It’s one of those features of a novel that you might not pay much attention to unless you’re thinking about it or unless the author deliberately draws your attention to it. But it’s an important aspect of characterisation. I’m talking about clothes – about the way characters dress. Clothes can give a lot of information about characters, such as their professions, their tastes, their basic attitude toward life and their generation. That makes clothes a really effective way to show not tell what a character is like. Clothes don’t always play a key role in solving a mystery (although there are stories where they do), but they do help readers get a sense of character, setting and context.
Consider Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Christie fans know that Poirot is very conscious of what he wears. He prefers the dandified look, right down to pointed patent leather shoes that are uncomfortable at times. But as he tells his friend Ariadne Oliver in Hallowe’en Party,
‘Madame, I like to look soigné in my appearance.’
And he does. Poirot’s preference for extreme elegance in his dress makes a lot of sense given his personality. He is compulsive about neatness but at the same time attracted to the flamboyant. So it makes a lot of sense that his clothes are nearly always top-of-the-line in terms of their elegance. They tell readers about his character without the need for Christie to use a lot of verbiage to let readers know what he’s like.
Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant has a different view of choosing clothes. He certainly doesn’t mind looking nice but his taste and budget don’t run to really upmarket, trendy clothes. He prefers his wonderpants, a pair of easy-care black pants that never wrinkle, are just right for nearly all occasions and flatter him. His mentor Anthony Gatt though has different ideas. Gatt is a very successful clothier who’s always picking out new, elegant stylish looks for his protégé. In fact that’s a running joke in the Quant series since Quant himself sees nothing wrong with the way he dresses. And the truth is his way of dressing very much suits his personality. It’s not that he’s a slob – far from it. But at the same time he’s a casual person who doesn’t like a lot of fuss about his wardrobe. Quant’s taste is a good match for his lifestyle too. He travels quite a lot as a PI and as part of his personal life. So a basic serviceable wardrobe that also looks nice makes a lot of sense for him. Bidulka shows us a lot about Quant’s way of looking at the world through the way he dresses.
The same is true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a baker who starts her days very early so she can make the dough for the day’s bread, rolls and muffins. She’s also a non-nonsense casual person who doesn’t go in much for pretense. At all. Here, for instance is how Chapman describes her ‘baking uniform’ in Devil’s Food:
‘I…dragged on some tracksuit pants in size Extremely Huge and a top in Forget It No Human Is This Big, my very own sizes.’
Dressing that way makes sense given what Chapman does for a living and it shows the reader what kind of person she is: down-to-earth, pragmatic and not overly fussy. Of course, she also spends time in the shop where the customers are. When she’s there, Chapman usually chooses simple blouses and trousers and that taste suits her very well. Chapman’s choice of clothing doesn’t solve mysteries, but it adds to her character and gives the reader a solid portrait of her.
Robert Crais’ sleuths Elvis Cole and Joe Pike also reflect their personalities and lifestyles in the way they dress. Cole is offbeat, quirky and sometimes mischievous. He’s got a child’s goofy sense of humour and isn’t at all bothered by convention. Here for instance is the way he dresses to meet famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson in Lullaby Town:
‘I was wearing a white Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with a mustard spot high on the right shoulder. Mickey would be okay but the mustard spot was definitely unacceptable. Did I have time to race home for the tux? I looked at the Pinocchio clock. Unh-unh. I took off the Mickey and put on a yellow and white Hawaiian beachcomber’s shirt, a Dan Wesson .38 caliber revolver and light blue waiter’s jacket. Dress for success.’
Only Elvis Cole could carry something like that off… His sleuthing partner Joe Pike is quite a different character and his dress shows it. He’s enigmatic and says little, but he is utterly fearless. He’s a former mercenary and Special Forces member who owns a gun shop and is a gun aficionado. In The Monkey’s Raincoat Crais introduces us to Pike’s ‘uniform.’
‘…faded Levis’, blue Nikes, white sweat socks, steel Rolex, sleeveless sweat shirt.’
And guns, at least a couple of them, are also an essential part of Pike’s apparel. So are sunglasses. For these two characters Crais uses the way they dress and the contrasts between those styles to really show the readers what their characters are like.
We also see how clothing can be used to add to a character and show quite a lot in Åsa Larsson’s series featuring attorney Rebecka Martinsson and police inspector Anna-Maria Mella. When the series begins, Martinsson lives and works in Stockholm. In the course of the novels though, she moves back to her Norrland home town of Kiruna. As time goes by Martinsson re-establishes herself in Kiruna, but sometimes her profession and her years of living in Stockholm still come through in the way she dresses. In Until Thy Wrath be Past for instance, she goes along with Mella to interview a local resident who found the body of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. Here’s Mella’s private thought about the way Martinsson is dressed:
‘Perhaps it had been a mistake, bringing her along. Martinsson’s appearance seemed too elegant somehow. It would be easy to peg her for a slick Stockholm lawyer.’
It’s interesting though to see how Martinsson slowly stops wearing her Stockholm wardrobe and adopts a look that’s more like the locals’ look as she spends more time there. It’s one way in which Larsson shows us how Martinsson begins to feel that she really belongs in Kiruna.
There are a lot of other examples too of the way in which authors use clothes to show what characters are like and give the reader some background. Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all. Besides, it’s time for me to decide what I’m going to wear today…
Oh, but don’t worry. There’s plenty more about clothes in crime fiction out there. You’ll want to be sure to pay a visit to the very excellent Clothes in Books, which is the place to go for well-written reviews and a thoughtful and interesting look at what fashion in fiction tells us about characters. Go ‘head – check it out!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.