Fashion is a part of worldbuilding that can sometimes be overlooked and/or done incorrectly. Sure, you could just slap all of your nobles into modern high fashion… but should you? Depends on the world. And sometimes you really shouldn’t. Today I want to talk about a few concepts to think about while developing your fantasy fashions that will make your worldbuilding richer and more believable.
Fantasy Fashion Ought to be Practical
There are two facets to this. First, your characters’ clothing ought to reflect the climate and landscape that they live in. Fashion will be very different in the cold and rocky heights of the mountains than in the humid, muddy rainforest. If you’re writing about the clothes worn in the rainforest, how does tailoring account for bugs? For the heat? For protection against sunburn? For walking through undergrowth? For mud? For rainstorms? Are hoods a big fashion element? Are boots? Is a natural bug repellent woven into textiles?
While clothing might not always make perfect sense (as I’ll talk about in the next point), it should cover the most obvious needs. Plus, exploring the potential values of clothing pieces in a certain setting can bring out some fascinating ideas for making your fantasy fashion unique and memorable.
When Fashion Doesn’t Make Sense
Now I’m going to go completely counter to my previous point and tell you that clothing doesn’t always have to make sense. Cape sleeves are purely for the aesthetic. High heels may have had a use once (and low heels still do, in horse-riding contexts), but now they’re also largely for looks. And have you seen a high fashion runway? Some of those models are wearing pillows barely disguised as clothes. Your fantasy fashion can have certain elements that are purely aesthetic, but it ought to make sense for the culture. If your culture values minimalism, they’re not likely to have a lot of accessories or useless clothing elements. If your culture values function, the same is true. If, however, your culture values show or wealth, they might have a lot more fashion elements without a practical use. The key is to make it make sense.
If you decide to add a fun extra element to your fantasy fashion, consider asking why the culture it belongs to would have chosen that element. Are the cape sleeves purely a creative choice, or are they designed to make the wearer look more powerful? Is that jewelry purely decorative, or is it imbued with magical protection? Maybe the gears in your steampunk world are purely aesthetic… but they chose gears because they value engineering and machines.
Fantasy Fashion Ought to Reflect Cultural Values
I touched on this some in the previous paragraph, but fashion ought to reflect what a culture values. Whether this be through its decorations, through its overall design, through its modesty standards, etc. In some cases, fashion will directly reflect cultural values—say, in a culture that embroiders historical events onto clothing items. In most cases, it’ll be more subtle. Let’s go back to modesty standards. How do the culture’s values influence what it believes is or is not modest for people to wear? Are they strict on chastity, so both genders stay quite covered? Do they value art and believe the human body is part of that, so they’re more lax with their standards? Do they fall in the middle? Are they more strict about modesty with one gender than the other? Are there other factors like control involved in what is or isn’t considered modest? (We’ll explore that a little more in the next point.)
It could also be fun to explore how different sub-cultures feel about these guidelines. Do they all adhere to the general guidelines of their larger culture, or do they subvert them or ignore them completely based on their own conflicting values?
Fantasy Fashion as Tradition
Fashion serves a practical purpose, an aesthetic purpose, and a cultural purpose. And another part of that cultural purpose is tradition. When you think about fashion and tradition, you likely think of events such as weddings and funerals, where the clothing is distinct because the event is distinct. That’s definitely an important consideration. What colors are worn at weddings? What do they represent (luck, purity, fertility)? How about mourning clothes? Are they black, to represent the darkness of the grave? Dark blue and glittery to represent the stars where the dead now dwell? Red to represent vengeance for a victim of murder?
But that’s not the only way clothing can be used as tradition. Take the embroidering of historical events from before, for example. In that case, the embroidery serves as a reminder of valued events. The act of embroidery might be a reminder to keep the lessons from history and use them in everyday life.
Simply the act of wearing a certain piece of clothing might also serve as tradition. Masks or veils have historically been used as symbols of modesty or as a means of dehumanizing those who wear them. Tradition is a repeated behavior to reinforce a belief, and putting on a piece of clothing is a repeated behavior which can have beliefs tied to it. Perhaps a belt not only supports your clothing, but also reminds you of who or what supports you.
Something like a crown can also be a form of tradition, serving to remind the ruler of their responsibility or to reinforce a belief that they are superior, whether reinforcing it to themselves or to those who see them.
What pieces of fantasy fashion in your culture might have beliefs attached to them, leading to tradition?
Using Real-World Influence
While thinking through your culture’s unique values, location, and traditions can make your fantasy fashion designs unique, drawing from real-world fashion can also contribute to this. That seems backwards, doesn’t it? How can drawing from something familiar make your design different? Well, because no one will combine elements in the same way you do and no one will draw from exactly the same concepts as you do. I’ve been working on the fashion of a world that is connected to earth, and I’ve been exploring how real-world elements might be combined with traditional fantasy styles. Personally, I love the structured bodices in Victorian dresses, so I’ve used that as a consistent piece for one culture. I also like 1910s vests, so I’ve used those in another culture. In some cases I’ve blended fashion eras, trying to keep a fantasy flavor to my designs as well. But while I like Victorian bodices and 1910s vests, you might like 1920s drop waists or Victorian bustles or sheer necklines and sleeves from the modern era. Taking what you like about real-world fashion and tying it in with the fantasy world pieces you’ve uncovered through these other points will create one-of-a-kind concepts that will make your world and the fashion in it stand out.
Your turn! Have you thought about fantasy fashion before? What’s your favorite part of the design process? Do you draw your designs, piece them together in collages or Pinterest boards, or just work them out in your head? What’s the best fantasy fashion you’ve come across (in a book, movie, TV show, DeviantArt page…)?