The Importance of Character Fashion

Juliet Kahn has a great writeup of how important it is to think about what your comic character is wearing to reveal important things about her or him.

When Bryan Lee O’Malley tweeted this a while back, I nearly stood up and cheered: “A cool thing about comics is FASHION = CHARACTER. you can convey personality through clothing. Why do 90% of western artists ignore this.” He gets it — and unsurprisingly, Scott Pilgrim is one of the only Western comics I can think of that uses fashion to effectively convey characterization. Through a character’s clothes, the reader gleans insight into their insecurities, ambitions, social status, and more — y’know, the basics of subtle characterization. The titular Scott is a slacker geek dude in reference-happy t-shirts and jeans. Flighty, jaded Ramona is a mercurial hipster pixie with ever-changing hair. Wry Wallace Wells dons monogrammed polos and boxer briefs. …

But year after year after year, the comics industry ignores it. Male characters are dressed as blandly as possible, or come clad in weird, baggy approximations of early 2000s fashion. Female characters exist in a world where — surprise! — most clothes are tight and sexy, albeit oddly out of date and in clashing colors. …

When I say I want more thoughtful fashion in comics, I don’t mean that I need every character looking like they stepped off a runway — I mean that I want comic creators to think about who their characters are, what they would be most likely to wear, where they would buy it, their relationship to their body, and how they want the world to see them. I want them to think about their characters on a deeper level. I want them to make good comics.

Brava! She goes on to praise one of the best artists when it comes to such outfit design, Cliff Chiang, and highlights a terrific example of his work in that area.

I think that’s one of the reasons that Adam Hughes’ Women of the DCU poster caught everyone’s attention five years ago. He thought through the different styles that the heroines would choose and made them all attractive in individual ways.

It’s true, when it comes to men’s fashion, it’s harder to differentiate the choices, but there are still details that can be used to distinguish characters, whether options in color, cut, accessories, or how a man wears the items.

Inspired by Juliet’s post, Blue Delliquanti examines the women of Sailor Moon and the distinctions in their outfits.

Ladies of X

Kristafer Anka, on the other hand, throws back to Adam’s poster, creating a “Ladies of X” print where the female X-Men wear red carpet fashion. It will be available as a print at the San Diego Con.

5 Responses to “The Importance of Character Fashion”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Ms Kahn’s points about a character’s wardrobe being excellent storytelling shorthand are nearly indisputable.


    As a person completely apathetic to fashion, I don’t notice a character’s style of clothes. (I don’t even notice my wife’s style of clothes, much to her disappointment.) How I dress does not inform my social life, my self image, my class consciousness or my goals. It does inform other people that I am comfortable, that I am not a clown, and that I am not homeless.

    Falling down the rabbit hole of fashion is generally more work than it’s worth. What’s trending “right now”? Will it still be in style when the book goes to press? Will it be incredibly dated ten or twenty years from now? Does that skirt go with that top? How about pantsuits? Are they playing golf? Do you know how hard it is to draw & color plaid correctly? Do these colors go together or do they clash? What about shoes? What about these shoes? Or these? Or these? Or these?

    How frustrating does it become when an artist has to work on more than two different titles a year, with all of the different supporting casts of characters? How much time could they devote to assigning on-trend clothing vs getting the work done on time? Is it worth the artist’s time? If yes, how much of a return can the artist expect? Note: the percentage of the reader’s immersion doesn’t pay for rent/mortgage, insurance, groceries, utilities, student loans, reference material, etc. If your suspension of disbelief is shattered by bad fashion, a re-examination of priorities may be in order.

    After working in advertising and dealing with these kinds of questions, I found fashion to be completely vapid. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems (though it does cause a few of them – the Bangladesh building collapse, eating disorders & body dysmorphia, for example); why worry about it so much? It simply doesn’t matter in the long run.

    Ms Kahn states: “…we judge people based on what they wear, where they wear it, and where they bought it, even if we aren’t consciously doing it.”

    Yes, lots of people do that. Are we supposed to be proud of that? It’s completely shallow, classist, and dehumanizing. We could just say “this person/character likes wearing those clothes”, avoid assigning stereotypes, and move on with our lives instead of perpetuating really awful behavior.

    If you can guarantee the comics artists that paying attention to fashion will earn them a significant share of what the fashion industry earns, (maybe throw in a Louis Vuitton bag for product placement, hire Tim Gunn as a consultant, etc.), and convince the readership that this is a worthwhile endeavor, and that they should (and do) clamor for such, then the Powers That Be will notice and take steps to incorporate that into the art. Until then, I don’t see a lot of western artists adopting the practice. Especially not at DC or Marvel.

    In the mean time, I gladly accept Ms Kahn’s insouciant flip of hair.

    (Apologies for being all over the place in this response. A screaming/puking baby at 3 AM + very little sleep are the main culprits.)

  2. Johanna Says:

    Style is different from fashion is different from trends, several of which you’re blending together in the above. For example, in several communities, it’s very trendy to be anti-fashion, which becomes a style in itself.

    Whether you’re paying attention to how you look or not, other people are, and they’re drawing conclusions based on that. Human nature, I’m afraid. And when we’re talking about a visual medium best known for its unique underwear-on-the-outside fashions, I think it’s a valuable tool in the artist’s toolbox. S/he may not want to have to devote time to it, but s/he may not want to devote time to drawing backgrounds, either. Both may be valid choices, or they may be examples of laziness. Depends on the situation. In the case of a garden-variety superhero title, giving everyone standard defaults may be enough, and no one might care otherwise. (In other words, when the plot and characters and art are all generically standard, no, I’m not looking for insightful costuming choices.)

    Making choices about how characters appear — both physically, with hair style, skin color, nose shape, etc. and through clothing choices — tells the reader something about the cast, though, just as it does on a stage or film set. Good artists will want to use that tool to enhance the work.

  3. James Schee Says:

    I can only think of a comic I read a little while back. The main character was supposed to be a shy, reserved young woman who wasn’t comfortable being around people. Yet was drawn wearing a half shirt and skin tight jeans thar hid no detail of her body. It knocked me out of the story.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that look, I have friends who are waitresses in sports bars. They diet & excerise a lot and love showing off the hard work they put into it & are comfortable with themselves. But that look for her character and story didn’t fit.

  4. Jeff Says:

    In order to be anti-fashion, you have to be aware of it.

    “Human nature, I’m afraid.” So your main defense of this horrible behavior is a twist on “boys will be boys”? I expected better than that.

  5. Johanna Says:

    People choose how to present themselves (even if that choice is total apathy), so I don’t see a huge problem evaluating people based on the appearance they’ve chosen for themselves. For example, when I interview job candidates, I’m going to take into account whether the person dressed appropriately or is demonstrating that they didn’t bother thinking about the impression they would give.

    That’s particularly true when we’re talking about fictional characters, and the choices the artist has made in how to draw them.




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