I know, I know, it’s been a long time. Life has been, well normal enough. Normality isn’t something that seems to help me with writing consistently, not lately. I finally found something that excited me enough to get it finished and here it is now. A long ramble about clothing in books, mostly aimed at writers, but more from a readers perspective. I’ve got a fair bit of historical clothing nerd stuff in here, bur do keep in mind that I am very far from being an expert. Just someone who has read a few things and dreams of historical clothing.
First off, it’s not the clothing that is the problem. I have no problem with their being clothing in fantasy books. There’s a good chance I’ll have a problem if there isn’t clothing. The problem is with describing the clothing, with figuring out what people wear.
I like fashion and historical clothing (pretty much just historical stuff. I care very little about modern fashion trends.) It’s something I like to think about in my writing. Where do people’s clothes come from? Still, unless I’m writing about a dressmaker (and maybe even then), there’s only so much fashion description that fits into a story. Things can be mentioned, explaining in detail is a bit much.
There’s the problem of how to describe clothing. In a historical work, there’s already terminology. With something completely made up, you have to name things, but you also can’t use too many made up words if you want readers to know what you’re talking about. Even when taking inspiration from historical clothing, there’s less vocabulary available for other world fantasy. Writing in English you can’t use French. You can’t use any name that is too closely linked to our world.
One way to deal with clothing is to not try to be unique. You can go for standard quasi medieval fantasy clothing. This usually involves dresses from some time pre-renaissance and a tunic or shirt paired with trousers for men and women who are doing warrior stuff. Never hose for men and probably never puffy breeches. Armour of any kind is going to be common. Robes probably feature if there’s wizards.
Alternatively there’s the fairytale retelling variant with Girl in Dress Book Covers. Pretty dress which is fairly modern and features lots of tulle, satin, or chiffon. To be fair, this is a cover design situation and I love plenty of stories with this sort of cover. I just find it amusing. The modern fabrics don’t really make sense though unless it’s a gift from a fairy godmother. If you add the right kind of magic, many things are possible.
Another option of course is to just not describe clothing. This one is generally quite effective and if you have the help of cover design, it can go hand in hand with one of the others. I have too much interest in clothing to do this myself, but clothing details are decorations and I primarily read stories for the characters.
Making something up is definitely an option. Depending on genre and resources, you might be able to show this in the cover or get character art done. If you can draw, that helps here. I’ve found that tracing a template helps when drawing clothing but it doesn’t help with faces or hair. I would never depend on just pictures to convey fashion. Not in a novel.
One tip for describing clothing is to pick a few key elements. Figure out what’s important in the overall style and find little ways to mention them in amongst everything else. Mention other details that might matter to the characters. Do take enough time to figure out if something makes sense. Keeping things consistent is generally a good idea, just in case someone is looking for the details.
If you really do want to have clothing heavily inspired by history, do the research. Think through which bits your are including, which bit’s your are changing, and why you are making those decisions. This is definitely a historical dress nerd thing, but sometimes I’m bothered by the way fantasy clothing is often halfway between history and the modern world.
Please, someone, keep some of the things in clothing and hairstyles that are foreign to us. Don’t do everything based on movie ideas of what looks awesome. Maybe don’t let your heroine wear her hair loose and flowing. Be strange.
Yes, make clothing from unconventional materials. Please. Use any resource that is available. Leaves, paper, feathers, clay. (Armour made from pottery sounds like a really terrible idea, but maybe you could reinforce it with magic.)
Historically, especially in Europe, you’ve got your linen and wool and if you’re wealthy in the right place you might have silk. A different climate is good for cotton and there are some other similar materials Leather, especially soft skins has been used for clothing too.
Leaves might be the very best option if you’ve got tree dwellers. Come up with a way for processing them and making something strong and durable.
Another idea that could be interesting is paper. Water proofed ideally. It’s not a very flexible option, but there’s ways it could work. You could have a paper like substance with less stiffness that drapes similar to modern day non woven fabric. You could invent a substance that allows you to make stretch fabrics. You could make a papery string that is then knit or woven into fabric.
What about making clothing from fungus or algae? That’s not impossible. Living plants could be used. I can imagine someone with plant related magic who is covered with vines.
For an extreme version of magic clothing, everything could be an illusion. Perhaps everyone wears very simple clothing and uses special skills to make their clothing different. (’cause clothing is for warmth, not just appearances and it would be pretty strong magic that let’s you clothe yourself without physical components. Then again, That might be interesting to explore and I did say to be weird if you want to.)
Environmental concerns are another thing to consider in worldbuilding. Where do your people live?
Do they need to keep warm or is it extremely sunny and clothes need to protect from that? Do they get wet all the time and need something that dries easily? Perhaps they’re in a warm wet climate where most things would tend to rot away.
Perhaps you’re writing a story with space travel, or other hostile environments. You’ll need protective clothing. But, especially as things progress, you’ll want comfort and convenience just as much as convenience. And if many people use it, space gear is something less specialised than it is in our current world, style is going to creep into it somewhat. But maybe not much. Wetsuits aren’t exactly stylish even now. Function still comes first.
As I mentioned before, looks aren’t as important in written medium as in something highly visual. Coolness is valid though, and if anyone ever wants to do cosplay from your books, details are going to be appreciated. Cosplay plans are what got me thinking about this topic to be properly honest.
I’m planning to have a few posts talking about designing costumes from books, both generally and very specifically. I also want to talk about worldbuilding clothes for specific characters in whatever your writing. I was tempted to make that part of this post, but I’ve already rambled enough for one day. I am excited, so hopefully they will come soon, but we will see.
Farewell, adios, be at peace until we meet again.