Think of your characters’ clothing like an actor’s costume in a play. The costume is a large part of the character. As soon as the actor enters stage right or left, we have an inkling of whether they’re a wealthy landowner or peasant, an elegant heiress or down-to-earth flower-seller.
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a character’s widespread respect is shown, curiously, by the fact that he is one of the only attendees at an event who is not smartly dressed:
Although it was not customary for invitations to request special attire, least of all for a luncheon in the country, the women wore evening gowns and precious jewels and most of the men were dressed in dinner jackets with black ties, and some even wore frock coats. Only the most sophisticated, Dr. Urbino among them, wore their ordinary clothes. What the description shows is that many of the invitees play at status and refinement through fancy dress. Yet Dr. Urbino’s status as a respected doctor is earned – he has nothing to prove by dressing smarter. Thus his plain dress is, ironically, a sign of his greater status. Like Marquez, you can compare and contrast character’s clothes to reveal important details about their social status or position.
2: Build (or thwart) character expectations with clothing description
You can quickly convey a number of things about your characters based on the clothing they wear. You can also confound or prove untrue impressions your characters (or readers) form based on appearances. For example, think about a wealthy person and how that person might dress. You may have imagined a man in an expensive suit or a woman in designer clothes. You can immediately show a character is wealthy with descriptions of fine clothing. However, you can tell your reader interesting things through a mismatch. A wealthy character might dress ostentatiously in expensive clothing. But they could also dress in modest, inexpensive-looking clothes.
What would you think about a wealthy character who looked as though he shopped at thrift stores? Or one who was forever wearing poorly-fitted clothing that appeared to be handed down from friends? These detail could suggest that your character is miserly or down-to-earth despite their wealth. Dr. Urbino in Marquez’s example above fits the latter category. Think of other interesting combinations: A teacher who dresses provocatively; a beggar with an incredible, fashionable style of dress: What backstory or character motivations could these combinations of position and appearance suggest.