World Building With Clothes

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?


The Metropolis Robot


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.


These people could be walking down NYC rather than in a space ship going to a colony world (Passengers 2016)

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.

300 boy

In this scene from the 300, Leonidas’s wolf skin is symbolic of his ascension to manhood and the crown.

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.


Passengers, Worth the Journey

Hollywood’s latest science fiction movie, Passengers, is a visually stunning story that is well worth the ticket price of the big screen. Seriously, I would consider watching this again at the IMAX and in 3D and I hate 3D movies.

A lot of factors about this movie are beautiful. The space views feature Hubble-esque complex color nebulae and a stunning slingshot view around a sun. Externally, the ship comes with graceful curving arms around a central sphere that front and back look like a flower blossom. Side on, though it forms a complex array of rotating arms that imply great space without having a lot of lumpy bits stuck on for a more mechanical look.

The Avalon. Photo from Sony Pictures


Internally, the Avalon is what ocean cruise ships want to grow up to be. One could easily say that it was the main character of the movie. It features fine dining in multiple languages, an array of fun activities, amazing views and a huge shopping concourse. Emigrating to a new world never looked so comfortable. However, even with beauty and luxury, a gilded cage is still a prison and the robot companions are just another set of machines. Limited to pat answers to keep the clients happy, their conversations were cliched and one-dimensional, making them believable as actual robots and not AI personalities in a tin can.

At first glance, Passengers is another Robinson Crusoe story set during an interstellar voyage. An island-bound man worries about fresh food and water. A sailor has these but also worries about his destination and the obstacles in the way. The space traveler is screwed the worst. Air, gravity, heat, and even waste management are parts of a bevy of issues he must conquer to survive, all of it with no hope of any help arriving. Passengers demonstrates this isolated feeling pretty well.

Yet at its core the movie is also a complex romance. Jennifer Lawrence, an exceptional actress, pulls off her usual excellence. Aurora is a complex, intelligent, and yet fragile heroine. You may feel sorry for her situation but you never pity her. Her evolution from fear to acceptance to rage was a compelling ride as she tries to accept her role as the lone women.

Chris Pratt by Gage Skidmore 2.jpg

Photo by Gage Skidmore, taken at the 2016 San Diego Comic-con Inernational


The surprise for me was Chris Pratt. Don’t get me wrong, I like Pratt but have only seen him in comedy or actions roles, none requiring the emotional performance he gave in this movie. I was delightfully surprised. His lonely descent into despair and borderline madness left me in tears. He has ratcheted up in my mind as an actor that might give some truly great performances in the future.

All in all, Passengers is one of those moves, like 2010, Star Wars, or Gravity, that makes you wish you had an 80-inch TV. Go see it in the theater; it’s well worth the trip.