One of the most frustrating parts of writing fantasy for me personally is trying to describe clothing because 1) there is an absurdly expansive list of terms to describe various different clothing or parts of clothing, 2) the worlds I create are often expansive and culturally diverse, which I feel should be represented through their clothing, and most importantly, 3) I am completely fashion illiterate. I can’t even iron correctly. My husband has to help me whenever the ole tried-and-true tossing a shirt in the dryer on high heat doesn’t work. Therefore, trying to find, create, and describe clothing for cultures that are distinct to the fantasy worlds I create is challenging, to say the least. Recently, I found myself trying to describe some flowing vest worn over the armor of soldiers from a particular region of my fictional Empire, only to end up in a deep dive of the internet to determine if there was a specific word for what I was trying to describe or if I needed to just come up with a completely new word. Or if I was just being an overanalytical perfectionist. Or if I was just stuck and stumbling and looking for a distraction, no matter how miserable, for my creativity-parched brain. (Probably the last one.)
In researching, it’s easy to find yourself lost amid a pile of clothing terminology. There are overcoats and undercoats, greatcoats and dusters, cloaks and capes and shawls, tunics, frocks and smocks, robes and gowns, and so many types of dresses and shoes that multiple encyclopedias and pictorials have been written on the subject. Rather than drive yourself mad (as I have done) trying to locate a single specific snippet of information, perhaps it would be a better idea to explore fantasy world fashion in a broader, more realistic approach in order to craft realistic clothing for our characters.
So lace up your boots and buckle your belts for this worldbuilding adventure into fantasy fashion!
Setting, Culture, and Theme
The easiest place to start with fantasy fashion is the setting itself. If you’re writing historical fantasy, this may be a fairly obvious jumping-off point. For example, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is set in 20th century Britain and 18th century Scotland; therefore, clothing should be representative of that time period and of those cultures. Not to say that more speculative fantasy can’t also be set in or borrow elements from different cultures. Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy borrows heavily of Russian culture for its primary setting within the nation of Ravka. The Ravkan Second Army are famous for their kefta, a military uniform whose colors indicate which magical order they belong to. Although the term is itself fictional, its description summons forth images of the long woolen greatcoats of the Russian military with their fur caps. Likewise, the land of Orïsha in Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orïsha series reflects in its details the Yoruba culture of West Africa specifically using the Yoruba word gele to describe the elaborate headwraps worn by the Orïshan nobles. These little fashion details provide a realism that make these imaginary worlds more complete. But with a certain culture in mind, where to turn for inspiration?
Museums of your chosen time period and culture are by far the best reference, but there are plenty of websites and resources dedicated to historical clothing or costumes (as they call it in the film industry). Take a look at this list below for some vision for your vogue:
- V&A South Kensington’s Fashion Collection
- Claire Hummel’s Historical Fashion Reference and Resources
- All the Pretty Dresses (1700s-1940s)
- Folk Costume and Embroidery
- Fashion History Dictionary
- MacMillan Dictionary’s Clothing Sections
That being said, you needn’t necessarily lean on some real-world culture to influence your work. The culture can be of your own unique imagination so long as it provides something rich and vibrant and representative of the story you’re pursuing. Perhaps it’s more influenced by a certain theme. Maybe it’s steampunk. Maybe it has an elemental vibe where cultures have an affinity for certain natural forces or elements off which their apparel might be based. Maybe it’s an industrial setting where clothes need to be more functional than fantastic. Or perhaps you find that mood is more a focus for your culture. Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom duology is one of my favorite set of books simply for the gritty, greedy, grimy mood she sets. The theme within these books is about capitalistic greed and the division of wealth, and the clothing worn by her characters is more representative of this theme and its desolate mood, in my opinion, than of a specific culture.
Gender and Social Class
Gender and social class will inevitably affect the clothing that your characters wear depending on the type of society that they live in. A more gender-equal society will likely reflect more gender-equal clothing. Consider, if you will, the changing nature of gender roles in our societies and how women’s fashion, in particular, has changed as those roles have become more equal. For example, the hemlines of dresses became the shortest they had ever been in the United States during the Roaring 20’s due to the social independence and economic prosperity of the times.
Similarly, a society with a loose class structure will have loose dress requirements whereas a society of strict class structure will have strict dress requirements. Take sumptuary laws for example. These laws, whose intent was often to restrict luxury items from the lower classes or stigmatize certain groups, dictated what could be worn or possessed by people depending on their station or occupation. Ancient Greece, for example, declared that only certain embroidery or fashions could be worn by courtesans or prostitutes (both female and male). In Ancient Japan, sumptuary laws favored certain garments for the aristocratic samurai class until about the 19th century when the merchant class became increasingly wealthier and the ruling class made some changes to favor the merchants. Many countries have throughout history also used sumptuary laws to restrict or outright ban native dress and hairstyles in an effort to enforce conformity within an empire or culture. Keep in mind these laws, if violated, often had strict punishments. Under the Act of Proscription of 1746, anyone within Great Britain wearing Scottish Highland dress could be imprisoned for sixth months or, on the second violation, transported to the colonies as an indentured servant.
But beyond actual laws, there’s also the simple fact that someone of lower socioeconomic status is less likely to be able to afford certain types of clothing. Luxury is restricted to those that can afford it, and your characters’ wardrobes should abide by this universal concept. Likewise, I would expect someone of high social status and ample fortune to be able to afford the best materials, the best seamstresses, and the latest fashion, and chances are they’ll be more concerned with such things than someone trying to scrape a living. The ruling class among the Hausa of Africa were known for wearing large turbans and layered gowns of imported cloth to establish their social rank. Why? Because they could afford to do so and because social rank was an important aspect of their society.
What materials does your world have available to make clothing? Are there other countries they can trade certain textiles with? Are certain materials more prized because of their limited availability? The materials which your characters’ clothes are made with can be dependent on a lot of factors and can help illustrate their place in society. For example, silk was a highly prized and sought-after commodity in Eurasia during the Ancient Era. Why? Because China maintained a monopoly on silk for a thousand years after the founding of the Silk Road. It was such a luxury resource that sumptuary laws were created limiting its use to the aristocracy in many countries. Other countries banned its use in men’s clothing for being too feminine a material. (Sultry silk!) Wool and cotton, meanwhile, are fairly common and easily produced materials found all across the world and a staple of everyday clothing. I wouldn’t be too shocked to see a farmer or peasant wearing such materials.
Here’s a useful timeline for clothing and textile inventions since the ancient eras.
By the way, did you know that it was popular during 17th century Europe to wear dog-skin gloves? Considered a luxury item, which led to much dog thievery during the time, it was believed that dog-skin gloves moisturized the hands. Never underestimate what people will do for fashion and beauty!
Fashion as Characterization
Now as much as I believe that details are often what make a fantasy world feel real, there’s no need to agonize over the fabric of every worker’s smock or the design of every military insignia unless it does, in fact, add something to the story. Probably the best way fashion can serve a story is in providing characterization. For example, a religious leader clothed in simple fabrics of neutral colors might lend to an imagery of humility, servitude, and a disinterest in materialism while a religious leader clothed in extravagant vestments and expensive jewelry is more likely to create the opposite effect. Nontraditional clothing may very well emphasize a character’s rebellious nature; traditional clothing may reflect a character’s dedication to their heritage. What your character wears can speak to their personality.
For example, take a look at the transition in the clothing of Sansa Stark from the first to the last seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I can’t claim knowledge of how the books handled Sansa’s clothing details, but the television designers did an incredible job accenting Sansa’s character development through a progressive change in clothing. As Sansa’s innocence is lost, her clothes transition from bright, breezy, and elegant styles to much darker, more somber, more functional clothing.
Fashion, though an often overwhelming subject (at least for me), can itself be a resource to create setting, mood, and characterization if applied in the right manner. The picture we paint for a reader needs to be a clear one, a whole one, and clothing is a part of daily life and can say much not only about an individual but about a society at large. Use this to your advantage—not to create extraneous details but to create a cohesive world. Focusing more on this overall picture is far more important than getting every tiny detail, every term, correct.
Work that fantasy fashion!
And make it work for your writing!
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