditionally “feminine” or “masculine” styles can show us more about how your character interprets gender.


While it’s important to be careful of stereotypes here, many people use clothing as an opportunity to embrace sexuality. Think of the “bisexual cuffed jeans” and all-rainbow pride outfits. There’s a tremendous history of queer fashion, from camp (Susan-Sontag-Met-Gala-camp, not tents-and-smores-camp) to butch and femme identities. (I personally reccomend following everylesbianandtheirfashion on Instagram.)

Using Clothing In Your Writing

Now that we’ve talked a bit about clothing’s potential, how do we use it in our stories?


When you’re introducing a character, mention what they’re wearing to mentioning to tip the reader off to any of the things listed above. If you want us to know that a character has bucketloads of money, maybe they can lower their designer-name sunglasses. If a character waltzes into the story with bright red lipstick and a white lab coat, I’m going to assume that they’re a vivacious scientist.

Choose these details carefully; often, the reader won’t sit around for a full outfit description. (I mean, I would, but I’m considering the general public here.) Tell us what we need to know – even if we don’t know that we need it.

Costume Changes

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to a Taylor Swift concert,  but that girl does one hell of a costume change. One moment, she’s a band geek, then, BAM! Gold fringe! Sequins! Sparkle! Fairy-Princess-Prom-Queen-Superstar! (Band geeks are also cute and ethereal. No diss intended.) When her clothing changed, we understand that this is a dramatic moment in the song: she’s changed too.  

If your character is wearing a tight and stiff pantsuit and then changes into a flowing bohemian dress, we’d know that she let loose. Literally. Costume changes, even gradual ones, can show development over the course of your story.

Character Relationships

Does your character’s parents try to pick their outfits? Does your character dress in a polar opposite way to their twin – on purpose? What does your character do with their grandmother’s old clothing? Why are they dressing the same way as their girlfriend’s new beau? Clothing can be a source of tension in relationships and reveal how characters interact with each other. Untitled design

Writing Prompts

Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.

Go inside your character’s closet. What do you find?

Or their drawers. Or the pile of clothing thrown onto their chair.

What’s your character’s every day outfit?

School uniform? Actual uniform? Self-imposed uniform?

What pieces of clothing does your character keep, despite the fact that they don’t wear them?

Hand-me-downs from a sister with a different style, or a sweatshirt from the boyfriend who broke up with them?

What garment does your character wish they owned? Why do they want it? And why don’t they have it?

(I’ll give you mine: Vintage Chanel Suit. Why? Chic, timeless, powerful. Why don’t I have one? $$$$$.)Untitled design

Thanks for reading! Do you include clothing in your writing? What’s your go-to outfit? Let me know in the comments! Until next time, you can find me on Pinterest or Instagram.


4 responses to “Lessons From Costume Design: How Clothing Creates Character”

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