Dressing the Part

- by Elaine Isaak

author Elaine Isaak with her family, dressed as ents

portait of the author as an entwife

In a recent Twitter chat at #scifichat, I was asked about how my former career as a costumer and puppet maker affects my writing.  I realized that making and wearing costumes can actually be a great psychological tool for authors.  In fact, I think many of us do it subconsciously already.

Think about the opening sequence of the movie “Wonder Boys” with Michael Douglas.  He begins his writing day by putting on his lucky pink bathrobe–a garment worn and disparaged through much of the film that follows.  Some authors recommend treating your writing as a job, including dressing professionally when you sit down to write.  Others (most, I think) aim for maximal comfort:  sweatsuits are a popular choice, and I recall a survey about writing ambitions in a slick writer’s magazine where one of the answers was always “Because I can write in my pajamas.”But one of the things we know from our personal and professional lives is that clothes make a difference.  They can help to build the mindset you need to approach a situation, like dressing up for a party versus dressing up for an interview.  And your clothing choices, like that pink bathrobe, can become a self-reinforcing habit.  If you wrote a great scene while wearing the bathrobe, you might become superstitiously attached to it. If you always write in your jogging suit, you might feel unable to write without it.

Clothing can also be a more deliberate choice in support of your writing goals.  Some authors wear literal hats that might change with each book or character they are inhabiting.  Author Rosemary Kirstein of the Steerswoman series (which I looove) actually started her series because of a costume she created to wear to conventions.  As she assembled the outfit, she created a backstory around the garb and accessory choices she made.

I haven’t gone that far, although if my medieval work seems realistic, it’s probably due in part to my involvement with The Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation group in which participants dress in period garb.  Clothing reflects the status of the wearer and members of that culture would recognize this, and respond appropriately.  Actually trying out the gown of your princess gives you insight into how she walks, stands and sits, and the effect she has on those around her. Trying on armor is a revelation of movement.  Better yet, for those fantasy and science fiction writers, how about trying on a tail?  Or a mask that changes your perspective?  Ever looked through a lense that makes you see like an insect?  It might be worth doing before you write about your next bug-eyed monster.

Costume choices can not only give the author insight into the character of that persona, they also give you a greater understanding of your physicality.  Walking with the long train of my Entwife costume, and balancing my headdress taught me a lot.  Learning to walk in a kimono, learning how *not* to move in a dress a little too reavealing, thinking about the space that your wings, tail or other extras occupy lend weight and reality to the most unreal of worlds.


  1. I have a lucky chair. It was a rocking chair when my elder son was small. Then we removed the rockers and it became a chair. It has a woven raffia cord seat which is now held together with twine, and I really do intend to have it redone, some day. I have five pillows on the seat to make up for the sagging raffia, but it is still my lucky computer chair.
    Of course, I’ve had some bad luck too, but don’t blame it on the trusty, faithful chair.

  2. Ah, so the Entwives have finally been found :-) Lovely costume!