Clothes make the man. They also define a society and an environment. Just watch any montage of people through the ages to see this effect. The 1982 movie, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, begins with about ten minutes of the Chicken Ranch’s history from the late 1800s to the late 1970s. The audience sees not only the change in intimate apparel but also skirt lengths, cloth patterns and colors, furniture, hairstyles and military uniforms. It’s a fun segment that offers information about each period.
Clothes are important in world building whether you are doing a dated musical, a thriller, science fiction, or fantasy. How the outfits work with the environment is easy. Heavy furs belong to winter fantasy, not desert Conan stories unless they are too primitive to weave fabric. However, how does the apparel demonstrate the society? The times? What is the change of dressage if the novel goes over ten years?
Mary Robinette Kowal (author of Ghost Talkers) gave a wonderful presentation at Adler After Dark Geek Chic V (Chicago) about how science fiction affects modern fashion choices and vice versa. She worked with old movies such as Metropolis and its effects on future looks such as the invention of go-go boots. If you have doubts about this idea, consider the thought that bow ties are making a comeback mostly because of Dr. Who’s Matt Smith. Luckily, the fez hat did not.
She made a side point that really caught my attention. She stated, the more it cost to make something, the more people will use it in high-end clothing as a status symbol. Think about the effort it takes to hand sew pearls into a costume. In addition, lace was hand-tied or tatted into complex, beautiful designs in the early 1900s. Society dresses used a lot of it for accenting. Nowadays, lace is manufactured and less of a financial indicator. It is not seen as often on high society designer pieces.
This thought rode with me all through the night and into the next day. In writing my novel (under construction), Riding the Comet, I thought about clothes in terms of durability, functionality, and practicality. They did nothing to indicate status. Everyone pretty much looked the same. The social-economic differences were a huge factor in the plot since the classes were sharply divide between the corporate townies and the impoverished asteroid dwellers. I tried to show that divide with different technology levels but ignored the obvious and visual tool of fashion. Her comment pointed out a huge gap in my worldview and I’ve since moved to correct it.
So when you are building your world, consider this. The differences between king and commoner are easy. However, the readers should also find subtle differences between lord and middle class, merchant and adventurer, or even worker and beggar. Don’t make it a case of one wearing rags and the other doesn’t. Make your world rich with the differences in details without overloading or slowing down your plot.
Also remember that clothes change over time One glaring error in the movie Passengers is that the people look just like today. Yet the plot was set in the far future. Surely the designs changed in several hundred years. Although I agree the clothes don’t need to look weird. That would be distracting. But they should not look like today’s fashion because that lacks imagination and also is confusing for the audience trying to figure out the time.
Fashion can also represent a sense of rebellion or change. In Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, which are a part of the Discworld universe, Tiffany evolves into being her land’s witch but rejects the standard uniform of the black dress and pointed hat. This action serves as a defining characteristic, making her stand out as a free thinker among the other initiates.
So think about what your characters wear. What affect are you trying to bring out? Sexy, relaxed, functional or something else? Does it represent the character’s favorite color? How does their choice of apparel fit into society and their job? Leather and furs are dumb in a hot environment if linen is available. Synthetics don’t breathe well but add shine and bright colors. High heels are not functional footgear if traipsing across a muddy jungle (as seen in Jurassic World) no matter how determined the character is.
Have your clothes make sense but don’t overload the reader with details at every wardrobe change. Give the audience just enough description to let their imagination fill in the rest. Yet when needed, let it also create a statement or act as a symbol. This adds layers of complexity to your work that readers will appreciate. Therefore, use the clothes to make the man and the world together.