How to Dress a Writer

Still scrambling and running behind, but the end is in sight…

Okay.  If you have a fashion sense or do costuming, ignore this.  This is not for you.

You’re a writer, and you’re going to a writer function.  How do you dress?  It seems like some writers have this down, in a way that goes beyond “dress professionally” or “dress like you’re going to an interview,” etc.  Some of them are wearing jeans and t-shirts and managing to look like Real Writers(tm).  On the other hand, some of the people at the writer things you go to look like they’re dressed up for a Real Interview(tm), and look awkward as hell.

What to do?  What’s the happy medium?

It turns out the art, craft, and language of fashion is as complex as that of writing, IF NOT MORE SO, and a learning curve is involved.  The writers who are dressing in a way that is strangely appropriate have learned how to speak this language at least on a rudimentary level, and are managing to be more comfortable and more interesting looking than everyone else because of it.

Is it necessary to learn the language of fashion in order to look good?  No.  You could just throw on a corduroy jacket over whatever you were going to wear anyway, and you’d look 100% more Real Writer(tm) in just one step, because corduroy sports jacket (especially with leather elbow patches) = professorial.   Close enough.

But, if you’re not interested in the corduroy jacket method, here’s the general process:

  • Some clothes are functional (soft, warm, cover body, protect from injury).  Some are performative (look good, communicate a message to the world).  Your goal here is to combine the two so that you’re comfortable as a writer with your clothes.
  • If you are not comfortable with your clothes, out they go.*  If your clothes don’t look like writer clothes (but you love them), rethink your biases about being a writer.
  • If you don’t get rid of the crap that doesn’t fit or that you don’t actually like wearing, you won’t do the work you need to obtain what you need or really even to look at yourself in the mirror in a fair manner.  If you have 20 shirts and only like five of them, you will feel all the better over those five shirts when the other 15 are gone.
  • Invest in fewer, better-built pieces of clothing that you love rather than more closet-filling crap that you’re going to regret like a bad one-night stand later.
  • There’s nothing wrong with a thrift store purchase or a hand-me-down that otherwise fits the bill.  More expensive clothing tends to be better-tailored using more durable materials, but not always.
  • Haute couture is the New Wave Sci-Fi of fashion genres.  Treat it with respect as a performance, not as something comfortable to wear.

The first thing you need to know with fashion is…yourself.  What you know about your skin and body type provides the constraints to your experiments.  Just like in writing, though, when you’re comfortable with the rules, it’s time to start breaking them.

A cautionary note:  just like the rest of the world, the fashion world is full of stupid, pointless biases.  Please take what you read about fashion with a grain of salt, especially about race, gender, and physical shape.  And anything that says, “How to cover your flaws” more than it says, “How to celebrate the most awesome you” is to be avoided.

  • In general, start with things that have like four options (e.g., spring, summer, fall, winter), but as soon as you feel like you have the concept, look for things that move into 5-16 options.  That’s the sweet spot between “oversimplified” and “too complex.”  Nothing will describe you perfectly; you’re just looking for some training tools.
  • If you need a specific example, google “celebrities with X.”  Celebrity fashion is discussed to death, and fashionistas use them as examples all the time.

The three main things:

  1. I’d start with color typing, which is finding out what general categories of colors look good on your skin.  The lights in a dressing room are generally shit and will distort “what looks good” into “rubbish” and vice versa.  There are several systems of color typing, generally involving holding large blocks of color next to your face in natural daylight.  Google “what colors are best for my skin tone?”  You’ll probably be upset that a couple of your favorite colors make you look like an ass, but there it is.  Learn the rules, break the rules.
  2. Then move to body shape.  Google “what is my body shape” or “what body shapes for men.”  Find out what your body shape is.  The goal of most fashion sites is to “balance” women into an hourglass shape, with shoulders and hips about the same visual/physical dimensions and a narrower waist.  For men, it’s an inverted triangle shape with broader shoulders and narrower hips.  You get to decide what works for you.  Again, learn the rules, break the rules.
  3. A third element to learn is proportion.  That is, how much top vs. bottom and side-to-side you should have, visually, with respect to your body.  Look up “proportions in men’s clothing” or “proportions in women’s clothing.”  This is where dealing with short legs or a works-at-computer-all-day gut comes in.  In case of almost-but-not-quite fitting clothes, dry cleaners generally will do minor tailoring stuff.  It’s fine.

There are a bajillion other little tricks to learn, a lot of history, and a broadening of tastes that comes from researching fashion.

Once you have a general idea of what will actually look good on the body you actually have rather than on a runway model or a covermeister of GQ, you will:

  • Spend far less time shopping.
  • Be able to shop online without panicking about what you’re getting into.
  • Actually like wearing the clothes you do buy.
  • Smile at yourself in the mirror more.
  • Care less about other people’s opinions.

What about your style, though?  You can literally just google by “types of men’s styles” or “types of women’s styles” and start picking things.  You can also 100% go, “I think I’ll dress like my favorite contemporary TV character,” and most people won’t even know.  What makes it look good or bad are those three things I listed above.

You should also take into account your comfort level on attracting attention.  Making choices that are obviously part of a costume or are outside the current norms will attract attention and possibly trigger some people to treat you disrespectfully–because people who don’t speak the language of fashion often try to bully people who do into conforming with “normal” fashion.

Not to say you shouldn’t dress to please yourself, even if it pisses other people off.  But know the rules before you break them, and understand what you’re getting into.

Let’s get back to “appropriate” dress, as in, what to wear to the writer thing.

Aside from being far more comfortable in your clothing choices and wasting less time on picking them out, learning the language of fashion has another benefit:  you can learn to express your personality through any given set of constraints, whether it be a hospital uniform of a black-tie affair.

First, know your three main things about fashion (color, body shape, proportions).

Then, google “What to wear at a X” (e.g., what to wear for a wedding).  In this case, “what to wear to a writer’s conference.”  Disregard any obvious b.s.

Finally, apply your style to the remaining constraints.

It’s more complex than that.  Writing is more complex than that.  But it’s the same kind of process.  Simply speaking, what you like, within the expectations of the genre you’re writing, is your writer style.  Fashion is the same.  No need to go out of the way to change yourself.  Just be yourself, as clearly and effectively as possible, within the constraints of your abilities, strengths, and history.  This applies to both writing and clothes.  The main difference is budget.**

As a writer, you ideally want to look like you.  What you are selling in a book is the way you see the world and interact with it.  Not your genre, not a plot twist, not a character–per se.  You.***

I also recommend looking up “capsule wardrobes” if you have a moment.  This is the art of making your clothes go well together, planning by overall wardrobe rather than by single outfit.  Also, if you end up having to ditch most of your closet when you’re getting rid of the crap, this can keep you from having to drop a ton of money to fix everything all at once.

And finally, take a moment to look at the people around you.  Complimenting people for things they can’t control is a waste of time.  But noticing people’s fashion choices, especially the ways in which they have broken the rules, and complimenting those choices, is almost always appreciated.

And always check out the earrings of admin assistants.  Almost always 100% sass.

*Unless you’re doing the costuming thing or know something about fashion and therefore have weighed your options in an informed manner.  But most writers aren’t going to want a corset.

**Fashion delivery services:  I use StitchFix.  But look up the company’s name on Pinterest and see what their actual customers are posting for looks.  I’ve seen a couple of companies that showed completely different clothes on their ads than they sent to their customers.  But being able to try things on at home is niiiiiiice.

***Chances are that the characters you love in TV/film are played by actors who project the character very well through their clothing.  Watch a Gary Oldman flick and see the way his physical performance changes to work with his clothes.  He performs his clothes.  Other actors are so close to the characters they play that they look like “themselves” in the same types of outfits that their characters do.




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