We’re all familiar those fantasy books where the “normal” girl ends up in a magical world and goes around dressed like she walked out of a Zuhair Murad collection. There are mentions of corsets, but never consistently. She has someone to do her hair and make up in a way that fits modern sensibilities. No matter what, she matches the aesthetic™ of her surroundings. Worldbuilding continuity? Don’t know her.
But why the big fuss about fashion, does it really matter? Clothes are just clothes, right?
Spoiler alert: They’re not. Fashion is directly connected with culture, location, and self reflection. It’s influenced by current events, by cultural icons, religion, nearly everything that comprises civilization. Take for example the massive shift in fashion between the Rococo and Regency periods. 18th c. fashion was about displaying grandeur and wealth (Marie Antoinette didn’t have a ship wig for nothing), but by the time you get to the Romantic movement in the early 19th c., you have the typical Austen novel neoclassical ideals. The French Revolution saw a massive shift in cultural identity where showing wealth had been a cause for execution, not applause. Thus, a neoclassical revival and a focus on the simple rather than the complex.
Fashion isn’t an isolated aspect of culture; you can’t just sort through fantasy style boards on Pinterest and pick the ones you like for your world. Good worlds require attention to detail and a thoughtful link between fashion and aspects like technology, religion, and trade. And it’s not going to happen in a day.
It’s also helpful to have some of the basic facts of your world figured out by the time you consider fashion, but there’s no right order to go about it. Whether you start with a general setting and basic concepts of values and religion, entirely from scratch, or have years of planning underfoot, it’s about what works best for you. If it works, it works.
Without further ado, here are some questions you can ask yourself to create a coherent, believable fashion. And remember, don’t limit yourself to what you can already see in the real world. Some of the most compelling fantasy worlds are ones that don’t intersect with expectations.
1. What are the basic knowledge constraints of my culture? This can be as vague or detailed as you’d like. Does your culture have methods of spreading information like libraries? Are they technologically advanced enough to be able to produce a variety of fabrics? Are skills kept and passed down through families? Would they have sewing machines or factories for mass production? One of the easiest ways to address this question is doing some real world research. You can look up what tools certain cultures would have access to, what materials they would use, and therefore what kind of fabric they would make. Just make sure you know what approximate time period you’re looking at or your results will be all over the place.
2a. What does my culture consider attractive? This can be anything you want and will tie into other aspects like religion and class. There will be basic “all around” aspects of physical values. Maybe your culture values an androgynous look or they live in a cold climate and having certain structures of coat or fur is a status symbol. These general aspects of design tie into silhouettes as well, something that should be fairly consistent throughout your designing. If you look at the example below, despite the fact that the men’s fashions are spread over hundreds of years, you can see similar shapes evolving. Maybe it’s attractive to have wide shoulders, then your clothing will accentuate that and probably form a triangular silhouette with the point facing down.
b. Who does my culture consider attractive? This isn’t a necessary addition to your worldbuilding, but can be fun way to think about why people might wear what they do. Much of our fashion now is drawn from what celebrities wear. Designers may come up with creations, but their popularity passes to the rest of the world through who wears them. Fashion usually trickles down through classes the same way. If you have a society with a distinct class separation, change is probably going to start among the wealthy in a specific region, and the farther you get away, the less “fashionable” the people will be, simply because it takes time for whats “in fashion” to travel. Essentially, people who have money to spare are probably going to want to spend it on things to make them look nice.
3. How do morality and religion affect my culture’s ideals? Chances are, there are going to be aspects of your religion that carry over to fashion. Does your religion demand different standards of men and women? Are there integral parts of their worship that manifest in their dress? Are there different patterns/fabrics/colors that your religion would value or defame? There’s a reason that religion is such a widespread marker of cultural identity and it’s easy to use this to your advantage.
4a. What materials does my culture have access to? The main factor with this question is setting. Do they reside in warmer or cooler climates or both? What would they make fabric out of? This also brings into consideration trade and how your culture interacts with others. Are they on a river and can easily trade with incoming ships? Are they isolated in the mountains? This affects both utility and fabric. Utility is fairly easy to consider. Can people do the work they need to do in their clothes? Are they the right temperature? For example, if someone is doing farm work in the heat, they’re probably going to wear a sturdy shoe, clothes out of linen or cotton, and some kind of hat or headpiece.
b. What is their primary source of fabric? Fabric availability depends entirely on location, knowledge of tools, and trade. This is one of the aspects most rooted in the real world, unless you make up a fabric of your own. If you want to stick to easily recognizable fabric, there are plenty of lists just a search away. No matter what, you’re going to want to stick to natural fibers if you’re building a fantasy world. Here‘s a comprehensive list of fibers and fabric with a place of origin to give you a basic starting point if you want to do more research. It might seem irrelevant, but fabric also determines movement, garment construction, and utility.
5. What historical factors (recent or past) affect my culture? This ties into the politics of your region. Major shifts in cultural identity always manifest through fashion. Everything we put on our bodies is a conscious decision to display ourselves in a certain way. If there’s advocacy for some kind of change, then this will reflect in dress. In order to identify with a group of people, we dress the way we want to look to fit in. As exaggerated as it is, every stereotypical high school movie capitalizes on this effect. Conscious efforts to separate from generally-regarded cultural standards often go against the grain of “popular” fashion, especially when you examine what a culture’s fashion represents. Namely, if you’re writing about a period of revolution or political upheaval, people are probably going to be divided along visible lines depending on how they present themselves.
- Gender and sexuality can come into play as much or little as you’d like. We tend to think of gendered clothes automatically, but remember that you’re not limited to these constraints. Does your culture ignore gender entirely? Then things like masculinity/femininity wouldn’t be a factor at all. It’s easy to get bogged down in the limitations of the culture you’ve grown up in, but the most interesting worlds ignore preconceptions.
- You can ask yourself these questions and plan till the cows come home but ultimately, it’s up to you to sell these aspects of culture to your reader. Just remember that it should make sense. Beta readers are helpful in identifying what works/doesn’t from an outside perspective.
- You don’t have to include everything you plan in your manuscript, and you probably shouldn’t. Regardless of how much planning you do, chances are, not everything is going to make it into the final manuscript. Worldbuilding is the scaffolding you construct to support the story. Your first draft will have support everywhere, and oftentimes you’re still figuring everything out too. As you draft, you’ll take the scaffolding down bit by bit once you know how to convey the most amount of worldbuilding in as little space as possible.
- Beauty is entirely subjective and you should treat it as such. There’s no reason why you should be limited to what you would consider beautiful. Sure, it’s nice to have those fantasy dresses that look like they just walked off a modern runway, but where’s the fun in that?
- With all this said, terminology is great, but you still have to make it accessible to a reader who might not necessarily be familiar with all that great research you did. Want to still use the term of that rare fabric or type of weave? Include it, but use your judgement and slip in other ways to describe it without going overboard. Jargon is a fine line to walk.
Above all, always remember to do your research, especially if you’re basing your culture on a people you’re unfamiliar with and don’t have the perspective of. The quickest way to misrepresentation is using generalizations. Be aware of common mistakes and don’t think that you’re the exception who can execute it without being offensive. Avoid stereotypes at all costs.
Remember, there are no limitations! As long as it works within the constraints of your world, you’re good to go.