This post is actually the first in a two-part series about clothes and character dress. The first section focuses on why clothing is a valuable tool in fiction and how to design unique garments. The next section will talk about tradition, trends, and symbolism.
First off: why is clothing important? (Apart from the obvious, that is.) After all, some writers say a character has a blue shirt and leave it at that. However, this leaves the reader with very little to go on. Having a level of detail, even if only in your head, will show through in your work and help others visualize. If you can’t picture what the character’s wearing, you can hardly expect your reader to.
In addition, clothing can be a valuable tool in establishing setting. If your heroine is wearing a floor-length, velvet dress, we clearly aren’t in modern times. If she’s wearing jeans and a tank top, we’re unlikely to be anywhere else. Unless we’re in a time-travel story. In that case, good job achieving maximum contrast.
(On a side note, if your story is set in a specific time and place, don’t make things up – do the research and match your setting. Anything else will take readers out of the story.)
Clothing can also tell a lot about the character wearing it. Dull earth tones could mean the hero can’t afford bright colors or simply doesn’t want to stand out. Elaborate stitching or embroidery shows that the heroine is well-off, or at least has access to hand-me-downs from someone who is. Black leather and chains definitely screams ‘rebel’ (and probably ‘delinquent’). When we first meet a character, what they’re wearing can be our best indicator of personality and circumstance.
Don’t panic – you don’t have to invent a totally new style for your character to stand out. There are plenty of places you can draw from. Once you find something you like, steal it, adapt it, or mix it with something else.
The most obvious place to look is at different cultures’ traditional wear. (Everything I’ve said in other posts about Eastern vs. Western cultures also applies here: If you want exotic, go east. Close to home, stay west.) It also helps to be specific when you search. Plug “traditional Japanese clothes” into Google and you’ll get results. Put in “Japanese women’s clothes warring states era” and you’ll get better ones. You can get much more if you search a specific time period – just think of how much fashion changed between the 70s and 80s.
Another potential source is modern clothing. Today’s fashions can be great inspiration, but generally work best for more futuristic stories. Even if your society is very progressive, it’s going to seem odd to have contemporary-based clothing in a more medieval setting. In some cases, material or manufacture would make it impossible.
The last source I have for you is anime and movies. When it comes to fantasy clothes, I have yet to find a more varied or unique selection. Anime in particular has some very creative costumes, once you get past the blatant fan service outfits. And the best part is, there will be plenty of pictures floating around the internet.
(Note: be careful about using movies as sources for period clothing; they’re not always historically accurate.)
Remember, when you find something (or even part of something) that works – steal, adapt, mix, or combine.
That’s all I have for you today – come back next time for section two!