This isn’t a nudist colony; put some clothes on your characters!
Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Oh, Sweet Baby Jesus, congratulations to us. We’ve finally made it to the end of this worldbuilding series, and if you’ve read this whole thing, you deserve a gold star. Two gold stars, even. I wanted to make this my last post in my series because often, clothing is the last thing that authors think about for their characters. Poetic, right? I thought so.
What do people wear?
What we wear is a reflection of our personality, and what our wants are...most of the time. There are always exceptions to the rule, like having to wear a school uniform or living in a time period or country that has religious restrictions on the type of clothing people—women, especially—can wear.
Names of certain types of clothes can be a little tricky. When you go into specific articles, you can either do a fantastic job of describing it so there’s no question as to what the character is wearing, or you can name it. For the latter option, I would highly recommend adding A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion: Historic and Modern into your library.
Is it era-appropriate?
This is mostly going to be for the people who are writing historical fiction or historical fantasy, but it can be useful if you’re making up your world and having it set in an era based on Earth’s history like myself. First, you’ll need to figure out what century your story will be set in, be it the late 1800s during the Victorian or in the Renaissance in the 1300s.
My recommendation for an amazing visual guide—sometimes you don’t know what you’re looking for until you see it, you know?—to putting realistic clothing in your world is What People Wore When. This book has served me, and others, very well. If you want the basics of what not to do in your fantasy world (or real-world Historical Fictions!), I’d give Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (& Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths a read.
Girl, that dress was so last season.
Do your characters care about fashion trends? If they do, you’re going to need to figure out if they’re going to be the same fashion trends that we see in the real world, or if you’re going to be making them up all on your own. Maybe your fashion trend is going to be golden brassiers with flowing gossamer dresses that end in a cathedral train. Would it be ugly? Sure would. But beauty standards are determined by the masses following suit, not one person's opinion on how ugly a thing might be. And that’s also not to say that there aren’t ironic trends, where the wearing knows that the fashion is hideous but wears it anyway to fit in.
Another thing you’ll need to consider about fashion trends is what happens if someone doesn’t follow them. Will they be a social outcast? Will anyone care? Only you can prevent forest fires decide.
The richness of our clothes often reflects the wealth that the wearer has. So what are going to be some indicators in your world that someone is of a higher social class? Will they have lace collars that are made by nuns in the mountains who hand rear silkworms like they’re heaven on earth? Or will they have a jacket or dress made out of handmade velvet that can only be produced eight inches per day, costing $250 per yard? Do they have a dress dyed with the ridiculously rare and expensive ultramarine? Are they dripping with jewels?
On the flip side, how is someone shown as poor? Do they have holes in their clothes? Do they wear clothes made only of muslin? Is there a certain style of dress that the poor wear, such as plain day dresses rather than fancier dresses that require hoop skirts or bumrolls? Something as simple as length of fabric is a big indicator too since more fabric means a greater cost. Certain types of fabrics that are affordable to the masses? Do they only have simple silver or gold wedding bands when they marry instead of lavish precious stones—or have no jewelry at all?
I left this out of my talk about culture in You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? so that I could talk about it here. These are going to be outfits that people wear at religious ceremonies, like a white robe at a baptism or a lehenga at an Indian wedding.
So what traditions will you have a specific dress for? Will you have coming of age ceremonies where a teen becomes a woman and wears a wedding dress for all to see she’s marriageable—similar in a way to a quinceañera. Will you have solstice celebrations where men and women have certain clothes to wear and certain ways to do their hair? Do your religious orders have ceremonial robes that they were day-to-day or only on high holy days?
Knowing your traditions and what people wear for them will help make your world richer and more relatable to our everyday lives.
This is also something that I left out in another blog post—This Means War! in case you were wondering—because it was already astronomically long, and it would fit better in this post anyway. However, this section isn’t going to focus solely on military uniforms, but uniforms in general.
So what do people in your world need uniforms for? Do you have schools that only wear uniforms for their everyday wear so that all the students have to think about are their studies? Does your military have all one uniform, or do they have a daily working uniform and a dress uniform? Several dress uniforms? What colors are they?
Does your police force have a certain uniform, or do they wear normal clothes to do their jobs with a pin indicating their profession? Do your sports teams that have uniforms? What about prisons? Though, for some of these, it’s less a matter of whether they exist, but whether you need to mention them in your story.
Thanks for sticking it out with my worldbuilding series. Join us next week when we give some tips on taking an author photo.
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