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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Putting pants on your characters.

   
Author Topic: Putting pants on your characters.
MattLeo
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If we can take a break from being philosopher-kings for a moment, I thought I might draw attention to a humble but useful bit of craft: clothing characters. Why humble? Because this is one of those areas most of us don't particularly care about for its own sake, so if we do it, we do it for the readers.

I believe clothing gives the reader an idea of the "face" the character intends to present to the world. Or the character's lack of attention to the face he's presenting. I also think readers get something beyond that. The simple existence of detail carries a kind of subliminal message that the people in the story aren't just automatons dressed in vague blobs.

This is true even if the reader doesn't quite follow your terminology. George R. R. Martin loves the word "gorget", but I doubt many people know what a "gorget" is. I think he must like the sound of the word, because we don't hear a lot in SoI&F about "bevors", "culets" or "besagews", all of which make just as much sense as "gorget". But "gorget" is a word with a sound that makes your gorge rise.

Of course now we have Google image search and so we can find out that a "gorget" is armor for the neck and upper chest, which survived in vestigial form into the 19th C as a crescent insignia worn below the neck by cavalry. But even if readers don't bother to find out what precisely a "gorget" is, they get the rough idea that it's a part of a suit of elaborate knightly armor. The readers don't have to know precisely what to picture in order to take something away from the word.

Similarly, readers might not know the precise definition of a "trilby hat", but you can communicate some idea of why a character might choose a trilby; how wearing it makes him feel; how he hopes people will see him. This tells them all they need to know about a "trilby"; the word becomes a signifier for all that stuff until they finally get around to doing that Internet search, which hopefully ties it all together for them.

This kind of relatively benign uncertainty comes up in pseudo-medieval fantasy, but with the added problem that words change their meaning. Men and women both used to wear "gowns", which referred to any loose, full length garment. Today it means ladies' evening dress or an academic robe. Likewise a "girdle" and a "belt" were the same thing until 1925, but "girdle" conveys altogether the wrong picture to modern readers. "Braies" referred to any of these things at various points in the past: pants, shorts/breeches, undershorts. Since this could lead to the wrong picture in the reader's head (e.g., someone standing in the road in his underwear rather than breeches), use the modern word.

So this is what I think: avoid putting the wrong picture into readers heads. Other than that, have a precise picture in your head, put it down on the page in clear language, but don't worry if some details go over the readers' heads (e.g. "gorget" or "trilby"). The fact that the picture is there on the page is valuable in itself to the reader.

One word I can't abide, by the way is "robe". Putting your characters in robes is like dressing them in blobs.

Try this. Pick a familiar character from movies or TV and describe how they're costumed. Make it specific. I'll start:

Gandalf the Gray wears a ash-gray tunic of coarse wool, loose in the sleeves, broad in the hem and gathered into long vertical pleats in the front. The tunic is cinched at the waist with a brown belt of braided leather, fastened with an inconspicuous buckle of brass. The long tail of the belt is tucked under itself and looped into a single half-hitch. Over his tunic Gandalf wears a cloak of the same color featuring a long pointed hood; the cloak fastens at mid-chest but that is hidden by his beard. The material is so thin and threadbare it drapes like a bedspread. Gandalf's wears a broad-brimmed, pointed gray hat. The stiff brim of wool felt slopes downward to below mid-ear; the softer crown is battered so that the sharp tip points almost directly backward.

[ July 05, 2014, 11:54 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Denevius
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I'm quite detailed with what my characters wear, actually, but the writing practice is often not appreciated. It's one of the things a majority of people have told me is unnecessary throughout my writing career.

I still do it, though. With the novel I just finished, I took particular care in describing my characters because of the fact that their outward appearance was important to the plot as a whole.

But yeah, my overall feel is that readers actually don't really care. I think, for them, it just makes the prose unnecessarily dense.

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extrinsic
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External physical attributes. like attire, do hold characterization potentials, as well as narrative authentication possibilities for reality imitation purposes. However, as purely external description features, clothing and appearances generally may work the opposite direction, strain distance closing appeals, summarize and explain through tell lecture and alienate readers instead of close distance through reality imitation show.

The above description of Gandalf's attire is bland, lackluster, nondramatic, in that the description is emotionally neutral attitude. If a feature is non-antagonal, non-causal, non-tensional for the target audience's sensibilities, the feature as a best writing practice ought be developed for its drama significance--developed for its missing contextual influence, its agency--or the feature excised. The missing contextual content, attitude that reveals personality traits and makes dry tell into intimate, appealing reality imitation show.

A viewpoint agonist's attitude toward, say, a person's pants, makes a tell into a show, part show and tell that becomes dramatic show from the viewpoint agonist's attitude toward the feature, the viewpoint agonist and observed character characterized by the attitude and the description.

For example;

Cornflower blue dress shirt the color of a dry, clear, daytime sky--shirt rumpled already a half hour from the ironing board. Shirt tail draped over the belt in the back, touched the piano bench. The black belt missed two waistband loops. Navy blue trousers slung low on the hips; the pants cuffs scraped the dusty stage floor. The father's family curse of the men's persistent unkempt appearance shown by the boy's indifference to fashion--Gabriel wore his clothes as an afterthought; the clothes didn't wear him.

No cruel shoes, crisp creases, sharp pleats, stainless shirt fronts, no tailored fits, nor flattered color sense for him. His mother chose his clothing. His dressing and wearing clothes left her wanting for him a stronger pride in his appearance. His fourth grade teacher graded him C- for neatness; his future wife would be like him, no spiked heels, no figure-flattering dresses: no less lovely to equal his natural handsomeness.

[ July 07, 2014, 12:41 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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"The clothes maketh the man." Don't ask me who the originator of that quote was, but in writing a narrative, the clothing our characters wear can yet be another important facet of bringing their characterisation into vivid life. The fop, the vagabond, the dapper, devil-may-care character can all be recognised by the clothes they wear. The trick with this sort of particularity in writing is to transform the mundane into literature. As extrinsic attempted in his example, the use of simile and metaphor that is tied closely to the traits inherent in a particular character when describing their manner of dress can be truly enlightening in plumbing the deeper nuances of that character.

Of course, this, like anything else, takes practice.

Phil.

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wetwilly
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One of my pet peeves is science fiction stories set in the future in which everybody wears jumpsuits. That's not going to happen. Ever. Fashion changes constantly, but people will always differentiate themselves by wearing different clothes.

When I see a civilization of people wearing jumpsuits, I think, "Couldn't be bothered to imagine up any actual details, author?"

On a side note, if you're Tennessee Williams, you don't have to worry about putting pants on your characters. They just never wear them.

[ July 06, 2014, 09:14 AM: Message edited by: wetwilly ]

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Robert Nowall
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I have a hard enough time getting my characters to wear clothes at all...
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
But yeah, my overall feel is that readers actually don't really care. I think, for them, it just makes the prose unnecessarily dense.

Context makes a big difference. How and when you incorporate details makes a big difference.

You probably don't want to pack details into a single block of prose, as I have done above, although that might work in certain circumstances (e.g. when Cinderella makes her entrance into the ballroom). Normally I'd parcel out the details over the scene, incorporate it into the character's actions. Sometimes I have characters fiddle with their clothing as a sign of what's going on in their head. This is a natural way for readers to notice what a character is wearing -- a general impression followed by noticing details.


quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
The above description of Gandalf's attire is bland, lackluster, nondramatic, in that the description is emotionally neutral attitude.

Of course it is. It's an exercise in seeing detail. I wouldn't do it that way in a story -- although I *might* in certain unusual circumstances where the reader is primed to want to find out anything he can about a character. It's context that lends the details interest. If you think your counter-example isn't bland reading out of context you're deceiving yourself.

The exercise isn't to show off your style, it's to show your powers of observation. Did you notice the pleats in Gandalf's tunic? Can you figure out why they're there? Good; then you understand it. That kind of understanding can be useful, if you can resist the temptation to immediately whack the reader over the head with everything you know.

quote:
Originally posted by wetwilly:
One of my pet peeves is science fiction stories set in the future in which everybody wears jumpsuits. That's not going to happen. Ever. Fashion changes constantly, but people will always differentiate themselves by wearing different clothes.

Jumpsuits are to sci-fi what robes are to fantasy. But to be fair, pseudo-medieval fantasy at least gives you a general framework for deciding how to dress your characters. You choose a century or mix of centuries and there's your fashion vocabulary.

The problem with the future is that people in the present might not find what it actually will be like particularly believable. If you told readers in the 50s that men would go to work in an office without a tie or jacket, they'd be skeptical. If you told them men would go to work in an office in a polo shirt, or even (in some kinds of office) a tee-shirt, it'd be like telling readers today that people will go to work in their underwear.

I suppose dressing characters for the future takes some kind of approach. In THE KEYSTONE, I simply used the fashions of the 1930s because I was going for a retro-futurist feel. Minus the hats, of course, because they'd just be silly on spacecraft. The protagonist, however, wears jumpsuits, but she's the only character who dresses this way all the time.

I love retro-futuristic looks, by the way. If I could find a Gerry Anderson style Nehru jacket, I'd wear it.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Of course it is. It's an exercise in seeing detail. I wouldn't do it that way in a story -- although I *might* in certain unusual circumstances where the reader is primed to want to find out anything he can about a character. It's context that lends the details interest. If you think your counter-example isn't bland reading out of context you're deceiving yourself.

The exercise isn't to show off your style, it's to show your powers of observation. Did you notice the pleats in Gandalf's tunic? Can you figure out why they're there? Good; then you understand it. That kind of understanding can be useful, if you can resist the temptation to immediately whack the reader over the head with everything you know.

I guess we have different outlooks on what constitutes writing craft exercises; that is, a bare bones descriptive detail is for me a raw draft wanting flesh to make it a "telling detail." Same with dialogue, setting, events, etc.

A portrait artist's sketch captures lighting, emotions, attitude, tension, etc., even of fabric folds draped from a curtain rod. A writing sketch does no less, still rough though fleshed out characterization begun. I see the bones and the flesh when drafting, cannot help anymore not including a viewpoint agonist's attitude toward a subject.

No illusions nor delusions here, only a different approach to character development, and setting and event development, dialogue, etc. An under-developed contextual significance for my sketch, a foreground dramatic complication of the viewpoint agonist's its shortcoming. Another paragraph or two would develop that.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
One word I can't abide, by the way is "robe". Putting your characters in robes is like dressing them in blobs.

Made me spit on my monitor [Big Grin]

When I use "robe", that's actually what I mean -- a blob of fabric of undistinctive shape and no special merit. Unless I otherwise describe it, which in one case, I do (well, MC does when he trips over it).

And I do have a couple characters who are seen wearing jumpsuits -- one because she cultivates a no-see-me look, the other because it was the grunt uniform she was wearing when she deserted. It's supposed to be generic and not given a second glance or thought, that's the whole idea.

Elsewhere I do have folks who dress up for special occasions, and remark on or complain about it, as the case may be.

At one point I throw MC and son out in the wilderness and make them walk a Long Ways in rough country. It's been a standing joke all along that MC dresses like a farmhand, while son is a bit of a dandy. Guess whose footware gets ripped apart on the rocks.

But it's not my business to notice what the characters are wearing. That's their own business, or other characters' business.


"Pants are still optional, but recommended for you."
--CmdrTaco

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Reziac:
Made me spit on my monitor [Big Grin]

Well you know me: always raising expectorations.

quote:


When I use "robe", that's actually what I mean -- a blob of fabric of undistinctive shape and no special merit. Unless I otherwise describe it, which in one case, I do (well, MC does when he trips over it).

It actually sounds to me like you've put a lot of thought into this. If shapeless and indistinct blob is what you want, then "robe" is your word.

I'm not saying that every character has to be a fashion plate; I'm just saying that clothing is a prop that people might not have put much thought into using. In most of our stories the people wear it, so why not put it to work now and then.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
As extrinsic attempted in his example, the use of simile and metaphor that is tied closely to the traits inherent in a particular character when describing their manner of dress can be truly enlightening in plumbing the deeper nuances of that character.

. . .

Phil.

Metalepsis actually, a close cousin of the metaphor trope, closer though to metonymy and synecdoche, also metaphor cousins.

The Wikipedia article on metalepsis doesn't do the rhetorical figure of speech justice--it's one-sided on the side of disapproval. The Silva Rhetoricae article on the topic does, from a neutral position.

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." Mark Twain

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Grumpy old guy
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Thanks, extrinsic. Mark Twain visited Australia at one time and let's just they that his acerbic wit found fertile ground. Also, while clothes may make the man, they also can be used to great effect in concealing the 'true' nature of the character, the Scarlet Pimpernel for instance. A fop by day and prone to bouts of derring-do at odd times.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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Twain expressed a few more notions about clothing, that if everyone was naked no one would be different status-wise, that if everyone was naked, no one could read another's intents and judge their relevance or agency. He talked about, of course, a contemporary notion of clothing as self-expression and modesty functions from a supposedly enlightened social context.

If humans wore no clothing, not even a scrap of leather, sported no adornments, inequality would still be obvious; the human mind makes distinctions and sense from subtle visual or other sensory cues that signal individual meaning, a natural survival instinct. She's an ideal mate; he's an ideal provider. She's too young; he's too old. She eats well. He works hard. She's trouble. He's a threat. She's clever. He's dull. And so on.

Actors know intimately that clothing makes the person, as signals of identity and intent and motivations and influences. Actors also know that external appearances can be contrived to deceive. Hiding in plain sight, no overt disguises to speak of, are mysteries no less that upset emotional equilbrium. So even for my routine urban camouflage I wear intentional subtle signals that draw attention and defuse mysteries such that I am outwardly nonthreatening and not appear vulnerable. Less is more, as usual.

[ July 09, 2014, 06:49 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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wetwilly
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Extrinsic, you have routine urban camouflage?
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extrinsic
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Uh-huh, I look like no one in particular, usually unremarkable, blend into crowds, and change attire according to environments chameleon-like.
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kmsf
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I got tired of describing clothing, so I just have all my male characters wear a simple codpiece. I just name the color and let the reader build the rest of the clothing. Very minimalist, I know. But it's new and different. Gorget was already taken.
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LDWriter2
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Interesting discussion here.

I usually don't say that much about clothing, even though it is significant that someone on the cover of my E-novel is wearing a yellow modest dress. Oh and I may have over done my MC's clothing, a bit, in a certain short story I just wrote and sent out.

But as I said usually I don't say much about clothing. But different cultures-even made up ones-would have differences in clothing styles, so in some cases descriptions could be needed.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Twain expressed a few more notions about clothing, that if everyone was naked no one would be different status-wise, that if everyone was naked, no one could read another's intents and judge their relevance or agency.

...and its logical extension, Philip José Farmer's Riverworld.

quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Uh-huh, I look like no one in particular, usually unremarkable, blend into crowds, and change attire according to environments chameleon-like.

Evidently I look extraordinarily and memorably like myself; yesterday in the generic environment of Walmart, I was hailed by name by a brief-acquaintance I hadn't seen in over 30 years. Clearly I need to rethink my disguise.

quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Well you know me: always raising expectorations.

[Big Grin]

quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:I'm not saying that every character has to be a fashion plate; I'm just saying that clothing is a prop that people might not have put much thought into using. In most of our stories the people wear it, so why not put it to work now and then.
I suppose that's what I do; clothing is nearly always functional rather than observational. It would be interesting to extract and compare those bits where it's mentioned.

Oh, and the aforementioned dandy? whilst out in the wilderness, I deprive him of not only shoes, but everything else as his clothes devolve into rags. He winds up wearing the skin of a predator that mistook him for dinner. Clothes, rather their lack, did help 'make the man' in his case.

[ July 09, 2014, 01:57 AM: Message edited by: Reziac ]

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Denevius
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quote:
clothing is nearly always functional rather than observational.
I think this would be fine if you're developing a POV of one of your characters, but for many people, I don't think this is true. Girls walking around in high heels, or two inched soles, aren't doing so for the function of walking. They're doing it because it makes their legs and butt look nice, or because they're short and it makes them look taller. Ripped jeans, muscular guys in mesh shirts worn in the mall, hats worn in buildings.

I think fashion, really, is the exact opposite of clothing worn for function, and is purely observational.

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Grumpy old guy
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Fashion, per se, is a sub-set of clothing and is predominantly a group identifier. It identifies class and sub-groups within class (or that could be caste as well). Fashion is also used to attract members of the opposite sex, usually within the same sub-group, for the purpose of 'practicing' procreation and, to a lesser extent, a means of raising feelings of self-worth and desirability. Clothing, on the other hand is the the functional provision of a barrier between our tender pink/blue/yellow/brown/black/etc/etc/etc skins and the travails of the hard, cruel world around us.

Phil.

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Robert Nowall
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Clothing is definitely shaped by environment. The range of conditions and temperatures humans can take without them is so extremely limited, that to survive, some manner of protective gear must be worn. (This would seem to stretch the definition of "clothing" through and past items like "safety goggles" or even "space suits." I suppose so.)
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
quote:
clothing is nearly always functional rather than observational.
I think this would be fine if you're developing a POV of one of your characters,
That's how I mean it -- in the context of writing, not in the context of Real Life[TM]. To clarify, if I describe or mention clothing, it nearly always has some function to the story.
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MattLeo
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I've spent the last several days in Manhattan, and have noticed something interesting about fashion. Everyone here isn't a fashion plate, of course, but there are many very fashionable people here. I even bumped into a lady in Union Square wearing a gold-sequined evening gown. And I noticed something interesting about fashionable people. Sometimes you're struck by a person wearing a certain fashion. Other times the same fashion seems to be wearing *the person*.

Generally when you look at a person and what he or she is wearing immediately jumps out at you, it's not a favorable impression. There are exceptions. The lady in the gold sequined gown looked *spectacular*. The lasting impression is of *her* wearing the really out-there gown. That seems to me to be a kind of sweet spot for high fashion where the impression of the person and the clothes is somehow balanced. You remember the person and the clothes together. For everyday wear noticing the person first is (I think) the sweet spot. Then you notice details, but the lasting impression is the person (wearing an outfit). What you never want to do is forget the person but remember the outfit.

It makes me think this dichotomy of the person wearing the outfit vs. the outfit wearing the person is something that could be used in writing a scene.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Clothing is definitely shaped by environment. The range of conditions and temperatures humans can take without them is so extremely limited, that to survive, some manner of protective gear must be worn. (This would seem to stretch the definition of "clothing" through and past items like "safety goggles" or even "space suits." I suppose so.)

But which factors in the environment determine the clothing? Sure if it's -50C everyone's going around in insulated boots, but that's an extreme case. This week in NYC I've seen many women snaking their way past subway gratings in high heels, so they've chosen to ignore a significant element of the environment, namely pavement obstacles, in favor of a different element -- other people.

Take a space station. It';s a controlled environment, there's really no reason whatsoever for most people to wear clothing. Sure, some people may have to be ready for EVA at a moment's notice. Others may work with high voltages and so need insulating clothing and shoes. But lets say this is an advanced space station, of the sort we see in Star Trek. There's really only one reason most people would wear clothing -- other people. If you were alone on the space station most of the time you could go naked.

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Robert Nowall
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A sidebar thought, kind of...I just saw a clip from some show, "Naked Dating," or something like that. (I think it's on VH1---I saw the clip somewhere else.) Even though all the "naughty bits" were blurred, I kept thinking, I don't really want to see these people naked.

People wear clothes because other people don't want to see them naked.

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