Posted by: kshayes513 | September 26, 2010

What Clothes Do Your Characters Wear?

What do your people wear? Do you stick with the familiar so you can focus on other aspects of the story, putting your medieval world wenches in laced bodices and petticoats, and your space travelers in spandex and pressure suits?  Or do you array your characters in wildly inventive garments that speak of the strangeness of your world?

Either way, your characters’ clothing will likely be affected by three key factors:

Environment. We dress for the conditions we live in, and those conditions include both weather and landscape, whether hot, cold, wet, dry, mountainous, tropical, urban, rural, etc. People need clothes that will protect them from the elements and help them get around and do their work. The exception here is if your characters are born with natural protection from the elements. If your non-human characters have, for example, furry feet with leathery soles, they probably aren’t going to wear shoes. If your characters are very naturalistic rabbits or dragons, you probably won’t have them wear any clothes at all (and you can skip the rest of this post!)

Available materials. People generally make clothes (at least, the everyday ones) out of materials that are plentiful and relatively durable. Hunting peoples wear leather or fur from their prey, herding peoples often have wool-bearing herds that provide the raw material to spin and weave or to make felt; farming peoples may grow fibers like cotton or linen that can be spun, or pulpy plants that can be pounded into sheets. Large industrial civilizations may be able to import or manufacture any kind of fibers they want. But though the choices may be wider in a great civilization, even there, ordinary clothing is still going to be dominated by what’s plentiful, cheap and practical.

Culture. Within the limits of what the environment and available resources allow, the rest of our clothing choices are determined by our culture. Some of the most common cultural determiners of clothing style in human cultures have been gender, social rank, occupation, religious affiliation, and clan or family. The more rigid a particular social distinction is, the stronger the imperative to wear only the clothing permitted for your social group. This can lead to all kinds of uproar if some people want to relax the distinctions of class and dress that others want to maintain rigidly.  Conflict over clothing is usually only a surrogate for much deeper conflicts over identity.

Your world may have completely different determiners, and perhaps some are in conflict with others. All of them should either grow from your world’s cultures, or help define them.

So if you have an advanced society where climate and resource availability have been completely resolved by technology, you can disregard all of this and let your characters wear whatever they want, right?

Not necessarily. In the modern western world, clothing of all kinds is cheap and readily available to most people.  Yet even our wide-open society still has a staggering number of cultural directives about clothing.

Gender distinctions may have loosened up considerably in the developed world, yet if you compare the men’s and women’s sections of any big department store, you can see the big divide in the colors and styles considered acceptable for each gender.

Occupational distinctions are another big influence; for example the soldier’s uniform, the medical worker’s scrubs, the business suit, the painter’s coverall. These and countless other costumes probably sprang from a combination of practicality and professional dress codes.

And finally, we make clothing distinctions based on location and circumstances. Most of us wear one costume to the beach, another to go shopping, another to the gym, still others for the office or a court appearance, a black tie party or a funeral. Other societies, with fewer resources for clothing, might only have one or two costumes for different occasions.

So how do the clothes in your world reflect your society, and how are they varied to suit the characters and the circumstances?



  1. I think another aspect could be a political influence on clothing. If a person lives in a state of constant warfare, then the garment worn would have to take into account some form of armor or shielding.

    So a tropical light weight tunic might lie under a breastplate made of a strong vine-like material.

    A cold clime might offer a sturdy furskin leather to protect the chest. But that covering could influence the garment worn underneath. The usual fur skin might be used less because of needing constant over coverings of the armor. So the usual regular wear might become something lighter than a wool based item.

    The political dimension could also affect the jewelry because a distinction between nobility and regal position might be shown by the type of jewelry on the person.

    What do you think?

  2. Another consideration would be anatomy, as in manual dexterity. Can’t have little buttons without opposable thumbs or their equivalent for example.

    Then there are silly things we wear that might have served a purpose at one time but now are just customary, like ties.

  3. As for anatomy, what about the number of arms, legs, heads? tentacles? wings? How many sleeves does an Octopoid need, and when do sleeves become trouser legs?
    manual dexterity for buttons and other fastenings – would automatically be included with the creature wearing clothes, I should think, simply because the manufacture of clothing requires a minimum level of ability to manipulate objects, whether you’re doing it with opposable thumbs, tentacles, or telekinesis.
    Silly things we still wear that no longer serve a functional purpose – that’s a great question for an alien society!

  4. It is important to know why your characters wear this style or that style. If you have your characters wear the cliche, then make the why different. Make the culture behind the style more interesting.

  5. […] Clothes and Setting: This provides useful ideas about picking clothing that is culturally and physically well-suited to your story.  (In case you’re saddled with characters that can’t rock out in trenchcoats and sunglasses). […]

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