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More on practicality than anything else, with a few historical notes and style tips thrown in for good measure, because I don’t know Renaissance underwear from eighteenth-century sundew dresses.
Open stating of prejudices: I hate paragraph-long (or longer) descriptions of clothes in fantasy novels. Weirdly, I do not mind them at all in nineteenth-century novels or earlier, and the one fantasy series that ever got me to tolerate them was Brust’s Khaavren Romances, which is very skillful pastiche of Dumás. Mostly, I think it’s the style; they tend to sound right in the earlier literature, whereas a lot of fantasy authors violate their own storytelling method to suddenly present a giant geode-purple thing that I immediately skim. So that is why this isn’t more specific.
1) Weather and climate, hello.
Fantasy characters who bring along “a change of clothes” are ahead of the game, since it seems to make more sense than characters who run away with their beloved golden locket their sister gave them, but don’t bother to bring anything to wear or eat. However, when the character will be traveling through wild country, claims to have some experience in the wilderness, claims not to like pomp, and yet still packs gowns, I have a mild temper tantrum.
You have to integrate your character’s personality, background, eventual expectations—what she expects to be doing when she gets to her destination, and so on—and practicality. A spoiled princess who’s never been far outside the castle and thinks that every wood is like the king’s private park for hunting deer has the perfect excuse for packing large numbers of gowns. What else would she wear but a pretty dress when she rides sidesaddle? And of course the court she’s aiming for would want her to wear gowns, not icky practical clothing.
However, change the castle to a village surrounded by wilderness, the princess to a young woman who’s been in and out of the woods all her life (maybe working as a hunter and trapper), and the destination to a great city, and things are going to be a bit different. She knows that fragile clothing which will catch and rip easily on thorns and which won’t do a great deal to protect her from the weather isn’t welcome. Even if she takes along a gown for sentimental reasons or to wear when she gets to the city, I would expect it to be stuffed to the bottom of her pack and be the first thing to be abandoned (see point 2).
The more knowledge your character has of weather and climate, the more suitable the clothing he or she chooses for a journey should be. Even if they aren’t the sensible ones, you have to be. Don’t contradict yourself by claiming the character knows how to survive from a druid mentor and then making her wander about cluelessly in a corset and gown creaking with whalebone.
2) Clothing can get damn heavy to carry.
It might not seem like much, after all. A tunic, a shirt, a few pairs of trousers (or leggings, or whatever else the author has chosen to call them), some heavier clothes in case of winter, gloves or mittens, undergarments…
Yeah. You see the problem. And a change of clothes is less essential to someone traveling in most fantasy landscapes, all things considered, than any of the following:
- A means of making fire.
- Horse fodder.
- Cooking utensils (or at least a bowl to gather water in).
- Shelter of some kind (unless the character is expert at contriving shelter from the wilderness).
- Tools for taking care of weapons (spare bowstrings and arrows, whetstones, oil…)
- Any extra materials that that particular person is not going to leave behind (sentimental keepsakes, plot-important Mysterious Artifacts, horns, special hunting implements, extra weapons, and so on).
If the going gets tough, the tough should give some thought to abandoning non-essential clothing. This could be an excellent rite of passage for a young hero/ine who’s never been out of his/her village before. “But leave my second-best tunic behind? Why? What do you mean, we need more room for food? By the way, I’m hungry. When’s lunch?”
Even better, have the characters remain in the same clothes and not bathe as frequently. Yes, it’ll itch, and one aspect of fantasy quests that gets underplayed like hell is the feeling of dirt and dried sweat and blood and insects against the skin. But it’s probably the most practical solution in a lot of situations, particularly when the party’s being pursued by enemies, is supposedly used to harsh conditions (the way that so many “experienced” characters insist on stopping to bathe in near-winter and while in danger, you might start not believing them), and is more focused on getting somewhere alive than getting there looking like dress-up dolls.
3) Consider what kind of fabrics, dyes, and accessories to clothing are available in your world.
Most fantasy authors will avoid the obvious slip-ups, like calling clothes “neon green,” describing them as made of nylon, or talking about zippers and Velcro. But more common than historical inaccuracy is inconsistency. At one point, the character’s shirt laces shut; at another point, when his lover is impatiently trying to strip the same shirt off, she complains about the buttons.
This is one of the perils of describing clothing in detail, and people will notice, the same way that if you go around naming everyone’s eye color and then change a minor character’s eyes from “emerald green” to “flashing blue,” someone will notice. Do whatever you have to do to get past it. Keep lists, memorize what a particular piece of clothing looks like after the initial description, worldbuild on clothes enough so you know exactly how this particular shirt shuts, just don’t describe how it shuts the second time—do whatever you have to do to keep the fantasy world consistent unto the last and smallest.
Do your characters have cotton clothing? Does the cotton grow in the same country, or is it imported? Wool? Where are the sheep? Silk? Where are the silkworms? Furs? Where are the animals with pelts fine enough or fashionable enough or warm enough to be worth hunting for their skins? Of course, it’s always possible to cheat and say, “Well, these characters are so rich that they can order clothes from wherever they like.” But deciding things like whether this is an import or an export can help you worldbuild, backwards if you like—from the small to the large. Deciding that most peasants wear wool clothing because most peasants are sheep farmers demands a certain kind of climate, terrain, and economy, and makes it unlikely that a noble would wear cotton clothing unless a fashion for slumming or “playing peasant” were introduced (see point 4).
What about dyes? Indigo comes from plants that may be forbidden by your country’s climate, or your particular setting might not have the technology to get the dye out, so that rare, true indigo color would be very highly prized. Other dyes might be grown or produced closer to home, making them cheaper—although a particular merchant family could always try to start a monopoly and drive the price up. And if you’re looking for a slightly exotic import from a foreign kingdom, dyes make a nice change from silks and spices.
Laces, ties, buttons, little chains, and so on are all possible means of shutting one’s clothing. Of course, perhaps the fashion in court this winter is for the clothing to be lightly tied and fall open the moment someone makes a harsh movement. Decide, and also decide whether an adventurer going into the wilderness is really going to wear something like that (point 1 again).
4) Clothing is a useful distinguishing factor between classes.
Elizabethan England had “sumptuary laws” to prevent a member of one class from simply dressing up as another, and at some points they were quite detailed and intricate—not only who could wear what kind of garment, but who could wear what kind of cloth, what length it could be, what the garment itself could look like (a duchess and a maid would look quite different even though they might both be wearing what you would technically call a “dress”) and so on. You had to be able to tell people one from another, because, after all, if duchesses and maids started looking the same, who knew where the madness would end?
In a class-obsessed fantasy society, this might be a good idea. It might be a good one even if your fantasy society is currently “classless,” in the way that many of them tend to be; servants are the prince’s best buddies, there’s no tension between merchants and the city poor, the peasants just love their lords, and so on. The choice as to whether or not to have clothing rules can even be part of broader class decisions. Is your society really classless? Then why bother with the names for specific ranks? Is it truly class-bound, with some reactionaries as well as revolutionaries? Then where are the markers that say so? Clothing’s a convenient place to start.
Of course, one can go too far with this. I’ve read a few fantasy stories where all a peasant girl has to do is put on a princess’s gown and jewels, and suddenly she’s getting bowed and “Your Highness”-ed to with no sign that anyone notices a difference. But clothing doesn’t change the look of someone’s face, or the color of someone’s skin (a peasant girl would most likely have far more calluses, broken nails, sunburns, and so on than a princess), or someone’s manners and memories. Beware of using a change of clothing as a too-convenient disguise.
5) Match the pace and detail of the clothes’ description to the viewpoint character.
I’ll briefly explore the minds of two different characters here. We’ll call them Annia and Mara.
Annia is a young girl who’s been snatched into the court from working in the fields and presented as a nobleman’s potential consort (it was mostly a cruel joke, but no one’s told her that yet). She’s had servants wash her, prepare her hair, and help her with her clothing for the first time in her life, and now she’s getting to see how the higher side lives. Being dazzled and awed is a reasonable reaction. Having the court scene proceed slowly, with big long descriptions of everyone’s clothing in breathless detail, would not actually faze me, because it matches Annia’s state of mind. I would be puzzled if she knew the names of sorts of clothing that she’d never seen before, but someone could explain them to her.
Now envision the same scene, but with a distinctly different character, Mara. Mara is a six-thousand-year-old undead winged thing (let’s say a gargoyle crossed with a harpy) who’s been awakened from her sleep by a sorcerer and sent to the court to kidnap the prince. Mara’s not happy, not impressed with the court’s feeble attempt to imitate past empires, and mostly focused on snatching the prince so that she can get away from there. As she hangs upside down from the room’s ceiling, unnoticed because the architect’s ambition exceeded the court’s budget and no lamps shed light that high, she’s tense, feeling the presence of another sorcerer in the room. She might well focus in on little details, but they will be the details that could tell her who the sorcerer is, not the details of court clothing that Annia’s so impressed by. And she will always have to keep an eye on the prince, of course, and she’ll be noticing things in quick little gulps, conscious of moments going by, when any moment could be the one she’ll have to move. Languid, dreamy descriptions of clothing that go on for paragraphs and paragraphs are out-of-place here.
Don’t let the desire to show off worldbuilding skill, the important modifications you’ve come up with, or how pretty Annia looks overshadow the purpose of this scene. If it’s to introduce the clothing, from the viewpoint of a character who would have good reason to notice it, fine. If it’s not, then cut down the descriptions. This is one place where I think authors most often violate their own previous style, which could have been quite laconic, pacing, and storytelling sense for random purple muck. I don’t really know why. I can only conclude that most people are more fascinated by clothing than I am.
6) Make sure modifications you introduce to clothing are practical.
It’s fun to try and design unusual clothing for an unusual character. How do you outfit someone with wings, or a tail, or hooves, or all of those at once? How do you make someone with such body modifications look “normal” until the dramatic revelation? What kind of mask could make it safe for the hero to walk into an enemy’s stronghold? What will reliably imitate a hunchback, induce a certain way of moving, flatter the character who has non-human eye or hair or skin tones?
However, even if weather and climate aren’t a concern for this kind of clothing because the masked party (or whatever) is all going to happen indoors, there are other concerns. How easy will it be for a guardswoman who has to walk and dance like a much daintier one, until the time’s right to spring out and arrest the bastard, to kick the dress aside? I’d suggest having her practice first, especially if she never wears dresses. Otherwise, she could get herself tangled up in the skirt, or it might not tear the way she wants it to, or the corset could interfere when she tries to draw her sword.
A young noblewoman with bells in her hair spies two suspicious men moving off to talk. She sneaks after them. With bells in her hair? Unless she’s been specifically trained to walk silently with them, which I suppose could be in fashion, it would be best if she took them out first. Or the two men could come around the corner and catch her, of course, although that doesn’t happen often enough to eavesdropping heroines.
A mask covering the hero’s face until he could get close to his enemy might be a beautiful work of art, shadowing his eyes so that their color can’t be seen and covering his hair completely. However, unless the mask is also a beautiful magical work of art, it’s not going to do anything about his voice. Having the hero speak to the villain before he takes his mask off could ruin the whole thing.
Keep an eye out for these. There’s a point at which the fantasy author’s neat little inventions have to start meeting reality. And really, isn’t it more fun that way?
Quiet moments or holidays next, depending on what I feel like.