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Lara Jean Covey, Alexa Monroe, Astrid Leong, Chloe Sayers, and Lavinia Williams look good enough to read.

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How do you choose an outfit for a fictional character? 5 authors explain.

Kevin Kwan, Jasmine Guillory, Jenny Han, and more explain why they dress their characters they way they do.

There’s a reason movies employ costume designers, why celebrities hire stylists, and why you changed outfits no fewer than three times before your last promising first date — fashion choices broadcast nuanced details about a person’s identity and personality.

The same, of course, holds true for fictional characters in novels. The choices that authors make about apparel and accessories can bring a character to life, or they can push fiction into fantasy. Remember when Carrie Bradshaw picked apart Jack Berger’s novel because he dressed his character in a then-unfashionable scrunchie? Select the right pieces and your character will feel real; select the wrong ones and readers won’t believe a word.

Scrunchies aside, stylistic choices have turned so many moments from capital-L Literature into memorable scenes. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara whipped up an iconic gown out of green curtains during the poverty-stricken days of Reconstruction, when she couldn’t afford to purchase a dress. In Jane Eyre, the protagonist refuses to wear the brightly colored silk and satin gowns Mr. Rochester offers her in favor of the drab dresses she feels are more appropriate for her position as a governess. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood immediately divulges by page three that she rushed over to Bloomingdale’s on her lunch break to purchase black patent leather shoes with a matching belt and handbag to prepare for her summer of working at a magazine in New York — that’s how important her accessories are to her. And who can forget The Great Gatsby’s Jay manically tossing up shirts, or American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman reciting a list of designers and brand names with the reverence usually reserved for church?

If these scenes seem particularly vivid to you, it might be because each of these classics has been adapted onscreen, as so many best-sellers are (including two of the books below). That creates further opportunity for these looks to come to life.

I asked the authors of five buzzy novels to select one important look they’ve created for a specific character and dissect what the ensemble means to the character. How does she choose to dress herself, and what does that signify about who she is? The outfits themselves vary wildly from a disheveled 1940s ostrich feather ball gown to a worn-out Lilly Pulitzer tank top, but each author emphasized the same point: Their choices were intentional. Nothing was accidental or poorly thought-out. One author went on an online shopping frenzy to dress her character for a wedding; another even brought in an outside stylist to ensure the clothes were up to date.

The next time you pick up a novel, pay special attention to what each character wears — every outfit is a road map of their values, tastes, history, and insecurities. Below, five authors reveal how they use fashion as a tool in fiction.

Astrid Leong from Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Half the fun of zipping through the rollicking family drama of Crazy Rich Asians is the fashion. Kevin Kwan makes it clear that among certain circles in upper-crust Asian society, you’re only worth as much as the labels you choose to wear — and the tackiest thing you can do is to dress above your station. “When I write all my characters, I really imagine from head to toe every single thing they’re wearing,” Kwan says. “If I didn’t already know the piece, I would scour the internet, looking at collections and creating outfits for the characters.”

a woman in gray pants, a white top, and multicolored chandelier earrings.
Astrid Leong in her VBH earrings.

Crazy Rich Asians follows Rachel Chu, an American-born professor, who travels to Asia to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s astronomically wealthy family for the first time. Astrid Leong is Nick’s beloved cousin; she’s a stay-at-home wife and mother, as well as a fashion icon among the elite. She flies to Paris every season for custom couture and had a close friendship with Yves Saint Laurent (RIP), but she’s not afraid to wear a dress off the rack from Zara … as long as it’s styled just so with museum-quality Etruscan bangles.

“Astrid is very much inspired by one person,” Kwan says; he tried to recreate her style for the book. “Astrid sees dressing as her only form of artistic expression. She lives in this very cloistered world where she has to put the right foot forward at all times. Fashion, for her, is a way of being rebellious, and it’s a way of asserting her own creative expression into her life.”

Kwan discovered this Alexis Mabille white peasant blouse back in 2010 and was inspired to dress Astrid in it for a Friday night dinner at her grandmother’s house, where a more relaxed outfit would make sense. She’s dressed down in order to detract attention from her new VBH earrings — a splurge that would make her slightly less wealthy husband uncomfortable. “She pairs the earrings with something that’s just kind of more fun and casual so the earrings look like costume jewelry,” Kwan notes.

While writing the next books in the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, Kwan turned to Cleo Davis-Urman, now the Fashion Director of Saks Fifth Avenue, to source apparel and accessories for his characters. “I was so frantically busy trying to meet my deadlines that her help in keeping up to date on the latest fashions was invaluable,” he says.

Crazy Rich Asians hit theaters this summer, with costumes by Mary Vogt (her past projects include Hocus Pocus and Men in Black). Kwan says that Vogt often mirrored exact outfits from the book, like Araminta Lee’s gold jumpsuit at her bachelorette party and the beige linen suit Nick wears to greet Rachel at Tyersall Park for the first time.

Lavinia Williams from Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Social Creature is what would happen if an overgrown Eloise at the Plaza had a wardrobe full of stained vintage dresses and an eccentric pack of friends — and if she wound up dead. The glamorous thriller follows Louise Wilson, a mousy underachiever whose life changes overnight when she meets Lavinia Williams, a madcap bombshell who frolics at the opera, trades witty barbs at secret bookstores, and dances at a stand-in for the McKittrick Hotel.

“My vision for Lavinia is the little kid who goes into her parents’ wardrobe and comes out wearing everything,” Tara Isabella Burton (a staff writer at Vox) says. She swathes herself in vintage from the 1920s through the ’50s, but she doesn’t have the self-care skills required to preserve her delicate clothes. “She definitely leaves her clothes rumpled in a pile on her floor when she stumbles home drunk. She does not fold things neatly. She is constantly drinking and spilling shit,” Burton adds. From afar, thanks to her class privilege and sheer force of personality, Lavinia succeeds in looking like an effortless sylph. But up close, she’s a mess.

a blonde woman in a black dress with feathers, caught on a door
Lavinia with her gorgeous dress caught on a door.

She comes from a wealthy family and veers wildly between using her money to attract and keep friends and feeling self-conscious about her background. She’s likely to spend hundreds at a curated vintage store but lie and say she found a dress at a thrift shop for $5. “It’s very much in the Upper East Side, WASP-y vein to downplay and be like, ‘Oh, this old thing? It was on sale! Of course I didn’t pay for it!’” says Burton.

The first time readers meet Lavinia, she flies into the brownstone she shares with her teen sister, Cordelia, at 6 am. Louise, Cordelia’s SAT tutor, has been up all night waiting for Lavinia to come home to pay her. Lavinia accidentally slams the door on the ostrich feather hem of her 1940s ball gown and sheds feathers everywhere she walks, like an injured bird. Louise is able to mend the dress for her, which sparks the beginning of their dangerously codependent friendship.

At the New York launch party for Social Creature, Burton wore a similar ostrich feather gown in pale pink. She says she didn’t intend to match Lavinia but liked that the gown “felt very Social Creature.” She also Sharpied on a “More Poetry!!!” arm tattoo, like the ones Louise and Lavinia get together in the book. At the party, Burton’s fake tattoo smudged off onto her dress, and she dabbed out the stain with a wet napkin. Unlike her character, she could take care of her vintage duds.

Alexa Monroe from The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

Imagine this: You get stuck in an elevator with your dream guy. He invites you to be his plus one to his ex’s wedding, less than 48 hours away. That’s the meet-cute that kicks off The Wedding Date. To dress Alexa Monroe and the other characters in the book, Jasmine Guillory thought carefully about how their wardrobes would function practically in their lives.

an illustration of a black woman in a red dress and gold heels
Alexa in her red dress.

Alexa is the chief of staff for the mayor of Berkeley, and her wardrobe is mostly work clothes. She opts for colorful shift dresses and blazers from department stores; she’s a little preppy and likes J.Crew. She’d love to wear a Theory suit, but she’s busty, so blazers don’t always fit her the way she’d hope. For the past few weddings she’s attended, she’s either been a bridesmaid or done Rent the Runway, so she has to scramble for something to wear. She summons her best friend Maddie, a stylist, for a day of shopping.

“I did a lot of mock online shopping for what Alexa would wear to this wedding,” Guillory says. “I wanted her to feel like the star version of herself, like she has a glow about her the whole night.” Guillory — or Maddie — ultimately selects a red fit-and-flare cocktail dress with a low neckline. The cut of the dress was intentional; Guillory wanted Alexa to be able to wear it without Spanx underneath, in case she happened to later undress in front of her wedding date, Drew Nichols. Instead, she would be able to wear the dress with a pretty, sexy bra and panty set.

For Alexa, the dress inspires a serious confidence boost. “Normally, she would think, ‘Oh, a guy like this would not be interested in me,’” Guillory explains. “But with that dress on, she feels like Cinderella. … It’s kind of a magic dress and a magic night, so she might as well flirt with the hot guy. Why not?”

Chloe Sayers from Providence by Caroline Kepnes

High school freshman Chloe Sayers can fit in with anyone in her small New Hampshire town: She looks like a popular kid, dreams of life as an artist, and is best friends with misfit Jon Bronson, who’s secretly in love with her. Jon is kidnapped, only to mysteriously return four years later with no recollection of what has happened and with strange powers that threaten those around him. Meanwhile, in Providence, Rhode Island, Detective Charles “Eggs” DeBenedictus is investigating a string of seemingly healthy young people who keep dropping dead. The genre-bending novel follows their three separate but interconnected lives.

a blonde white woman in cutoff shorts and a pink and purple patterned tank top.
Chloe in her casual hometown outfit.

More than a decade later, Chloe is a hotshot New York artist whose portraits of Jon have made her a star. She’s been deeply uncomfortable dressing up ever since her high school prom, when she wore a revealing dress she didn’t like. Typically, she’s in paint-splattered cutoffs and big, old T-shirts — easy pieces to throw on when she’s making art. She’s keenly aware that setting and context matter: When she’s back home in New Hampshire, god forbid she dress up and offend people’s casual sensibilities; when she’s out in New York with her Entourage-loving financier fiancé, she knows to dress for his newly urban tastes, even though he’s from her small New England hometown too. “She wishes she didn’t care so much, but she does,” Caroline Kepnes explains.

The morning after her big engagement party in her hometown, Chloe is getting dressed to reunite with Jon. At first, she chooses a little pink dress, but she knows her fiancé’s family would sneer and call her overdressed. Instead, she throws on an old Lilly Pulitzer tank top and denim cutoffs. Her fiancé’s sister-in-law sneers, anyway. “Chloe doesn’t wear Lilly in New York,” Kepnes explains. “She wears it in Nashua to fuck with her would-be sisters-in-law who read Lilly as, ‘So you think you’re better than me, huh?’”

As a teenager, in the wake of Jon’s disappearance, Kepnes says Chloe’s “whole identity was constantly nitpicked and torn apart, so she’s more relaxed. She’s like, ‘No matter what I do, they’re going to say something, so I’m just going to wear what I wear.’” Depending on whom you ask, a classically printed Lilly tank top is either obnoxiously preppy or sweetly nostalgic; for Chloe, in this moment, it’s a form of expression and rebellion.

Lara Jean Song Covey from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

Lara Jean Song Covey is the 16-year-old protagonist of Jenny Han’s trilogy To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (the Netflix adaptation came out this August). A true romantic, she writes letters to every boy she’s ever had feelings for and stashes them away in a teal hatbox given to her by her late mother. When the letters accidentally get sent to each boy in question, well, Lara Jean’s life quickly gets pretty interesting.

A young girl in knee socks, pleated skirt, and cardigan.
Lara Jean in her iconic knee socks and cardigan.

“Her look is 1960s retro meets 1990s meets Asian streetwear,” Han says. “It’s aspirationally romantic schoolgirl, and as an introverted person, it’s her way to express herself.” Lara Jean draws inspiration from Asian fashion blogs, wears clothes that her aunt sends her from Korea, and likes to shop at vintage stores. Han referenced the movie Clueless and Korean fast fashion from sites like Stylenanda to develop Lara Jean’s style. She gave her three recurring style signatures: a hair bow, a heart-shaped locket, and knee socks.

The socks have become such a fixture among fans, Han says, that readers often wear them to book signings as a tribute to the character. “Her style came together in a way that made sense to me because of her romantic nature, her fascination with the past, and her idea of what love looks like,” she says.

This outfit is something Lara Jean wears for a regular day at school. It also appears in the final scene in the movie. “I had extensive conversations with the producers in regard to Lara Jean’s style,” Han says. “I sent them mood boards.” This particular silhouette — a button-down with a short skirt — is used frequently.

Ultimately, Lara Jean’s look is also somewhat influenced by Han’s personal tastes. “It’s very similar to my style,” she says.


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