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Hollywood Dress Code

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Finn: Donny's problem is that he's treated as an outsider, like me!
Jake: You are not an outsider; you wear cute little blue shorts.
Finn: I... am complicated...

This is where items of clothing are only worn by certain types of characters. It's done so that these people will be certain to have Distinctive Appearances, or even a Meaningful Appearance.

This isn't always a bad thing. On Strictly Formula TV, there isn't always the time to subtly tell us what a character is like, so their clothes act like visual markers. It can also be helpful in less-than-subtle theatre, such as pantomime.


When the same thing is done to show us where a character comes from rather than what their personality is, see Culture Equals Costume. (Of course, certain works will assume that cultural origin determines personality, so there's likely to be overlap between the two stereotypes.)

Note this applies to regular outfits, not something someone tries on for just one episode.

Compare Dress-Coded for Your Convenience, Villainous Fashion Sense, Stock Costume Traits.

Not to be confused with an actual Dress Code, nor to be confused with Hollywood Costuming. A single character's dress code is Consistent Clothing Style.



  • It's rare to see someone wear glasses who isn't a Nerd, Meganekko (meaning this isn't actually limited to Hollywood), or using them to show how creepy they are. Harry Potter is an exception, but novels don't usually rely on this trope, given they have words to make characters. Pulp fiction books might, but they are also Strictly Formula. A woman wearing glasses is very likely to turn out to be Beautiful All Along, especially if she's the main character.
    • HRG from Heroes is a subversion. Early in Season 1 he comes off as a somewhat creepy investigator up to no good. Later on as we get to know him better, we learn he's a Badass Normal.
    • Derek "Wheels" Wheeler, from Degrassi Junior High, gets some Nerd Glasses partway through the second season. Of course, being Degrassi, the implication here is simply that he needs them to be able to see clearly. He is never shown to get any "nerdier" than he already is.
    • This trope is so ingrained that the makers of Seinfeld had to go to special lengths to stop people assuming George was the smart one, just because he wore glasses.
    • Because of the above, there is now a Real Life tendency for people to wear glasses just to look smart, even if they have no vision problem.
  • If you wear a calculator watch and are in an old movie, you're either a straight up Nerd, or more likely, a Cool Loser. Bonus points if you also wear a white t-shirt with buttons and are commonly seen with a pen on your ear.
  • Suspenders (braces in the UK, galluses if you're really old), are a surprisingly rich trope-mine. They are practical substitutes for belts, but if you wear them on TV you will fit in one of these categories:
    • If you wear them with a cardigan, corduroys or a tweed jacket then you are Old, and do so because you always have.
    • Pair them with a shirt with rolled up sleeves (preferably unbuttoned and unironed) and you are a Police Chief, News Editor or similar Frustrated and Overworked Professional.
    • Keep your sleeves down and your tie on, however, and you are a Ruthless Businessman. If your suspenders are red then you are a City Trader of the Gordon Gekko school. This one's more justifiable, as many of the current hallmarks of this character type were developed in the 1980s, when this was indeed part of standard business fashion.
    • Combining suspenders with narrow jeans, Doc Martens and the appropriate haircut marks you as a skinhead, specific subtype unspecified.
    • Suspenders are the essential accessory for any aspiring Lumberjack or Frontiersman, and should be worn with a flannel shirt in the appropriate pattern.
    • Do not wear suspenders with sweater vests, pocket protectors or short sleeved shirts or you risk being condemned to the farthest reaches of TV Nerd-dom, particularly if the suspenders are red. (Bubba Higgins of Mama's Family is an exception: a jock and former delinquent who sometimes wears his suspenders over a sweater vest.)
    • Mork from Ork wears rainbow suspenders (which have reached Iconic Outfit status), and can get away with it because he is an alien (and a Cloudcuckoolander one at that).
    • Members of The Mafia tend to be wearing suspenders far more than other Badass in a Nice Suit characters, probably as a sign they come from an earlier time where they were more widely worn.
    • To an extent, any kind of Stressed Urban Professional as mentioned above (cop, journalist) wearing suspenders is a purposeful throwback to the 1920s-1950s, where wearing suspenders was more common, especially for a man with a desk job. Even today, in some offices wearing suspenders is seen as a symbol of seniority.
    • Four guys wearing suspenders, pinstriped dress clothes, bowties, and boaters are almost certainly a barbershop quartet.
    • Or you're a fireman who needs to keep his pants up. Shirts optional.
  • In British English, "suspenders" are the sort of stocking garters that encircle the leg above the stocking and are clipped to the stocking by little elastic strips, glimpses of which are still Fanservice even today when worn around the thigh by women. When worn around the ankle or calf by men, they are usually subject to the same stereotypes as braces/suspenders, except that they make the person look even more old/nerdy/ridiculous.
  • If you wear a fur coat, and are female, you are usually the Rich Bitch or The Vamp, at least nowadays. If you aren't one of those two, and wear fur, it will last just that one episode.
    • If you wear a normal coat with fur trimming, you're a Japanese schoolgirl.
  • A fur coat on a man means he's a pimp, a playa, a badass, or an eccentric like the second Doctor or an Edward Gorey character. Or some combination of the three.
  • If a male character wears a leather coat, the style will reflect the character type:
  • Pelts of the Barbarian are the typical wear for many primitive, but dangerous, cultures.
  • A man in a business suit (lately) is pre-known to be in the FBI or CIA, Mafia, Lawyer, Corrupt Corporate Executive, Producer <shudder>, or the like. It's the tie. Perhaps due to standards of dress in California (which is noticeably more casual than most places in the U.S., except perhaps Hawaii), there is something not to trust about a guy wearing a tie, unless it is part of a work uniform. And the type of tie matters. Strong tie = strong character. Weak tie = underhanded (or a geek). Bowtie = geek.
    • If the man wears one of those colored shirts with white cuffs and collar, he is an especially sleazy 80s Wall Street guy. (a la Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or Office Space)
    • If the protagonist's top button is undone and they wear their tie like a headband, they either intend to rebel or rock out. In Japanese media, the headband tie is code for falling-down drunk, and is usually seen on salarymen.
    • If it's all black, the character is either creepy and possibly sinister, or a member of a top-secret organization. Unless he's a jazz or blues musician.
    • A woman in "business attire" — the analog of the male "business suit" — is a Suit, subject to the same pre-judgments as her male counterpart. Typically, they are ambitious and are willing to sacrifice love and children for career advancement. Particularly prone to heel face turns or they're office-worker-types who "conform" and are "part of the system". If they're the protagonist, they're creatively stifled.
    • If it is a war movie, the one guy wearing a suit instead of a uniform might be one of The Men in Black, a less-honorable CIA type, or an outside character there to have things explained to him or to present an alternate viewpoint.
    • In school settings, if someone's wearing a suit, they're usually the principal or superintendent.
    • If someone walks into a restaurant wearing a suit, they're probably a health inspector.
  • A character wearing a gaudy polyester suit is often an obnoxious boor. a shifty salesman, a Casanova Wannabe, a Disco Dan, or someone whose fashion sense is Two Decades Behind.
  • For bowties, it's all in the color. If it's a black bowtie worn with a matching suit, you're ridiculously refined. If it's a coloured bowtie you're a bit mad. If it doesn't match the suit then you're just tragically nerdy.
  • Men in work uniforms (as opposed to military uniforms) are subsumed by their jobs. The job is the role, not the man.
    • Sometimes the case especially for men in uniform, where someone's entire character might be that they are with The Army. The type of uniform will often telegraph what the character might be like. Compare Beetle Bailey (rolled up working uniform sleeves, poorly fitting helmet) to Sarge (Nice Hat, service uniform with rank and necktie).
    • Other aspects of someone's uniform can also give insights into their personality; for example, if they have a Chest of Medals but are still a relatively low rank, it may indicate that they're a Military Maverick and/or don't get along well with their superiors. Someone whose uniform is always immaculate can be either a complete badass or a totally inept parade-ground soldier with no ability in combat.
    • Someone who's dressed in a military uniform who isn't actually in the military is usually patriotic, serious, bossy, or a combination.
  • A woman in Sex and the City garb — specifically Choo shoes — is vapid, grasping. She can dress like that or be a philanthropist. Not both. An exception is Annie in Covert Affairs who works in the CIA but is just into fashion.
  • Baseball caps. They can be worn casually by grown men and women, and some jobs even have that in the uniform. Yet in media, no job seems to require a baseball cap (because those hats aren't embarrassing enough), no women seem to wear them, and if you are an adult and wear one with the bill facing forward, it means you are a slob, a trucker, or never really grew up.
    • Exception to the above: A baseball cap is an essential part of the uniform of someone attempting an infiltration of the Delivery Guy or Janitor varieties. The reasons are threefold:
      • It does a good job hiding the wearer's hair and face from overhead security cameras without looking suspicious the way a mask or bandana would.
      • It seems to subconsciously tell other people in the place being infiltrated "I'm a low-paid nobody. Ignore me."
      • The wearer can quickly change their appearance by removing the baseball cap.
    • Wearing it backwards or sideways means you are trying way too hard to be cool.
  • A man in T-shirt and jeans is a regular joe. Since the 90s, often the men are also sporting plaid shirts over their T-shirts, especially on U.S. sitcoms (Ted in How I Met Your Mother)
    • A woman in a T-shirt and jeans is the down-to-earth tomboy the male lead should be dating instead of the shrew in a skirt and heels that he clearly has nothing in common with.
  • The Ordinary High-School Student wears jeans, a T-shirt, with an open button shirt and Converse(TM) Chuck Taylor All-stars optional. Possibly intentional, as while the look is rarely in style, it's never exactly out of style.
  • Male High School athletes always wear wool letterman jackets with leather sleeves, even in Southern California at the very beginning or end of the school year. If not that thay will wear a football jersey, especially if they're a heavyset fellow. On the heavy set fellow this can also indicate he is a bully. Cheerleaders wear their team uniforms to class. Whether this is Truth in Television or not varies widely based on requirements of the school district and even of individual coaches.
    • Also, in Fictionland, it is not possible to letter in anything other than athletics. Even then, few people letter in anything other than American football or baseball. No one letters in academics, theater, speech or debate, swimming, tennis, band, or math team. Also, girls do not wear letter jackets, even if they are a butch Lesbian Jock.
  • Facial piercings, unnatural hair colours and tattoos can be a sign that the character is dangerous. On anyone under 18, they show that the character is a teenage rebel, or the body modification is simply something to fight with their parents about.
    • This trope has partially been undone by the increasing popularity of tattoos with both men and women. When an actor or actress has tattoos, at times they are covered by make-up and, other times, they just are a part of the character. Tattoos can also mean that the individual has been in military service or been on a sports team. Tattoos are no longer a sign of walking on the wild side. Unless it's a full sleeve of tattoos on one or both arms or any tattoos on the character's head.
  • Strapless dresses clearly indicate you're at least a Femme Fatale, if not The Vamp.
  • If you wear a Kimono than you are a Yamato Nadeshiko (including aspiring ones) or an ancient little Prune Senior who has always worn one.
  • A woman in a military uniform is either intensely butch or The Squadette. If the latter, she's instantly hot.
  • If you are wearing a track suit, you are
    • in the mob
    • you're the President. In this case you're surrounded by other men in track suits and shades. Or in suits and shades, depending on how silly the work is. Bonus points if you do this for a Governor or some local official, to up the Serious Business aspect.
    • You're a Bruce Lee Clone if it's a yellow tracksuit with a black stripe down the side ala Game of Death.
  • A headband worn across the forehead has two meanings. If it is worn with warm-ups and wristbands, you are a nerd exercising. If worn with almost anything else, you are either a badass or a flower child. Never both.
    • If you're a teen girl, the headband will usually be covering a zit that just appeared, usually right before your first date.
  • For the subject of skirts and dresses:
    • If you are a girl who wears a skirt that shows too much leg, with a tank top with too much cleavage, with the possible addition of showing your stomach, you are either the Alpha Bitch or The Vamp. Either way, your intentions are neither good nor wholesome. Could be the Ms. Fanservice or Hooker with a Heart of Gold if you are lucky.
    • If you wear a flowery sundress that shows just enough leg to still be innocent, along with an open front blouse over that, with a hair band or hair clips or wearing Girlish Pigtails, you are either Naive Every Girl, Proper Lady, Love Freak, Token Wholesome, or all of the above. Either way, you are definitely the hero's Love Interest.
    • If you wear a skirt that is too long, along with being pleated and or plaid, with an ugly cardigan sweater, glasses, a messy ponytail, and or braces, you are the Hollywood Nerd, which means that in TV Land, you are one of the ugliest beings in the universe, and can only be seen as acceptable once you lose the glasses and undo the ponytail.
      • If the long-ish skirt is denim and worn with sneakers, it is the uniform of the Orthodox Jew, particularly when the top is a fashionable blouse worn over a long-sleeve t-shirt.
    • The male Hollywood Nerd wears a buttondown shirt buttoned all the way up, suspenders (what One Direction adopting this look will do is as yet unknown), and creased pants worn higher-waisted than any male youth has since The '40s.
    • If you're wearing a denim dress, you're either a little girl or childish. Especially if you wear a shirt underneath.
  • A variation is that certain jobs require clothing that is almost never worn now, but was, at some time, the common style for that profession.
    • At least in Western countries, only a small portion of very traditional Catholic women's religious orders still wear a habit, even a modified one (with only the veil). It's largely anachronistic in the U.S. and has been for decades except in Hollywood. Many priests, when not conducting religious services, wear at most a priestly collar instead of being dressed in a black suit.
    • Doctors wear lab coats, when you usually see them dress in shirts and slacks or scrubs these days. Some hospitals have begun to actively discourage the wearing of ties for sanitary reasons. See the House episode where Cuddy gives some doctor a tie-ectomy after several babies fall ill.
    • Scientists (mad or otherwise) are sometimes put in lab coats whether or not they're actually doing any experiments that call for such protection. Bonus points if the character is a Theoretical Physicist, Mathematician, or any other discipline that never performs practical experiments of any sort, let alone the type that would require protective clothing. In Real Life, it;s generally a bad idea as you will end up taking chemicals from the lab wherever you go, which people will touch, then rub their eyes, bite their nails, or eat. Many commonly used lab chemicals are known carcinogens or developmental toxins.
    • Similarly, you often see nurses wearing all-white uniforms and caps, when (in the U.S. at least), nurses haven't worn caps for about 50 years, and rarely wear white uniforms anymore. The cap and uniform is purely fetish material if the story in question is not a period piece.
    • Most works of fiction depicting fast-food workers will have them wear gaudy striped shirts and paper hats. While this was formerly Truth in Television, most fast-food outlets since the late '90s have opted for simpler monochromatic shirts and visors or baseball caps.
  • Another example is hats like trilbies or fedoras being worn by...well, pretty much anybody who's not a hipster. In earlier times, dressing in a suit was generally accompanied by some sort of hat, but such is out of style now. You still see them on journalists or private eyes sometimes in cartoons. In real life these are all over the place among subcultures—ska and geeks for men and women, and also on women trying to look Avril Lavigne-ish—but thus far, it has not been seen in Hollywood.
  • Deerstalker hats are pretty much limited to Sherlock Holmes and cartoon detectives parodying him. In reality, though they were mostly worn by hunters—hence their name—and would actually be out of place for a fashion-conscious urban fellow.
  • If a woman is wearing a short, usually leopard print skirt, fishnet stockings (or torn tights), granny boots, an off-the-shoulder Flashdance-style t-shirt with a Union Jack or skull print, heavy makeup and elaborately teased, spiked and sprayed short hair (with or without red or blue streaks), chances are she's a punk rocker in an 80s teen movie.
  • Males who wear shorts as everyday street clothes are the Manchild if they're past their early 20s, the Hollywood Nerd if they're teenagers/preteens.
  • All artists wear Artsy Berets, and anyone who wears them is either an artist or a pretentious intellectual.
  • If you wear a hoodie, you're either a depressed teen, an Aggressive Drug Dealer, or someone who simply does drugs. If you're neither of those and are an adult then you're a Manchild.
  • If you're wearing a black and white striped shirt, you're either a mime, a French stereotype, or both. If you're also wearing black and white striped pants, you're in jail.
  • If you're wearing a one-piece suit, you're either trying to be sexy, a ninja or spy, childish (if it's pyjamas) or a baby.
  • A nightgown usually signifies either a Ms. Fanservice on a woman or a stuffy, old-fashioned personality on a man (especially if he's wearing a nightcap too).
  • A scarf usually means someone's either trying to keep warm, trying to be fashionable, an action hero, or they have a sore throat.
  • Swimsuits are usually worn for either titillation or parodies of it. The exception is wetsuits, snorkels, and flippers, which are worn by the underwater Bold Explorer or scientist, and floaties which are seen as childish.
  • A germophobe might be illustrated unecessarily putting on a health mask, gas mask, or a Hazmat Suit.
  • If a woman is wearing a feather boa, she's usually a fashionista, and/or an actress, and is often wealthy.
  • High-class women often wear large hats with flowers and/or feathers attached. If you are a Black woman wearing such a hat, you're either going to a ladies social or church.
  • Knee socks are worn by schoolgirls, either for the nerdy look or for the Catholic School Girls Rule look.
  • A woman in a sweater: if it's tight, she's a Sweater Girl and if it's loose, she's a Dork in a Sweater or elderly.
  • A kilt signifies a stereotypical Scotsman, especially if he's Going Commando underneath.
  • Anyone wearing an apron is either a chef, an artist, a Housewife, a maid, or a stereotypical grandma. Typically, women wear aprons with frills, while men wear ones without.
  • [1] are usually Hell-Bent for Leather, possibly to associate them with modern bikers. They also tend to be given large belts, which is a trope from opera.

This can also be spoofed when a character actually changes character type when a piece of clothing is put on or removed.

Anime and Manga

Live-Action TV

Tabletop Games

  • White Wolf's Mage: The Awakening has an interesting take on this phenomenon. The Order of the Guardians of the Veil have what they call the "Masque". It is a series of "identities" built around defining virtues paired with defining vices. Characters must train in their use, but can gain distinct in-game benefits... and penalties... when using the "token" for the Masque they happen to be employing at the moment.

Western Animation

  • Basis of a Warner Brothers cartoon where a multitude of hats fall out of a truck and blow in the wind, causing Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny to change characters as various hats land on their heads.


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