Clothing: The Beauty & Function of Garb

C is for Clothing...
C is for Clothing…

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Clothing and fashion is a topic near and dear to my heart – fashion designer was one of the careers I wanted before deciding on writer

My mother started teaching me how to sew when I was seven (maybe six? It’s been a long time since then. Well over 20 years.) and clothes are about the only thing I can draw, as long as I’ve been given a croquis to work with. I’ve worked with enough fabric over the years, and put together enough patterns – and even put together some things without patterns – that I know how clothes work. How they come together. What shapes you need to put together and manipulate to get a garment to look a certain way.

We’re all familiar with the oh-so-elegant clothes and armor covering the fronts of books, with so very little realism.

Please don’t do that. The only people in any world who dress impractically are either people who don’t know better (which is enabled by our technology-reliant lifestyle), or the rich. The people who have to work – and work hard – to survive are the ones who develop everyday fashion. The items that have to be sturdy and reliable, and warm or cool as the weather calls for it.

Learning about textiles is also a very important part of fashion, and it can impact the type of clothing you design while world-building.

Above all, research. If you’re doing a medieval fantasy, do research into what type of textiles were readily available in actual medieval times for the specific setting you’re writing (though settings like that are usually pseudo-European). I’ll give you one hint: not cotton, especially for peasants. The availability of cotton that we’re spoiled with today has only happened in the last 200 years.

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So, what are things we need to consider?

TEXTILES

What textiles are readily available, either through trade or cultivation? Fibers can come from multiple sources, whether local or distant. They can be grown from plants (think of linen, which is made from flax; hemp; cotton) or animals (wool; silk).

What is the most commonly available textile, the fabric even the poorest wear?

What’s the most expensive textile? Is it limited to certain people, or is it available to whoever can afford it?

CLIMATE

What is the climate like?

What elements do your characters need to protect themselves against in their natural environment?

There’s a reason the Eskimos wear fur, and a reason why the Egyptians cultivated cotton. Each is appropriate for the environment they lived in. Hint: Leather is not a good choice to wear around a lot of water – it soaks water in, it does not repel it. Leather can be made waterproof, but it has to be maintained, and someone on a long journey is less likely to be able to keep up that maintenance. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, just keep it in the back of your mind.

FUNCTION
Body image

What is accentuated, and what is hidden?

What is fetishized or taboo, and why? How does it affect the styles of garments?

Social status

What sort of life does the character wearing a garment lead?

What kind of upkeep can they afford to maintain?

Do they have someone to help them get dressed, if the garment has complicated fastenings in hard-to-reach places?

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How durable does a garment need to be?

What kind of elements will it be exposed to?

To Hem It Up (Pun Definitely Intended)…

Look at cultures and climates that are similar to the one(s) you’re constructing. When you compare the climate with their resources, do you start to see a correlation?

The Original Image (Which has been cropped, edited, and flipped) for the banner on this post was taken by Liga_Eglite under a CC by 2.0 License.

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29 thoughts on “Clothing: The Beauty & Function of Garb

    1. I… will usually ‘see’ a characters clothes before I see what their face looks like, lol. A clothing description doesn’t always make it into the story, but I can learn a lot about my characters just by asking them why they’re wearing what they do.

      And consistency is good! Depending on the climate, a character being properly (or improperly) garbed can be the difference between life and death!

  1. My mother taught all of us girls to sew, but I never could get the hang of it. Probably because I kept stabbing myself with that needle. 🙂

    I describe clothing only if it’s important to the scene or the social structure of the world building. Glad it wasn’t left to me to sew for them too. They’d be left naked.

    1. I’ve actually sewn my finger with the sewing machine before. Or, rather, it was an embroidery machine. Amazingly, I didn’t lose the nail.

      I will admit that sometimes I purposefully make clothing important in a story. Because I love describing it. But I try not to go overboard – I’ve actually had a couple of my critique partners tell me they always skim over clothing descriptions, but they don’t skim mine because I make them interesting!

  2. I didn’t even realize how much attention I pay to clothes. In all of my fantasy stories (which, lets be honest, are ALL of them), I do devote a pretty substantial amount of attention deciding what they’ll wear, how functional it is, does it denote their status well? It wasn’t until I read your post that I even REALIZED I do this. LOL! I just see my characters, and the clothes are a part of who they are. GREAT post!

  3. Have you ever read Wheel of Time? Oh my gosh, Jordan would go on and on and on and on and on about the dresses the women were wearing. It would make my eyes glaze over.

    1. Hahaha, I have read Wheel of Time. I don’t actually remember descriptions of clothing as much as I just remember how WORDY Jordan was in general. I think there was one book that only covered 24 hours, if even that.

  4. This post gave me twitches…lol I’m not a fashion girl by a long shot (I mostly wear jeans and graphic tees), and sewing has definitely never been my strong point. I have, however, discovered a love for creating Halloween costumes for my daughter, so that’s something. lol 🙂

    1. Costuming is soooo much fun! And designing clothes for fantasy novel characters is pretty much exactly that – creating Halloween costumes that people actually wear for everyday functions. In stories.

      😀

      1. It is a ton of fun! I treated my daughter like a doll for her first three Halloweens…lol…She was, in order, She-Ra, Link (from Legend of Zelda), and Megaman.

        Strangely, when it comes to writing I’m very lazy about my “costumes”. I try, but usually I wind up just saying something like, “she was wearing a skirt” or “he had leather boots on his feet”. lol

          1. lol It IS difficult not to treat them as such. It can backfire on you though…my habit of constantly putting my daughter in cute little dresses and Disney Princess costumes is what caused her to become obsessed with dresses and never want to wear pants for any reason. 😛

    1. I am considering it, Donna! If you’d like to keep up with notifications about that after the A-Z challenge has finished, you can sign up for my newsletter at this link. Make sure you check the box that says “The A-Zs of Worldbuilding”.

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