Clothes Make the Character

“Clothes make the man,” Mark Twain once declared. “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Last week, we talked about audiences tuning in to movies and television to see characters. Unless you’re making a very specific type of movie that Mark Twain certainly wouldn’t approve of, your characters will most likely be clothed as they wander around on the screen. What they wear says a lot about who they are, where they live, and the situation they’re in. Thanks to thrift stores and antique shops, clothing from other eras is often less expensive than you’d think, and there’s nothing like a poodle skirt and saddle shoes to tell viewers we’re not in the twenty-first century anymore.

Think about the following outfit: a tank top, shorts, and sneakers. It’s instantly recognizable as casual getup for a good portion of the population, whether it’s on a male or a female. The character is probably in a hot environment, maybe during the summer. He’s either in a casual area, or he just doesn’t care if what he wears clashes with the attire of others. Maybe he’s wearing a hat if he’s outside. The character in the tank top is your basic casual dude, ready to chow down on some pizza or sit down for a video gaming session.

Costumes are among the best indicator of place, time, and character type that a budget filmmaker can utilize. An audience can look at a character’s getup and think, “Businessman” or “Prisoner.” A teenager in a rock band might sport a band t-shirt, chains, and pink hair. The biker stumbles around in a leather jacket and boots, his arms covered in tattoos of spiders and women. The cowboy unfailingly wears chaps and a ten-gallon hat; if he’s carrying a six-shooter, you’re likely watching a Western. The mechanic has her name sewn into a tag on her button-down shirt. Done well, costuming spares the filmmaker the need to drop precious screentime on explanations about a character’s background—we can tell Loretta is a mechanic, just like Gary is clearly a cop.

Costume accoutrements add to your plot in much the same way as dialect and inflection. Splash a little fake blood on a shirt and your character is suddenly a killer, or the victim of an assault. If he’s been on the run, his sneakers might be filthy, the soles separating from the rest of the shoe. Maybe he’s got an old jacket thrown over the shirt. Sparkling, over-the-top jewelry can indicate social status, and a witticism or curse across the front of a t-shirt or hat can display a character’s philosophy. The police officer who continues to wear his uniform long after social order has broken down might indicate a man clinging to his principles—or a villain on a serious power trip.

Next time you sit down to write a script, consider what your characters’ clothing says about them. Mark would be proud.