Let’s get the important caveat out of the way: how much description of clothing (or anything) is present in a story should be a balance between genre expectations, necessity, and authorial preference. How readers respond to what level of description they’re given is also a matter of personal preference. I say this because the first review I got of Fifty-Five Days had good things to say about the story, but dinged me on not describing stuff enough aside from one particular chapter where I was introducing an entirely new setting in detail for story purposes. The reviewer would have preferred more of that throughout the novel, and you know what? Totally fair. I accept that I could have done better on that.
But in recent months, as a reader I’ve been subjected to a few books that I found heavy-handed when it came to including clothing description–I even called one book “a very long game of dolls playing dress-up.”
Knowing what characters are wearing is important, certainly. It says a lot about someone if they show up on a first date wearing a tuxedo versus jeans and a flannel–either could easily be the wrong thing to wear, for different reasons, and that will tell you something about the character. But do I need to know the color, cut, and detailing of every piece of clothing a character is wearing in every scene? Absolutely not.
So how does this happen? I’ve discerned a few possible reasons, based on where I’ve encountered these literary fashion shows.
Teenage characters/YA fiction: I often see an emphasis on clothing in contemporary American high school settings, where the author uses the dress style to establish what kind of character they are in shorthand. Quirky character? Mismatched or atypical clothes. Nerd? Glasses, sweaters, etc. Geek? Superhero t-shirts. Jock? Letter jackets. And to some degree, that’s all fine. But as with anything, it can be overdone; I don’t need to get an update on every outfit a character wear with every scene change, just give me an idea of their style and let my imagination take care of the rest, unless the new outfit is important to the story somehow (like formal wear for a dance, or a costume, or anything else out of the ordinary.) Most recently seen in: Labyrinth Lost.
A focus on clothing for fantasy world-building: Attire is a key aspect of any culture, and going on at length about food and customs and whatever else about a created fantasy culture without ever mentioning their clothing would be odd. But if it’s the most important thing, or even the only thing that’s focused on, then you get the fashion show taking over the story, when it’s more important that I know the villain is now wearing her purple robes instead of her green ones, when I’d rather get more insights into her motivations. Most recently seen in: The Bone Witch. Also I seem to remember this being constant in Sarah J. Maas’ work, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of them.
Clothing as routine mundanity: Yes, I still need to know what characters wear even if it’s not special and they’re living normal, boring lives, but don’t harp on it to make a point about how dreary their existence is, and don’t focus repeatedly on any unusual details to try to make one character stand out. Yes, The Bridges of Madison County, I’m calling you out, you and your freaking suspenders. But other “literary” works I’ve read over the years are just as guilty.
Undoubtedly there are more I haven’t thought of, that may become clear to me in time as I read other books that stop every few pages to tell me all about what a character is wearing. Rant over, for the time being, while I bundle my complaints internally into a lesson on how I do not want to write about clothing.