Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.19: Fashion for Writers, with Rebecca McKinney

How do we go about describing the clothing our characters are wearing? How do we use that to add depth to our story? What are the common mistakes that writers make when they start dressing their characters?

Rebecca McKinney joined us on stage at LTUE to address all this.

Liner Notes: We mentioned some resources for those wanting to get clothing right in their work:

Homework: Describe the same outfit from two different point of view characters.

Thing of the week: Bluescreen, by Dan Wells, narrated by Roxanne Hernandez.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Mistakes writers make about clothing? Jokes are only funny if they are right, so get the words right! Know what you are talking about. Make sure that different people describe clothing different ways. Think about the economy of clothing in your books! How does clothing link to the economy, environment, technology, even labor. Describing clothing should move the story forward, by describing something important about the person. To learn about clothing, try books about sewing or costumes. Try Pinterest. To worldbuild clothing, think about materials, technology, and adoption. What is fancy? What do people do at home, and what is expensive?

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 19.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Fashion for Writers, with Rebecca McKinney.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re getting dressed.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I have pants on.
[Rebecca] And I don’t.
[Brandon] We would like to thank Rebecca for being our guest host on this episode.
[Rebecca] You’re welcome.
[Brandon] And we’d like to thank our live studio audience…
[Brandon] At Life, the Universe, and Everything, science-fiction symposium. So, go ahead, take it away, Dan.

[Dan] All right. So, this is an episode that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. Rebecca has been a friend of mine for a few years now. We’ve… Even to the point that we’ve worked on… I’ve used her… I leveraged my friendship with her to get her to give me a whole bunch of really good fashion advice on the book that I just wrote, called Bluescreen. We’ll talk about that a little later. That convinced me… That was such a fascinating series of conversations I thought we have to get her here on the show. So, thank you very much for being here. I want to start… We want to talk about fashion, how fashion works, how clothing can be described well in books, things like that. Let’s start with the question first, the bad stuff. What are some big mistakes that you see writers make when they talk about clothing?
[Rebecca] Well, Brandon Sanderson…
[Rebecca] No. I told Dan beforehand, I was only comfortable picking on these guys. Since I’ve read pretty much their work. There’s a few things that… It pulled me out really quickly. The first thing I’d like to say is just a really simple fix. You had me… I don’t remember what the name of the book… It was the genetics one.
[Dan] Partials.
[Rebecca] No, the other one, that you haven’t published.
[Dan] Oh. Extreme Makeover.
[Rebecca] Right. So, you’re making a joke and it depends very specifically on wordplay, and you got the wordplay wrong. This is something that you get every now and then, which is, if you’re going to make a joke, make it right or it’s not funny. So he was making an example of jeans, which is… Most people are wearing jeans here. It’s a twill weave. He commented, “I’m not wearing jeans, I’m wearing twill.” The word he was looking for was twead. The joke is only funny if it’s right.
[Dan] Right. So know what you’re talking about. Sounds like a good one to start on.
[Rebecca] Everyone wears clothing, so there’s this assumption that you know what is going on, and you don’t. I’m sorry. And of Green Gables is another example, where she talks about puffed sleeves being extravagant. What you don’t understand is, if you don’t have something that’s Lycra-based, if you don’t have anything that stretchy, and you have zero puff in your sleeve, you can’t go like this. Your arms don’t go above your head. Sorry. I wear deodorant, I promise.
[Rebecca] So it’s very important to understand that you have to have certain things. The human body is shaped a certain way, and it functions mostly the same way. You have to accommodate that. There’s no getting around it. Your arm has to have a certain rotation, or you’re not able to move that arm. So if you don’t have a puffed sleeve, you can’t go like… You can’t rotate it. I’m sorry, I’m trying to remember that I can’t… Yeah.
[Howard] For those of you not benefiting from the video feed, she’s doing a backstroke.
[Rebecca] Sorry. So this is very frustrating when I’m reading a book and someone’s playing with the weave of their sweater. Well, sweaters aren’t woven, they’re knit. So there’s the little basic inaccuracies. There’s also… Sorry, I have a list.
[Rebecca] [inaudible… You gave me…] Another thing that I think people do that’s a little odd, and this is a bigger jump, is people describe clothing the exact same way no matter who is telling the story.
[Mary] Yep. Sorry. You can’t… Again, for the video feed, you cannot see me nodding vigorously every time Rebecca speaks.
[Rebecca] I love John Cleaver specifically because Dan did a great job with that, because every single thing John does is from his point of view. He does that with clothing as well. He doesn’t notice clothing, unless he shouldn’t be noticing clothing. Which is interesting, the way that he set up the rules and everything, and he’s very upset that Brooke has changed her shirt. Because she shouldn’t have. That’s really the only time I can remember John overtly noticing and getting passionate about what someone was wearing, was when Brooke wasn’t wearing what she should have been. If you have a book that switches character points? Okay, if my husband and I… A book is from our perspectives, he would not notice what I notice. I have memorized what every single kid in my primary wears every week. I’m in the primary, it’s just how it works. I know every single one of their clothes and I know when they get new ones. Not because I’m a crazy person… Well.
[Rebecca] Not because I’m going to murder them, but because that’s just how my brain works. I can’t go somewhere and see a bow that’s mistied and not fix it. My husband could care less, and the conversations he has to have with me before a fashion show… He’s a sweet man, but he does not care at all. I think that your characters should reflect that. Don’t have it instantly just jump back into being very bland, like, “Oh, this is the writer speaking now.” When you notice Ron Weasley, you only notice his clothing when it’s ill fitting because he’s poor. So it underlines something very important. That’s a different thing. Sorry, I spaced.

[Mary] No, I’m glad that you’re… We’re just going to segue without the questions. I’m glad that you mentioned that because one of the things that clothing demonstrates, and one of the things that drives me crazy is that people don’t think about the economy of clothing in their books. That they will have characters wearing garments that they can’t afford, or they will do things like having things made out of clothing… Out of cloth that has not come from that region. Like Pat Rothfuss, in the Name of the Wind, talks about the fine linen and the everyday cotton. But that immediately tells you is that he is from a region where cotton is grown. Because the expensive things are the things that are high labor or that are imported. So fine linen, everyday material. I mean, fine linen means that it is not an everyday material. Whereas in the Regency, cotton was the fancy thing, because it was being imported from India. Linen was your everyday thing, because you could make it at home. It’s that kind of thing, where you’re not thinking about how the clothing links into the economy and into the environment and also into the available technology. Like people use to have to make buttons by hand. So if you’ve got something… The Victorian buttoned shoes with the ridiculous number of buttons? The reason those happened is because suddenly button making could be automated and buttons were cheap, but the mentality was still that they were a sign of wealth. So the Victorians just said, “We’re going to put buttons on everything.”

[Rebecca] I think that’s very true. I mean, you get an opportunity to costume your world. If this was a stage play, how would you do that? You have a very short amount of time. I’m obsessed with clothing, and I will still get bored. I can only handle so much. She was wearing a red shirt and jeans… I don’t care. If you’re not moving the story forward, why are you saying it? I think that it’s really important to keep in mind that you have… You can describe their sex, their religion, their socioeconomic background, what kind of world they come from instantly. You can describe so much about a person that you’re not really thinking about, and I think it’s so sad that we don’t take more advantage… We. I’m not a writer. You…
[Howard] You don’t need to apologize for not being a writer.
[Mary] I completely agree, because one of the first… The ways you judge people is the way… That’s why your mom was always getting on you to dress nicer. It’s an instant snap judgment. We can tell stuff about someone’s economic situation, their class, their taste… You can tell a lot about a person by the way they’re dressed. You can’t tell everything. People will absolutely make…
[Rebecca] This is done subconsciously. You’re not meaning to do it. But you do. That needs to be… That just needs to be a tool. Think of it as a tool. I mean, you have such an opportunity to in such a short… My favorite is… I listen to the podcast, and you say, “Instead of using a whole sentence to talk about the fancy couch, you can just say the Davenport.” It’s the same way in clothing. You’re not going to have a wallflower wear a bright fuchsia dress. It’s just probably not going to happen. So you can let someone know that they’re not a wallflower by coming in the fuchsia dress. You can let so much about a person be known by just those details.

[Dan] All right. We’re going to break here for the book of the week. Which is mine! Ha ha. We’re going to talk about Bluescreen, which is my new cyberpunk science-fiction novel. It’s set in the year 2050. So near future. In 2050, everyone has a computer… Almost everyone has a computer in their brain, implanted. They use it for everything. That was kind of my next step after the smart phone. The main characters in the book… The main character’s name is Marisa Carneseca. She and her friends live in Los Angeles. They are professional video gamers. They… Early on, one of their friends introduces them to a digital drug that you can plug into the computer in your brain, and it will crash it and give you a buzz. Hence the title, Bluescreen. It’s a great book, and it’s really fun. One of the things that I wanted to make sure to do right, one of the… A blog that I love to follow, or maybe it’s a Tumblr or whatever, is one that talks about almost all the clothing on Star Trek and the things that they did right and then making fun of all the amazing things that they do wrong. That got me really thinking about the clothing of the future, and what will people wear. So I sat down with Rebecca and we talked about it. All of the errors in the clothing are mine. Anything brilliant about the clothing in that book comes from Rebecca. So… Anyway, you can get that from Audible. It is read by Roxanne Hernandez. You can go start a trial membership, and get a copy of that book.

[Brandon] All right. What other questions do you have, Dan?
[Dan] Okay. All right. We have… I want to ask you, because we have… We’ve talked a lot in the first half about things that people get wrong. A lot of it sounds like just not having a good knowledge base. Where can people learn about this kind of stuff? If someone wants to go out and learn about clothing, what do you recommend that they do?
[Rebecca] 16 years of obsessing about it?
[Dan] Okay.
[Rebecca] Okay. No. I’m very old-school, so I brought some stuff, because I have a bag of tricks. Okay, this…
[Mary] You have to say it out loud for pod…
[Rebecca] Okay. This is the Reader’s Digest… Oh, that’s something else. The Reader’s Digest New Complete Guide to Sewing. If you have a fabric and you want to figure out what it means… It’s probably also on the Internet, but this is a definitive. You’ll get a lot of people arguing, and sometimes it’s nice just to have a real thing.
[Dan] We’ll put these book titles in the liner notes as well, on the website, so that you can look them up.
[Rebecca] Okay. This is a book from college, and it’s very useful. I’m not a costumer, but at one point I was going to be. It’s Historic Costuming for the Stage. The nice part about it is, it really… It’s extremely detailed, it goes through what is significant…
[Dan] It seems like that would be the thing you’d really want to know. It’s not just what they wore, but why they wore it. Why is it important that they wore it this way?
[Rebecca] Well, for example… Has anyone ever heard the term Greek toga party?
[Dan] Yeah.
[Rebecca] Okay. That’s not true. It’s in a Rome… You had like 3% of Roman citizens could wear togas. But there’s reasons behind it, and it had to be folded a certain way and you had to be like a Roman citizen and you had to be male and it tells a lot about it and it’s very specific and why they did that. That talks about it in a handy-dandy little book.
[Mary] If you don’t have the resources to grab the book or you’re in a hurry or a deadline or something, the… And we’ll get the right URL for the liner notes, but it’s… The Costumers’ Guild has a website. They go through and talk about period silhouettes and how they would change over the course of years, and also frequently how that is related to a particular manufacturing technique. The other thing that is very useful is Pinterest.

[Dan] I have started building Pinterest boards for my characters.
[Rebecca] I taught him that. Thank you.
[Mary] one of the things that’s great about it is you can build visual referents, but also when you don’t know what something is called, you can take that picture to a friend who does know fashion and costume and say, “Please tell me what this is.” Sometimes they describe it on the sides. The other thing is, honestly, pick up fashion magazines.
[Howard] Years ago, I was having dinner with Phil Foglio and talking to him about costumes. He specifically… For putting them in the comic. He said… He tried over and over to explain stuff to me, and he finally said, “Dude, just go buy Bina Abling’s Fashion Design Sketchbook.” “Oh, what’s that?” He said, “It’s going to set you back about 75 bucks, but it’s full of hand-drawn artwork about how to draw for fashion design.” In 30 seconds of opening that book, I learned the pen strokes that I just didn’t know how to do in order to quickly communicate the things that I hadn’t been communicating. 75 bucks to learn something in 30 seconds… That paid for itself.
[Howard] Of course, I still have the book.

[Dan] All right. I want to make sure we get some really good writing information, so let’s move on. What can you tell a writer who is doing a fantasy novel or something like that, as they’re world building, what should they think about as they world build their clothing?
[Rebecca] Well, can we just kind of talk about what we did for Bluescreen?
[Dan] Yeah.
[Rebecca] Okay, so what we had talked about was what is going to happen in the future of clothing. At some point, you’re going to be able to print material. Like that’s something I see. I don’t know how soon it’s coming, but we have 3-D printers. Most material today is polyurethane based. It’s going to happen.
[Mary] You actually already can print material.
[Rebecca] Shut up.
[Mary] My dad’s a programmer, and he worked for a textile research and development company.
[Rebecca] So we went in the right direction. Thank you, Mary. But what we talked about is how that’s going to progress and mature. At some point, you’re going to get it, and it’s going to still be… It’s going to still be expensive, and you’re going to have to do it elsewhere, but eventually, it’s going to come into your home. Or the shop around the corner. I mean, we have an Xbox 360, and it takes 3-D imaging of your body or however it does that. You’re going to be able to buy something on Amazon or whatever, and scan your body, and print it in your size and shape. This is a real thing that’s going to happen. I think there’s stages of it. First it’s going to be a lot more sleek. Then it’s going to be a lot fussier, because people learn how to use this tool. We talked about when she was going to a club or something, what is it going to differentiate between the old people and the young people? The old people are going to have that first newer technology of… Then the new ones… It’s going to shift, as a culture.
[Dan] One of the great things that you mentioned to me in that conversation is something that Mary already called out, which was the affluence of having the really fancy clothing. What is fancy? One thing I didn’t know that Rebecca told me is that a really expensive dress, the kind that you see on an Oscar red carpet or something, those are advertised in part by the labor hours it takes to make them. Because of all the extra fabric in the folds and ruffles and everything. Once we get to the point that that stuff is easy, then everyone would do it, and the rich people will stop doing, because the poor people can.
[Mary] The non-fashion example of this is what happened to movie soundtracks when the Casio keyboard came out. Everybody used the Casio keyboard, and we have that really weird… You know the music I’m talking about.
[Mary] Then they figured out when it was actually useful, and only used it then. But when a new technology comes out, yeah… What Rebecca’s saying is absolutely correct, people will use it for everything.
[Brandon] So weird, those fantasy movies from that era. Where the sa… The syn… The symphonic is gone.
[Dan] Tangerine Dream?
[Brandon] Instead, it’s Tangerine Dream, because this is the newfangled, cool thing.

[Brandon] We are out of time.
[Rebecca] Sorry.
[Mary] No, this was great.
[Brandon] No, this has been fantastic. This has been a really useful episode. We really appreciate you coming on, Rebecca.
[Rebecca] Oh, stop, I’m blushing.
[Brandon] And, Rebecca, you’re going to give us some homework.
[Rebecca] Yes. I think that you should describe the same outfit from two different points of view, and how does that person see them, and why?
[Brandon] Excellent. Thank you to our studio audience.
[Whoo! Applause.]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.