Masterful storytelling is about suspending disbelief.
One would think the most important element of a story being told is the events being depicted. Belief in these events, however, is a prerequisite to appreciation. Picture this: watching Anna Karenina in the theater, you’re riveted to the epic tale of doomed lovers. Your friend, a history professor with a fetish for details, laughs at random moments. After the movie, he pontificates at length on how unbelievable the movie was, harping on the mistakes made in recreating a colonel’s uniform. For most of us, all 1800’s European military uniforms look alike. This is merely an example of how a small detail that suspends belief can distort our ability to get into a story, no matter how compelling, because the costuming and haircuts and other set direction is just so off. We just don’t believe this story may have happened.
As humans, we’re hardwired to interpret everything we see as connected to events in our own lives. Whether it’s real life, photographed, or illustrated, it’s natural to start transforming who, what, when and where into a feasible tale. Even when looking at abstract paintings, we find ourselves recalling past events, or becoming lost in an emotionally inspired daydream. This makes storytelling an ineradicable component of art. Whether the setting is familiar, like kids frolicking on a beach, or bizarre, such as aliens fighting on Mars, viewers engage by filtering the scenario though familiar social interactions.
Artists and writers know the importance of adding just the right detail to drive belief in their story.
Emotion is portrayed in body language and facial expressions. Body language indicates relationship status. A specific time or place is defined by visual cues such as architecture, weather, technology, or the subtle difference in morning light from sunset. There are many reality–defining artistic opportunities. Here is one critically important element to help viewers piece together the story behind a character: clothing.
Clothing is the first step to building a character.”
– Sylvester Stallone
Fashion is instant language.”
– Miuccia Prada
Socially, clothes define who we are and where we fit in our society.
The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.”
– Mark Twain
In the creation of a story narrative,
The generic uniforms of schools, sports teams and military are important, mainly for drawing distinction between opposing forces. In contemporary times, the opposite is true. We tend to dress like other people we identify with, adopting and influencing trends and styles. It’s a way to communicate our interests, presenting ourselves as potential comrades to others who think and live like us. We speak through our clothing and general attitude far more than through words. As the stage has given way to the cinema, so too has a facial expression come to communicate as much as a soliloquy. Just like high school kids sizing each other up on the first day of school, people of all ages and cultures instinctively seek distinction between social groups.
Trends are a great example of fashion as cultural measuring stick. Skip back in time for ten or twenty years, and you’ll encounter fashion mistakes made en masse. Perhaps trends aren’t meant for long–term adoption, but in art, they help place people in time. With a working knowledge of how different social groups throughout time choose to dress, artists can create realistic depictions of character. The more detail, the better viewers can understand and believe in the time and place an artwork represents.
Style is how you wear it–wear and tear expresses character.
Two men may wear the same suit. But one’s accessorized his tailored jacket with a perfectly folded pocket square and chain watch, shoes shining brightly. The other man’s jacket is too large and rumpled, his shirt untucked. A handkerchief hangs forlornly out of his back pocket, and a cigarette off his lip. It’s not difficult to imagine how an interaction between the two might play out based on their style.
Fashion is what you’re offered four times a year by designers. And style is what you choose.”
– Lauren Hutton
Style goes beyond clothing trends or what is fashionable. Style incorporates attitude. Style adds character. In character design, it’s important to think beyond the fashion your character would be wearing based on his or her time or social group. Consider how that individual would choose to accessorize. Are her clothes tattered or immaculate? Is he desperately trying to be seen as a respectable individual, or brazenly disregarding what other people think of him?
The details make the reality.
It’s been said that, “the suit makes the man.” Meaning, we draw conclusions about a person purely based on what they’re wearing. It’s the same in art. Investing time in well–defined details allows viewers to interpret important character–defining traits, intuitively. In the same way artists build a realistic picture by giving thought to what their characters believe, where they’ve come from, and the relationship to each other, clothing can add another layer of individual personality. And the more details, the more we believe in the reality—and the more affecting it becomes.
Do you think how you dress says a lot about the person you are and the life you are living?
How have you approached clothing design for your characters—have you found a process, or is it different each time?
Which artists can tell a great story with their characters’ outfits? What are they doing that contributes to the character?
Should an outfit be believable within real life physics? Or do you prefer fantastic, impossible designs?
Has a character’s outfit ever distracted you from a story or picture because it didn’t make sense? Be specific about what you didn’t understand or like.