Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Clothes Make the Man 
(Or Woman, Or Elf...)

By 
Gabrielle Bradeen Hoyt
2003, Gabrielle Bradeen Hoyt

ne of my favorite parts of worldbuilding is the everyday stuff, the things the inhabitants of the world would really come into contact with -- things like houses, food and clothing. Clothing is especially important, because it's so tied-in with culture. A woman in a burka says a lot about her culture, even if she doesn't say a word. So does a woman wearing a business suit or nothing at all. This can lead to stereotyping if done in broad strokes: desert culture = Arabs; fantasy setting = medieval England.

The overuse of medieval England for fantasy costumes is fairly stale. So is the Big Stereotype: brawny, Nordic men in tiny underpants (usually fur, though studded leather is almost as popular) and swords-women in equally tiny chain-mail bikinis.

So, here's a list for giving realism to the clothing systems for your world. Like most worldbuilding, this background won't appear in your story. But if you know the way things work in your world, little details will subconsciously slip into the story, enhancing the illusion.

 

Governing Bases

What is the climate? Does fashion respect climate (traditional Lapland) or defy it (Regency England)? If fashion defies climate, why? How?

Climate isn't only the amount of rain and snow, and the number of hot days, but also wind, mud, sand, lava, etc.

What's the technology level? If it's low-tech, that obviously means no polyester, rayon or spandex, and it also means that cloth will be more valuable since it's handmade.

Does this society have the resources (cotton plants, sheep for wool, etc.) to produce the textiles? If not, does it have the resources to import these materials?

 

Standards Of Beauty

What is the standard of beauty for women (rubenesque, skinny, tall, petite, blonde, brunette, fair-skinned, tan and tawny)? What is considered ugly? What do most people actually look like?

What is the standard of beauty for men (strapping and rugged, whisper-thin and pallid, etc.)? What is considered ugly? What do most people actually look like?

What part of the body does this society fixate on?

Again, this is not static. In the 1880s, a woman's derriere was the object of adoration, hence the exaggerated bustles. A few years later the enormous, matronly mono-bosom was in fashion and bustles were a thing of the past.

 

Society

How are women viewed in this society? If they're seen as decorative trinkets, their clothing will reflect that ideal.

How are men viewed in this society?

Is age a large division in society? Teenagers and grandparents rarely follow the same dress code. What would a rebellious teen wear? What would be unseemly for Grandma?

Is race a large division in society, as well as clothing? Consider Jews being forced to wear the Star of David in Nazi Germany, for example. Which races? What are the emblems or styles?

Is the use of magic a large division in society? If so, what must magicians wear to differentiate themselves?

Do the various brotherhoods, schools, magic sects, guilds, etc. have specific dress codes? What are they? Colors, emblems, styles?

Does the society have sumptuary laws (which prescribe what clothing can and cannot be worn by commoners), and if so, what are they?

Do slaves or servants, if any, have uniforms? What are they? Does the master prescribe the styles, or are the enforced by government laws (as once proposed in ancient Rome)?

If there are no slave dress codes, what do they wear? Why do they not have uniforms? In Rome, it was decided that if slaves wore a uniform, they'd see how large their numbers were and realize that they could easily revolt.

Do married men and women dress differently than those who are single? How?

Is religion a factor in dress? If so, is everyone affected, or only those in the clergy?

How is extravagance in clothing viewed? Is it normal, as in pre-Revolutionary France? Or is it frowned upon, as in Oliver Cromwell's England?

The absence of which article of clothing would embarrass someone from the society most?  In ours, lack of pants would be rather disturbing, but in another, serfs might often strip down to their underwear to work in the fields -- but they wouldn't be caught dead exposing their elbows.

 

Materials And Color

What color dyes are difficult to produce, and therefore expensive/exclusive?

What minerals and stones are prized?

This isn't a static thing; before the seventeenth century, diamonds were difficult to cut and therefore not valued as highly as they are today.

What clothing materials are there? Cotton, wool, leather, fur, silk, satin, linen, Lycra?

What do colors signify to this culture?

In ours, white is for traditionally weddings, but I believe in Asia, white was for funerals and red was for weddings. Of course, as Western culture continues to spread it changes traditions: nowadays, white is a common wedding color in Asia.

 

Hair And Adornment

What are the hairstyles for women? Marie-Antoinette pompadours or boyish bobs, or something in the middle?

Is straight hair, wavy hair, curly hair or no hair in fashion? If your hair doesn't meet the standards, can you wear a wig? Or is a hat the only alternative?

Is dye the refuge of pathetic old women, or is it respectable for any woman to go from blonde to brunette to purple-and-green?

What are the men's hairstyles? Long, flowing, Gornthor-of-the-North manes, or Marine-style haircuts, or something else less extreme?

What is considered just slightly too feminine for a man: powdered headdresses or hair just a little too long?

How do men wear their hair in the military (if the military is considered admirable, men's hair might reflect it, as in the close-cropped 1950s. If the military is in disrepute, men might rebel like they did in the androgynous, long-haired '60s)?

Do men's styles include facial hair (beard, mustache, mutton chops, etc.)?

What forms do jewelry take? Necklaces, medallions, headdresses, bracelets, rings, piercings in every conceivable location?

Is weaponry integrated into fashion? If so, is a sword part of a dress uniform, or everyday street-wear?

What kind of makeup, if any, is popular or accepted?

Makeup itself is an ancient device -- eye shadow was used in Egypt to excess; but in the Victorian Era, no respectable woman would even think of using the slightest powder.

What forms of alteration/mutilation, if any, are fashionable? Tattoos? Piercings? Implants? Something worse?

What wearable objects are thought to protect one from evil (as in the crucifix)?

What general form does the clothing take? Drapery? Baggy tights and tunics? Skin-tight, as in our own society? Or nothing at all? Does it differ by gender?

 

Miscellaneous

Can certain clothes be used as a punishment, such as wearing a scarlet A for adultery?

What is considered terrible taste? Plaids with stripes? White after Labor Day?

How much does one's profession impact one's apparel?

An equestrian needs comfortable, thick and protective pants (saddles are not forgiving), and any soldier who wants to survive a battle wants a helmet, no matter how artistically unbecoming they are.

How much of fashion is ambi-gender? These days, both genders wear pants, but only women can, customarily, wear dresses. In the age of Rome, men and women wore virtually -- to our eyes -- indistinguishable togas (to Romans, men and women's fashions were quite different: women wore stolae, and men wore a toga. Any woman who wore a toga was likely a prostitute).

What animals are held in fear or respect? Do powerful people dress in their skins (as in the jaguar warrior of some pre-Colombian civilizations), or simply wear simulacrum wooden masks? Do they do this to appease the animal or gods, or is it to show their people how strong they are?

* * * *

When worldbuilding, write an overview of what costume looks like for men, women, children, and the upper and lower classes.

You can probably think of more questions. Remember, you can answer all the questions in this article, and still come out with something that resembles Medieval European fashion. But if you do, there will at least be a consistent and well thought out reason for it.

Remember that while the people in your story may physically resemble Europeans, or Africans, or Asians, it doesn't mean their clothing must look just like what Africans or Indians wear in our world. As long as the clothing fits with the society, technology and climate of your world, it can be as familiar or as exotic as you want.