TL;DR version: This post is about brainstorming (and research to support that brainstorming) a single aspect of worldbuilding for a fantasy (or sci-fi, because some of the general concepts apply) story. If you have no interest in 1) worldbuilding as a writer of SF/F, 2) “trivia bits” concerning what people wore during various historical eras and how those clothes were produced, or 3) a handful of obscure movie quotes brought on by the aforementioned topics… well, feel free to skip this post entirely.
On his blog a few months ago, Charles Yallowitz discussed figuring out what fictional people wear, specifically fictional people in a fantasy setting. “Clothing can make the hero and the world,” he said. But he said he doesn’t give much thought to what characters are wearing, and he wondered if other authors also struggle with this aspect of worldbuilding.
I realized, about two hundred fifty words into my comment, that I was writing something a lot longer than a blog comment ought to be, and I still wasn’t done. So I’m giving my reply to Charles’ post here instead:
I hadn’t given much thought to what the characters in my “fantasy” (sci-fi in a low-tech setting, but a lot of readers insist that the lack of spaceships means it’s “in the past” and thus fantasy *rolls eyes*) novel wear, and then a friend of mine made a fabric-sculpture portrait (“They’re not dolls, Thomas!”) of one of those characters, and according to the way she dressed him, the people of Haefenspoint apparently dress much like the people of eastern Europe in the early Middle Ages. Not-doll Roderic is dressed in what looks to me like Rus pants and a tunic under a long, open robe (kaftan). The wide-legged pants are tucked into low boots… Yeah, definitely Rus, at least in the basic lines. And I’d never even realized the similarities. (I never knew about eastern European clothing in the Middle Ages until after Grace made that
doll portrait. Neither did she. We have no idea where the idea came from.)
I do think about whether characters would have access to certain materials for their clothing. Does flax or cotton (or some other plant with useful fibers) grow in that climate? Do they raise sheep? Long-haired goats? Silkworms? Are other textile fibers available, perhaps ones that don’t exist in the author’s universe? Do they use the skins of any animals for clothing? Do they trade with other places that produce materials they can’t get otherwise? Is there an actual industry for producing the fabric, or is it all homespun and woven by hand? Are the nobles/rich folks in the setting the type to wear deliberately impractical clothes with long, billowing sleeves and inflexible torsos, and made of elaborate brocades, or is quality of materials/workmanship all the sign of wealth they require in their garb? What are the regional differences in clothing styles, and why do these differences exist?
One of the rather sloppy things sometimes done by writers of steampunk fiction, for example, is
gluing some gears on it dressing all the female characters in vaguely described “bustle skirts” and calling it a day. Even I know that there’s a big difference between a bustle skirt from 1870 and one from 1880. (“These are the eighteen eighties, Fredric…” Sorry. Obscure movie quotes will come out at inconvenient moments. Nevertheless, she was right: “You can’t live your life by the outmoded class conventions of a neo-imperialist society.” Or at least shouldn’t. Find your true center… even if you then glue some gears on it.) Even if you don’t think there’s a difference between steampunk and neo-Victorianism, you should ask yourself, Why is this character wearing this particular style of dress? Does it fit with her station/role in society — or the one she wants to be perceived as having? Is it in any way practical for the life she lives and the things she does in this work of fiction I created for her to inhabit? Do I even know what a godet IS, or am I just throwing in “period” clothing terms for color? (“I found the white pleated collar and cuffs alluring, but I was taken aback by the swirl of godets.” Really, Kermit? *shakes head* The swirl of godets was the only halfway good thing about that outfit…)
Writers of historical medieval fantasy make some mistakes, too. A Viking woman (they never were “Vikings,” by the way; they were Norse) in a boned corset? Even the (famous in some circles) “Lengberg bra” (which dates from the 1500s, not the ninth century) didn’t have metal/whalebone bits. Also, one does not wear a farthingale under a cotehardie, and no matter what famous movie (*cough* Braveheart *cough*) you saw it in, no one was wearing crushed panne velour in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, the Norse did have a version of knitting (naalbinding) that allowed them to have decently fitting socks without sewn seams. And they had silk imported by traders from the Middle East. (Saw a photo once of naalbound slippers made of cotton.) And that nonsense about “No one wore pink in the Middle Ages or Renaissance”? Okay, so they generally called it rose (a dark pink) or carnation (basically the same kind of flower as a pink, so you do the math) instead, but there are a lot of medieval illuminations showing people wearing pink clothes — men as well as women. And if rose was “manly” enough for Henry VIII, who are you to say otherwise?
“But mentioning what people wear… That’s something only female authors do when writing about female characters, right?” Um… No. Two of my favorite authors ever — both of them writing stories with male protagonists, by the way, although one of those authors is a woman — at least mentioned their characters’ clothing. Not necessarily with as much detail as some readers might desire, but “gold silk satin and brocade” is better than no information at all, right? (D’you know how difficult it is to do accurate fan art when an author doesn’t tell you what someone in their story looks like? Grace finally gave up and dressed cat-Damien in red and black so she could say he wasn’t wearing the outfit his original wore to Aurelia Yarris’ party that one time… *shakes head* And now I want to blather about green columns and precognition and Neil G. being the “evil twin” of that author’s former bandmate… but I won’t. I’ll save that for when Grace shares photos of cat-Ieuan in his “Darcy coat.” 🙂 ) It probably helps to have a viewpoint character who pays attention to what they wear, but that doesn’t mean only women or gay/bi men. Some fictional people are quite particular about wearing only certain colors, you know, and I doubt I’m the only reader who remembers what colors were favored by which characters in Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels (even if some artists get it soooo wrong: “Why is he wearing red!?!? Eric wears black, silver, and red. Awesome cloak style, Morrow, but what were you thinking? And also, that unicorn is facing the wrong way”).
I’m not saying you have to give a detailed description of every item of clothing worn by every major character; sometimes it’s irrelevant, sometimes it won’t — and shouldn’t — come up because the viewpoint character doesn’t care or isn’t paying attention, and sometimes this aspect of setting (and characterization!) is one familiar enough to the majority of readers (urban fantasy comes to mind) that a few words are all you’d ever need even when you do want to describe how your protagonist is dressed. She wore a vintage Dior dress only tells us that she was wearing something old and probably expensive, but She wore a black, vintage Dior dress with long sleeves covered in silk ‘dragon scales’ tells us that this character is dressed like Edna Mode from The Incredibles.
If you’re writing historical fantasy, do your research.
If you’re writing some other kind of fantasy (or sci-fi), do your research anyway, to understand what people from a particular type of culture, in a particular environment, are most likely to have available for clothing.
Think about what you’re doing. This, of course, applies to all writers of fiction, but this post is meant mostly for writers of fantasy and science fiction, ’cause we’re the ones who have to make our worlds up from whole cloth, so to speak. 🙂