Take a moment, and consider your clothes.
Whether you’re wearing a sari or sweatpants, a sealskin parka or a kimono or a surgical scrubs, your clothing choices are a product of your needs, environment, culture, and personal taste. For humans, clothes serve both a practical purpose– they keep us protected from cold, insects, sunburn, and so on– they are also are a vehicle for cultural and personal expression. Archaeological records indicate that even very early human societies embellished clothes that they wore for practical reasons, as well as adorning their bodies with jewelry, paint, or other decoration.
Many cultures also have different clothes for different occasions– wedding and funeral garb, and ceremonial clothing for clergy or other religious leaders are fairly common worldwide. People may also need to vary clothes throughout the year based on seasonal weather patterns or variation in work.
It’s also important to remember, particularly when you’re writing historical fiction, that although a disproportionate amount of our records concern people in wealthy, socially connected classes, their experiences do not represent the experiences of the majority of the population around them. This assumption that ‘what you see (on TV) is all there is‘ as far as historical research accounts for the large number of peasant women in Fantasyland and Historical Fictionland complaining about how difficult and uncomfortable it is to move in their clothing, without any thought to the fact farming women would wear something in which they could work.
If you’re creating a setting from scratch, here are some questions to kick off your worldbuilding process.
- What materials are used for clothing in your setting?
Are they using animal skins? Dyed plant fibers? Futuristic spray-on liquid?
- What clothing-related technology exists in your setting?
This covers everything from materials, processes (do they have unique weaving techniques or tools? A way of waterproofing cloth? etc), and details (do they have buttons? Zippers? Embroidery?) Is clothing individually tailored, self-made, or mass-produced?
- How does it relate to the environment?
Does it need to protect people from sunburn? Insulate people against freezing wind or pouring rain? Is it seasonal?
- Is it gendered?
I’ve encountered the assumption in countless works of fantasy or historical fiction that trousers are ‘male’ clothing, and skirts are ‘female’ clothing. Setting aside the fact that not all societies have binary gender categories, the skirt/trouser dichotomy isn’t true. First of all, many societies have neither, or are absent in either skirts or trousers. Second, strictly gendered clothing is not prevalent in all societies, whether that’s the result of flexible gender expression, gender-neutral clothing styles, or both.
- What information is signaled by the clothing? How is this information conveyed?
This could be culture, community rank, profession, gender, familial affiliation, marital status, or any other information you can imagine. Information could be expressed as garment color, materials, garment type, and so on.
- What types of personal adornment are popular?
Do any of the questions above apply? (For example, is a certain type of jewelry gendered, or a mark of special status?)