Costumes reflect both a character’s culture and personality. Everything in their environment shapes the way they dress. Unless you have a professional costumer to defer to, costuming is left to the worldbuilder. When done right, a costume tells a story all on its own.
What we wear has two main purposes: function and expression. The functional aspects of clothing are dictated by the wearer’s occupation and location. The expressive aspects of clothing are the elements of dress that exist purely for visual communication. This includes: the denotation of status, class, allegiance, gender, sexual orientation, and personal opinion.
The superfluous gears and cogs of steampunk, the absent holsters of the Star Trek uniform, and the uterus empowering tummy exposure of superheroines all illustrate that function is the bane of costumers’ existence. It’s true, practicality can get in the way of a “look.” However, the function behind clothing can be the worldbuilder’s best friend, especially when they are trying to create fashion for fantasy or science fiction genres. “What do people do while wearing this clothing?” and “Where do they do it?” are often the easiest questions to answer, and answering them will guide your research into appropriate solutions.
Clothing has been crucial to our expansion across the world, allowing us to survive outside of our natural environment. With the right clothing, we can withstand the extremes our planet has to offer. Those extremes might include:
- Temperature: The temperature dictates how much skin can be exposed, how thick or thin the clothes need to be, and what materials are needed to make them.
- Radiation: From flesh-dissolving exposure to mundane sunlight, radiation dictates whether it’s safe to show skin and if your characters will require hats, parasols, sunglasses, or full-coverage radiation suits.
- Water: Whether as precipitation, in lakes or rivers, or as crashing waves, water dictates whether or not – and to what extent – the characters need to be waterproofed. Things like rubber boots, umbrellas, and wide brimmed hats could meet those needs.
- Wind: The strength of the wind dictates how securely clothing must be fastened, and how quickly those umbrellas and wide brimmed hats will blow away.
- Surfaces: The nature of the ground – pavement, cobblestones, sand, rocks, ice, mud, or covered in grass – will shape the shoes characters wear.
The occupation and/or recreational activities of characters will also affect what functions their clothing serves, such as:
- Protection: Characters often require specialized protection, since heroes tend to have dangerous occupations: hard hats for construction workers, armor for knights, goggles for airship pilots. Each occupation comes with necessary gear. What does your character need to be protected from? Fire, blinding light, falling objects, water, toxins, and combat are all occupational hazards that must be handled in order for your character to avoid injury.
- Mobility: The range of motion or lack thereof will dictate how well your character can do their job. Ninjas, Roman soldiers, and speed-based superheroes all tend to choose agility over shielding.
- Tools: Nearly every job comes with its own tools. How those tools are carried is dictated by need and practicality. Batman, for example, needs a utility belt, not a tool box; he has to access his tools on the go. Theater techs are in a similar position. They need a tool belt because they work at the top of tall ladders. How quickly does your character need to access their tools and/or weapons, and which of them will they choose to carry with them?
Consider whether your characters require augmentation. If so, what kind is available? Augmentation has two different purposes:
- Enabling the Disabled: The most common occurrence of enhancement technology is assisting the disabled. Whether your characters use wheelchairs and glasses, or hoverchairs and robotic eyes, they’re not aiming to transcend humanity. These characters use technology to access parts of the human experience that their anatomy has denied them, such as mobility, communication, and the five senses.
- Transcendence of Humanity:* Our clothing and accessories allow us to exceed our physical limitations. Stilts increase height, jet packs/boots give flight, and solar-paneled fabric gathers energy. Bluetooth devices and Google Glass extend our ability to communicate and access information through accessories. While there are endless ways to augment a body to exceed natural limitations, a culture will only create what they need. Clothes are tools and every tool requires a purpose.
Humans are visual and social creatures. No matter the culture, clothing is usually one of the ways we communicate. Fashion takes on a language of its own that, for the untrained eye, can become rapidly cryptic. While the code behind visual cues varies, what is being communicated through them remains constant: status, gender, sexuality, and allegiances.
Civilization means hierarchy, and clothing is used to denote status. Most often, what clothes are available to whom is dictated by material production and economy. For those with low status, they are allotted the materials that exist in abundance and are easy to refine, because that is what they can afford. Those of high status can afford to show off rare and labor-intensive materials. Sometimes a culture will go one step further, banning the newly rich from finery enjoyed by the established, or the nobility.
What is rare depends on the world and time period. Metals, dyes, silks, or industrial materials are likely to be scarce. In our world, the Industrial Revolution profoundly changed fashion. Before the creation of an abundance of varied cheap clothing, the poor typically had two primary outfits: one for work, and one for celebrations. With access to an enlarged wardrobe, the lower classes began to use their dress to express mood and identity. Status is presented differently from culture to culture. Typically, the display of abundance is a theme, but core values change the way it is expressed.
A culture filled with gentry is characterized by leisure. Typically the elite have delegated most of the work to the lower classes, creating for themselves an excess of time. They may still use force in specific circumstances, such as a duel of honor, but for them, charm can be an equally powerful tactic. They must appeal to those of higher status than themselves. Their fashion may be pulled from the natural world, inspired by species that have evolved to draw attention to themselves: flowers, fruits, ornamental birds, and so on.
Non-working classes can show off their abundance without worrying about being encumbered. Their clothes can be voluminous and heavy, and jewelry and fabric can be exceedingly fragile, because there is no expectation of practical movement. Elaborate and delicate decoration is inherently expensive to produce, so it becomes another means to display wealth.
In contrast, warrior cultures may be defined by constant battle or constant movement. While there might be displays of abundance through the use of costly materials, the focus would be on fight readiness. They may value clothing that doubles as durable armor. Because dominance in such a culture is won through strength, the ability to be charming is not valued. A warrior’s status may be illustrated using clothes that appear intimidating, perhaps drawing visuals from predatory animals or spoils of war: scalps, bones, teeth, or pelts.
The expression of wealth in high tech societies may be shaped by advances in medicine. Services such as plastic surgery and cosmetics would enable the rich to keep their bodies in a state of near perfection. In a culture such as this, high status clothes could be very revealing and made with little material. In such a world, where physical materials have become abundant, wealth may instead be displayed in the form of designer and brand names.
Gender and Sexuality
If your characters are part of a species that uses sexual reproduction between two or more sexes, there is likely to be sexual dimorphism; physical differences between biological sexes. (Self replicating and hermaphroditic creatures, if they are all equally capable of reproduction, obviously won’t.) Sexual dimorphism occurs naturally, but for us humans, the concepts of male and female have transcended our anatomy and have become symbolic: gender. Visual cues to denote sex have become tools to express gender identity. Cisgendered, transgendered and genderqueer individuals may all use gendered clothing to exaggerate or contradict their biological sex. On Earth, we have yet to invent clothing symbolism that expresses gender identities outside of the binary. We are limited to clothing that either emphasizes femininity, emphasizes masculinity, or doesn’t make a strong statement about gender. Your culture might be different. It could have clothing that advertises an additional gender, or signals an agendered status.
Advertising one’s sex can expedite the process of finding a sexual partner or partners. Generally, the differences created by sexual dimorphism tend to be considered attractive: women’s increased hip to waist ratio, men’s widened shoulders and jaw. As a result, clothes have often been designed to advertise our sex. Corsets, shoulder pads, and makeup have all been used to reproduce and exaggerate existing sexual dimorphism.
In addition to exaggeration, there may also be purely symbolic gendered fashion symbols. As they are symbolic, they will vary from culture to culture and have no hard and fast rules about what they are or when they change. For example, in the West, male children and female children are associated with blue and pink, respectively. This originates from arbitrary decisions made by clothing manufacturers. Baby clothes had previously been gender neutral. Rumors that the wrong-colored jumper could pervert a child prevented the reuse and sharing of baby clothes between boys and girls. This pushed parents to buy more clothes than they needed.
Just as advertising one’s sex can expedite the process of finding a sexual partner, so does advertising sexual preferences. Those interested in a same-sex partner may break away from their gender-assigned dress in order to indicate that they are not interested in the opposite sex. Sexual preference is not limited to sexual orientation. The abstinence community has their promise rings. Furries wear their tails and ears. Practitioners of BDSM wear subtle collars or cuffs. Depending on the tolerance of the culture, sexual preference cues range in their subtlety. In cultures where heteronormativity or other strict sexual norms are enforced, clothing used as visual cues for sexual orientation or preference will generally be extremely subtle or nonexistent.
Patriarchy, Matriarchy and Equality
Another purpose of gendered attire comes back to the designation of class. Whether it is a matriarchy or patriarchy, like in many caste systems, the differentiation of clothes will denote the hierarchy. The Ferengi from Star Trek are a perfect example of this; their costumes are completely dedicated to the presentation of status. As Ferengi females had no status, they were naked by law. In this situation, the gendered dress predesigned to augment sexual dimorphism gets tied to the concept of dominant and submissive castes. Ishka wears clothes to symbolize her empowerment, and when Quark is forced to cross dress he is mortified to present himself as lesser.
In extreme cases, when one sex is considered property of the other, the dominant sex may use the other as a means to display status. Would-be spouses, children and slaves will be decorated to be more appealing, so they are easier to sell, trade, or contract in marriage. The decorations may extend to physical alterations, such as long nails or foot binding. Nonfunctional hands and feet illustrate a person does not have to perform physical labor, thus advertising their owner’s prosperity. This practice can be seen in the Clone Wars episode Monster. The Nightsisters, a matriarchy, sell one of their men to be a warrior for Count Dooku. In preparation for the sale, the male, Opress, is altered and decorated. Magic elongates his horns and increases his muscle mass. His clothes exaggerate the broadness of his shoulders, and he is armored. These changes are designed to make him more appealing to the buyer.
What is considered gender neutral attire can be shaped by a culture’s gender hierarchy. Matriarchy or patriarchy, the dominant gender tends to be considered the “default” while the lesser gender is considered the “other.” This results in patriarchies viewing masculine dress as “neutral” and feminine dress as sexualized.
Gendered dress does not inherently indicate that one sex is dominant over the other. However, a culture that is built upon gender equality has less reason to enforce a gendered dress code. While the influences created by sexual dimorphism may remain in fashion, they would not carry the same concepts of dominance and submission that they do in a hierarchy divided by gender.
Are the genders in your world treated as equals? How is gender expressed? What gender does your character identify as? How much do they define themselves by their gender?
Across cultures, different body parts are fetishized and vilified. When a culture dictates that a part of the body has to be covered up, it endows “it” with symbolic power. This power can be considered positive or negative. Genitalia has both positive and negative symbolic power in many cultures. An extreme example from Nigeria is “the curse of the nakedness.” The curse is performed by women exposing their genitals to those they desire to curse. With this exposure they say, “We hereby take back the life we gave you.”
Geisha’s wrists and Victorian ankles owe their desirability and taboo to the restrictive dress codes of their respective time periods. Bare breasts, while in our culture are considered sexual and immodest to display, are considered normal by the Himba in northern Namibia. Instead, they view bare thighs as indecent. By covering up skin or specific body parts, a society artificially creates value for those areas covered by making them rarely seen. This creates a common phenomena in patriarchal societies: there is a desire to see naked women, but the act of a woman revealing herself “degrades” or “cheapens” her.
In many cultures, religion plays a heavy role in how the naked body is perceived. A belief that biological urges stand in the way of our spiritual ascension may motivate the enforced covering of the body. In contrast, a belief that the body is a perfect creation may encourage nudity. Whatever the stated reason, the dress code constructed by religious beliefs exists partially to illustrate allegiance to that religion.
Modesty and Consent: A Public Service Announcement
The repetition of a uniform builds familiarity on a psychological level. It masks individuality in order to encourage those who wear them to view each other as the same. In essence, it works on the “us versus them” mentality, creating an “us” that the wearer belongs to. Uniforms are also utilized to keep track of those wearing them. Organizations that use them want their students, soldiers, prisoners, and employees to be easily identifiable.
Especially in American fiction, which often uses uniforms to symbolize fascism, it is easy to see uniforms as scary. Uniforms in fiction are often used to communicate the loss of individuality, loss of power, or institutionalized brainwashing. While uniforms can be used to elicit fear, they are also utilized to communicate positive forms of solidarity. In Star Trek, for example, the Starfleet uniform was used to show humans united in a hopeful utopian future.
Uniformity is not bound by the limits of militia, fast food chains, or education centers. Most people dress under the guidelines of what appears “normal” in response to peer pressure. Depending on the culture, normalcy traverses a range from accepted diversity to rigid uniformity. As normal is relative, the worldbuilder dictates what is the enforced norm in their culture.
For every culture there is a counter culture. However, fashion is not just defined by conformity and nonconformity. Fashion is a form of expression, so it is logical that within fashion there is dialogue. We use our clothes to express our personal opinions – from acceptance to defiance. Just as we advertise our gender and orientation to attract mates, we advertise our interests in order to attract like minds.
Subcultures generally rely on two things: free time and a large community. Subcultures each have their own fashions that are used to express allegiance. If resources are so scarce that survival takes all of the community’s energy, there is little left over for self expression. Art, math, and science all took off once there was a food surplus, and it is no different for fashion. In general, prosperity leads to time and resources that can be dedicated to self expression. Small communities, like tiny towns and villages, can maintain uniformity through peer pressure. Larger communities, like cities, are too large to maintain a cohesive community. They naturally subdivide, leading to diversity. The internet, by creating many virtual communities, has massively furthered diversity in fashion, as it has in all forms of expression.
Costuming is not at its best when it is viewed as a process where the creative “makes stuff up.” There are many costumers who endeavor to design costumes that just “look cool.” Costuming shines when the characters appear to dress themselves. If what they wear reflects their culture and how they relate to it, then the costume has achieved its purpose: to enrich the story.
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