Make the Man
(Or Woman, Or Elf...)
Gabrielle Bradeen Hoyt
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.
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
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.
is the climate? Does fashion respect climate (traditional Lapland) or defy it
(Regency England)? If fashion defies climate, why? How?
isn't only the amount of rain and snow, and the number of hot days, but also
wind, mud, sand, lava, etc.
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
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?
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?
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?
part of the body does this society fixate on?
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.
are women viewed in this society? If they're seen as decorative trinkets, their
clothing will reflect that ideal.
are men viewed in this society?
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
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?
the use of magic a large division in society? If so, what must magicians wear to
the various brotherhoods, schools, magic sects, guilds, etc. have specific dress
codes? What are they? Colors, emblems, styles?
the society have sumptuary laws (which prescribe what clothing can and cannot be
worn by commoners), and if so, what are they?
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)?
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.
married men and women dress differently than those who are single? How?
religion a factor in dress? If so, is everyone affected, or only those in the
is extravagance in clothing viewed? Is it normal, as in pre-Revolutionary
France? Or is it frowned upon, as in Oliver Cromwell's England?
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
color dyes are difficult to produce, and therefore expensive/exclusive?
minerals and stones are prized?
isn't a static thing; before the seventeenth century, diamonds were difficult to
cut and therefore not valued as highly as they are today.
clothing materials are there? Cotton, wool, leather, fur, silk, satin, linen,
do colors signify to this culture?
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.
are the hairstyles for women? Marie-Antoinette pompadours or boyish bobs, or
something in the middle?
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?
dye the refuge of pathetic old women, or is it respectable for any woman to go
from blonde to brunette to purple-and-green?
are the men's hairstyles? Long, flowing, Gornthor-of-the-North manes, or
Marine-style haircuts, or something else less extreme?
is considered just slightly too feminine for a man: powdered headdresses or hair
just a little too long?
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
men's styles include facial hair (beard, mustache, mutton chops, etc.)?
forms do jewelry take? Necklaces, medallions, headdresses, bracelets, rings,
piercings in every conceivable location?
weaponry integrated into fashion? If so, is a sword part of a dress uniform, or
kind of makeup, if any, is popular or accepted?
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
forms of alteration/mutilation, if any, are fashionable? Tattoos? Piercings?
Implants? Something worse?
wearable objects are thought to protect one from evil (as in the crucifix)?
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?
certain clothes be used as a punishment, such as wearing a scarlet A for
is considered terrible taste? Plaids with stripes? White after Labor Day?
much does one's profession impact one's apparel?
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.
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).
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?
* * *
worldbuilding, write an overview of what costume looks like for men, women,
children, and the upper and lower classes.
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.
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.