I know, I know. Why would I make a whole post about something so inconsequential? Isn’t it bad news to describe a character’s clothing?
Yes and no. As with anything, it’s execution. But, I think, especially in fantasy, describing clothing (when appropriate) can be helpful for a few reason.
So let’s talk fashion.
Clothing is a Way to Tell the World About Yourself
All over the world, clothing is used for different forms of expression. When you see or meet someone, you can learn about them from what they’re wearing. Of course, you can’t infer everything from their clothing, but you can tell a few things, and people use this to express different parts of themselves.
It can be anything: Ethnic background/traditional clothing, religion, status, artistic style, profession, favorite sports team, favorite music, etc.
In this way, the way your characters dress can the people around them, and the reader, information about them. How we present ourselves to other people with the intention of making an impression of some kind is often purposeful.
Whether you characters wear simple clothes, funky hats, or elegant gowns, clothing can represent who your character is, their background, their profession, their status, personality, and even how people in this new fantasy land dress.
That last bit is important. We’ll get into that now:
Clothing as Worldbuilding
I am a big fan of using any tool at disposal to world build. Art, architecture, music, language, etc. To me it helps avoid long paragraphs of worldbuilding info that disrupt the narrative. Instead, they lend themselves directly to the narrative, giving the reader information about this awesome thing you’ve created while not bringing the story to a sudden, albeit brief, halt.
Clothing can tell the reader the ethnic and social traditions of your world. Is there religious clothing? Traditional clothing? Tribal clothing? Ceremonial clothing? “Regular” clothing?
In the real world, people all over use clothing as representations of their cultural background. Native Americans, Asia, Polynesia, the Middle East, Latin America/South America, the west, and many more.
Clothing also can tell you about climate, for obvious reasons. Cold weather=furs, for example. The materials can tell you what is available there such as hemp/fiber, leather, fur, etc.
So use clothing to worldbuild. What would these characters wear based on their climate, ethnicity, and background? The world is your oyster here, and part of the fun of this is researching different historical and even modern designer clothing.
Don’t Start with Clothing
If page one of your book opens with a character putting on clothes and admiring themselves in a mirror, I’m gonna groan.
The reason for this is that the reader wants to know substantial information about your character, where they are, and what’s happening. Those details don’t matter yet, because the reader does not yet care. A one-sentence explanation is usually fine, but be careful.
When introducing a character in the story, only describe the clothing if something stands out. If the new character dresses strangely, tells the reader/character something about them, or what have you, then describing clothing is appropriate. However, if the character’s clothing doesn’t stand out from anyone else’s in a particular way, then don’t do it.
Which brings me too:
When Clothing is Relevant
I think clothing is best served when there’s a change. Your character is dressing differently for some reason or the clothing serves some kind of practical purpose.
If your character is preparing for battle, then describing the armor is fine. Especially if this is special armor such as decorated armor, or even if the armor is crap or doesn’t fit.
Or if there’s another change, such as your tomboy character putting on a gown for a ball or something, as opposed to their more comfortable clothing.
Clothing becomes relevant when something new happens that the clothing directly has an impact on (or vice versa). The change offers the opportunity to go into a bit of detail about it.
We don’t usually think too deeply on clothes in our daily life. Someone walking down the street wearing jeans and a T-shirt isn’t going to seem out of the blue. In the same way, your characters’ “day-to-day” clothes aren’t going to be thought on too much by either themselves or other characters. The only reason they would be is if the clothes are some how inappropriate for the location/events (impractical, underdressed, etc.) That’s why you don’t want to go into details about their day-to-day clothes unless something happens that makes it relevant.
New characters, events, places, climates, etc. make clothing relevant so that’s the best place to put them. This is sort of a part one of relevancy.
Part two is:
Hook it on Emotion
Ever see those wedding dress shows? Where the bride-to-be finds “the” dress and her face lights up and she doesn’t want to take the thing off? I’m sure a lot of us have had a similar experience where you try something on and just love how you look and feel in it. I’m sure many of us have that one outfit in our closet that makes us feel like a million bucks.
This is a good strategy for any seemingly mundane detail about your characters’ lives: Food, bathing/grooming, work, and so on. The key is to hinge it on emotion. Emotions help make these things relevant.
How do your characters feel in these garments? If it’s armor, does wearing it make your character nervous for the upcoming battle or does it make them feel strong and empowered?
Does wearing a gown make them feel elegant and pretty or are they nervous about constantly tripping over it?
Whenever your character changes from one thing to another, hook it on an emotion. Don’t just tell the reader what they’re wearing. Describe their emotions, how they feel in it (good or bad), describe the tactile stuff like how the material moves and feels.
Clothing Alters Movement and Behavior
I study theatre and have performed quite a bit. I’ve had to wear everything from gigantic cloaks, corsets, period gowns, period shoes, bustles, and even a powdered wig as a 18th century French butler (the powdered wig was the worst one. It was horribly uncomfortable and drove me nuts.)
In each of these instances, the clothing (especially shoes) changed my posture, how I moved, sat, and the range of motion I had myself.
If your character goes from wearing “normal” clothes to wearing armor, their movements will change. Armor, especially full suits, are very hard to move in and master.
Also, heavy gowns where the waist and torso are tightly bound will change posture. It is nearly impossible (and borderline painful) to slouch in a corset. The weight of all these fabrics too will make moving quickly (like running) harder, but not impossible.
You also have to alter your normal movements. In ballet, the ball of the foot lands before the heel. Walking/dancing in heels is the exact opposite. It’s a lot easier to trip over a dress with a long train too and it takes practice to know how to move both properly and safely.
So keep this in mind. It can also help characterize your characters. A person who doesn’t know how to move in these garments is going to have more trouble than someone who does. Again, hook it on emotion.
Clothes are Hard to Make
Sewing is one of my hobbies. I’m by no means an expert but I’ve made skirts, hats, and other things from scratch (with the help of a modern sewing machine). I also like to stitch and embroider.
These are techniques that have been taught and practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and they’re very difficult, even with modern conveniences.
One thing that confuses me in fantasy work is when I encounter a peasant girl who somehow is able to inexpensively acquire a really gorgeous, detailed, dress.
In a world without modern sewing machines, tools, or means of production, these sorts of clothes are a lot harder to make, making them far more labor intensive and expensive. It takes a lot of time to do elaborate stuff almost by hand and even historically, there was some heavy equipment involved.
Not only that, but colors were expensive. Dyes were also hard to make, depending on what was available. Many colors had to be bought from other places.
Armor was also expensive. It needed measurements, metal work, and it had to be functional. A full suit of armor was difficult to produce.
These aren’t things characters can just acquire. They were expensive and involved a lot of work. So keep this in mind.
Clothing in the Narrative
Now that all of that is out of the way, how do we describe clothing without boring the reader?
Again, keep it at a sentence or two. Show the emotions, show the new event (or why they’re wearing this thing), and use the simplest most accurate words you can. This can also help with showing and not telling.
For example: “Protagonist McGee bundled herself in heavy layers layers of furs before heading out the door.”
(Not the most elegant example, but we’ll go with it.) From that one sentence I learned a few things. 1: The character is wearing furs. 2. She is wearing a few layers, and they feel heavy. 3. It’s cold out, so we know why she’s wearing all of this stuff.
Again, one sentence, yet we
A Couple Things to Avoid
The biggest no-no in fantasy, from a “realistic” standpoint is impractical armor, particularly for lady warriors. In TV/Movies, there are a lot of armors for women that are molded around the breasts, but that is incredibly impractical, dangerous, and dysfunctional. It creates a weak point in the armor right where the vital organs are which is the opposite of what armor does.
The second thing I’ll mention, and this is super personal, is to avoid the trope of “Princess who hates wearing dresses and anyone who does like them is a stupid, silly, girl.”
Ugh, just why.
Your character doesn’t have to like to wear dresses, but they shouldn’t just take it out on everyone else. If anything, it makes your character look like a jerk. Plus, someone who grew up wearing dress (such as a noble lady in your FantasyLand) on a daily basis, would be morel likely to feel fairly normal in a dress. A dress might be to them as we see jeans or sweatpants.
You can have a tomboy without having their defining characteristic being “I hate dresses!”
One of the best parts of clothing in fantasy writing is that you can do whatever you want. Fashion is yours to make and you’re only bound by the rules you set. Keep it detailed, but not overbearing. Make clothing relevant, make it an experience for the character.
Describe a character’s clothing in a fantasy setting and try to fit into a scene with a narrative.
- Why is your character wearing this? What’s special about it?
- How do they feel about it? What exactly is the garment?
- How do others feel about what they’re wearing?
- How do they move in it? Do they know how to move in it?
- How does the material and garment itself feel in a tactile way?