How Clothes Can Make the Man (or Woman) in Your Script

How Clothes Can Make the Man (or Woman) in Your Script

During my teen years in the 1970s, one of my favorite TV shows was “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Once, while watching it with my twin brother, Greg, he asked me, “Ever notice how the clothes speak for the characters before they utter a word?” He was all kinds of perceptive, you see, well beyond his years. Costume design was a passion of his, too, a profession which he’d eventually call his own in Hollywood.

I, clueless about fashion at the time, asked him what he meant. He went on to explain that WKRP station manager Andy Travis wore clothes a size too tight to show off his muscles, as well as highlight his swagger. Ad manager Herb Tarlek wore colorful clothes and patterns to garner attention, just like the station’s ads he was selling. Gorgeous secretary Jennifer Marlowe wore clothes that hugged her curves but revealed little flesh to remain a mystery to, and control, her drooling admirers.

My mind was blown.

Needless, to say his observations made quite the impression on me and learning to look at the clothes that characters are wearing in a film or TV show has become a bit of an obsession of mine over the decades. Indeed, clothes not only make the man (or woman), but they can tell us so much about a character the second they appear on screen.

Here are just a few insights I’ve caught over the years since that fateful day in the late 1970s:

  • In the Dirty Harry films, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) purposefully dresses like he’s part of the establishment, most likely to disguise his penchant for otherwise breaking all sorts of rules, protocols and laws.  
  • On “Remington Steele,” private eye Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) often wore slacks, vests, and fedoras, all the better to help conjure classic detectives like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, let alone ‘masculinize’ her all-American-girl beauty.
  • In Black Swan, the character of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) was always costumed in the softest of fabrics and lightest of pastels to suggest that the prima ballerina was, at heart, mommy’s little girl.
  • Hannibal,” TV’s serial killer/psychiatrist (Mads Mikkelsen), always wore aggressively fashion-forward, European suits, a choice by the costume designer to show how idiosyncratic he was, as well as outrageous in his way compared to all the boring suits working the FBI.
  • In “The Queen’s Gambit,” as Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a better chess player, her hairstyles and clothing started to match the progressive pieces up the chess board. When she was a child prodigy, she wore a rounded bowl cut and school uniform, looking very much like a pawn. And when she finally became a world champion, Beth’s white coat and hat echoed the look of the game’s most powerful piece—the Queen.

Understanding the power of costuming is just one way to go deeper into movies and shows and thus, get more out of them. Delving into any of the crafts—production design, musical composition, sound—can only help any budding filmmaker or screenwriter. And interestingly, for the screenwriter, it gives each and every scribe an opportunity to have some genuine say in such matters.

After all, it starts on the page, doesn’t it?

Sadly though, too many people writing scripts gloss right over their costuming descriptions. Oh sure, they’ll spend hours and hours crafting the perfect three or four lines to paint a picture with words of a new setting or a scene change. But few rarely assign more than the most basic of descriptions to a character’s clothing. What a shame.

Most of the clothing descriptions you probably have come across when reading scripts sound pretty bland, like “She’s dressed for comfort” or  “He’s dressed in a suit and tie.” Yawn. So, what exactly makes her clothes so comfortable? Cotton fabric? Loose waistbands? And likewise, what kind of suit is he wearing? Seersucker? Double-breasted?

Boring descriptions of wardrobe are a great disservice to both character and screenwriting. Not only because they’re so non-committal, but because they show an utter lack of imagination. Would any writer dare say so little about a setting?

Quite simply, most writers need to spend more time considering their character’s clothing since it has the power to say so much about them. Writing vivid and specific descriptions not only make the character clearer to whomever is reading the script, but for the director, actors, and costume designer as well, who will eventually have to bring said script to visual life.

Take Dirty Harry, for instance. The description of him upon his entrance in the script for the 1971 film read as rather perfunctory:

He is tall, lean, methodical, undramatic, carelessly dressed, dry.

Now, there are a few things wrong with that sentence, starting with how there is no way for an audience to gather that he’s dry until he starts to speak. Even more egregious is the complete lack of any real clothing description. Sure, the writers detail Harry’s physical fitness and prowess, but his clothing only merits a mere two words: carelessly dressed. But what does that mean? Sloppy, mismatched, an ensemble put together in the dark? Is he wearing a rumpled suit? A raincoat? College sweats? What?

Now, imagine how Harry could have been described, at least based upon his actual entrance in the film:

Harry is dressed in a conservative suit and tie. Clearly off the rack. His wrap-around shades, however, suggest a rebellious side to him, one likely to be at odds with his strait-laced superiors.

That paragraph would seem to fit the choices that director Don Siegel, costumer Glenn Wright, and star Eastwood likely made in pre-production, but it would’ve helped all of them if the screenwriters had been more specific about Harry’s clothes in the script.

On the other hand, when costumes are described with exactness, they can inspire the costume designer and steer a film in a game-changing direction. Take the screenplay for Atonement, adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Ian McEwan. Twenty-eight pages into the script, Hampton describes a backless, emerald-green dress that Cecilia (Keira Knightley) wears to seduce Robbie (James McAvoy), the man she’s crushing on. Hampton even describes a pile of dresses dumped on the floor of her bedroom, considered unworthy for such a task.

Likely, such specific prose duly inspired costume designer Jacqueline Durran because she conjured one killer dress for the scene. In fact, Cecilia’s shiny green garment was so alluring that it not only bolstered the sexual heat exponentially as it helped drive Robbie to lustfully shag her while standing up in the library, but InStyle magazine just named that dress as the single greatest to ever appear in a movie.

Hampton’s words were very specific and clearly helped push Durran in the right direction. And she, in turn, created a costume that changed the film world for the better.

So, whenever you write, think about what your characters are wearing and how it will affect the scene or their character arc. Keep in mind how in The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s clothing evolves from his country’s uniform (military garb) to his family’s uniform (mafioso suits). Remember, too, as the Rosemary starts to lose her power to the Satanic cult, molding her every move in Rosemary’s Baby, she starts more and more to resemble a little girl. Right down to her childish bob and baby doll nighties.

Oh, and while you’re at it, consider what costume designer Jacqueline West may have been foreshadowing for the next sequel with her knight-like costume for Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) at the end of Dune Part Two. Was West teasing the upcoming interplanetary battles? Or was it more of a Joan of Arc-like challenge that Irulan will make towards her betrothed Paul Atreides? Is it possible that West intended those knives around Irulan’s face to suggest a threat to his rise, perhaps even begging comparisons to the look of those carnivorous sand worms? I’d like to think so.

When my brother, Greg, took over as costume designer at “The Young & the Restless” in the early 1990s, he decided to upgrade the wardrobe of lead character Jack Abbott as he became more powerful of a businessman and a true threat to the company headed by Victor Newman. Greg wanted Jack’s wardrobe to be more expensive than anything Victor wore, and more tailored, too, all to show the shifting of prestige and control. He was suiting up Jack for battle, if you will. Oh, that’s right—what’s that expression? Dress for the job you want, not the one you have?

Such costume choices, like those for Jack Abbott, make storytelling all the more involving for an audience watching the tale unspool. The same should be true of any script. If it’s not on the page …

Sadly, my brother’s life was cut short by AIDS when he was only 34, but his influence on my life and moviegoing remains immeasurable to this day. Greg showed me a far better way to look at characters in movies and TV. And hopefully, I’ve now passed his wisdom onto you.

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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