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Spec Tech: Your Protagonist Wants Sleeves: Fashion in F&SF

September 9, 2010

Most clothes are uncomfortable, cumbersome, and dangerous, and can really make your characters’ lives miserable.  As a writer, this is an underused resource for inflicting pain and suffering upon your poor, hapless protagonists.

Unless manufactured on machines by cotton produced on industrial farms and sewn en masse by underpaid illegal laborers, clothing is expensive. For most of the world’s history, an average person might have only one or two suits of clothes their entire lives.  Ever seen those folk skirts with bands at the bottom?  Those are built out of practicality.  The girl gets a dress as a child, and as she grows, they add a new strip of cloth. Most cultures’ national dress is generally a variation on the theme of “sack with armholes.” Other cultures use a variation on the “bedsheet/blanket, rope, and pins”. Examples are here, here, and here. Hand-made clothes need to be simple because when cloth costs so much that you only get one dress every ten years, you can’t afford to mess it up.  One mistake means that you’re suffering with too-tight shoulders, choking collars, waists that rip open every time you bend over, hems that fray and fall apart, or get stepped on, and of course itchy seams that split at the least convenient time…forever, because the cloth required to modestly outfit a person can run twelve to twenty yards long, and someone had to weave that by hand (after raising the sheep, and shearing it, carding the wool, washing it, dyeing it, spinning it, etc.)  Your farmboy, while destined to get a magic sword and fight dragons some day, is only going to have one outfit to wear along the way, so let’s make it a good one.

Let’s start with cloaks.  What could be more dashing and expressive than wearing a blanket tacked to your shoulders?  That’s what a cloak is—a blanket attached to your shoulders.  In some cases, they’re just tacked to your shirt, which means that whenever someone steps on your cloak, or it gets wet, or the wind is rushing by, it has a tendency to choke you.  If it’s tailored, it will come down over the front of your shoulders as much as it comes down in the back, which is nice because the weight is evenly distributed and the rain will not soak your front. The not-nice thing about this is that you now have no place for your arms, and will have to either cut slits in the side of the cloak to stick them through (it looks as ridiculous as it sounds) or you’ll have to fling the entire mass of cloth back over your shoulders, choking you yet again. Swordfights go better when one has an adequate air supply.  When given an option between a cloak and a trench-coat, the prudent adventurer will opt for sleeves.

Cloaks share one feature with voluminous skirts and sleeves in that they catch fire very easily.  Getting too close to a candle or an open cooking fire will do it.  Character pissing you off?  Let them get too close to the hearth.  Nothing like having hair and clothes immolate to really ruin a person’s day.  Even if they remember “Stop, drop, and roll” (trust me, it’s easy to forget when you’re on fire) their clothes are likely to be ruined, and they will either have to steal a new set or shiver naked in the rain.  Of course, in the middle ages, being naked wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now*, but it’s still cold.

Narrow skirts have the advantage of using a lot less fabric, which is good if your characters are poor and can’t afford a ten-yard skirt of hand-made wool twill.  They’re also great for tripping up your heroine (literally) because she can’t run, ride astride, swordfight, climb ventilation shafts, or play volleyball without either hiking it up above the knees (scandalous!) or falling on her face.  Pants are harder to make, and if your character’s pants are made by a non-professional (say, himself, his wife, or his mother) the amateur tailor is likely to either use a drawstring or loops and a belt.  Woe to he who either loses the belt or has the drawstring fall inside the sheath!  It takes a safety pin and the better part of an hour to re-thread the drawstring through its sheath, something that’s hard to do if the Imperial Troops are bearing down on you.  A man who needs one hand to hold his pants up isn’t as effective.

Don’t forget underclothes too, especially for female characters.  If your culture doesn’t have brassieres, your options are corsets, bodices (like a corset but with shoulder straps) or women crossing their arms tightly in front of their chest and saying “ow, ow, ow” every time they have to run from orcs.  Corsets and bodices constrict a woman’s chest so she’s constantly out of breath, in pain, and can’t bend over easily.  They’ll make her faint often, and those stays have a tendency to spring from their casing at inopportune times, impaling their wearer.  Men have it easier, but they need underclothes too. Is your space commando going commando? Chafing might distract him during that interstellar dogfight.

And don’t forget damp socks.  Shoes are another way to make your character suffer.  Handmade shoes are second only to dress shoes for pure agony.  Not only will your character’s feet slip easily (perhaps causing him or her to twist an ankle) but chafing seams or bulk in the wrong place will make each step feel as if he or she were treading on knives.  And if the shoes leak, and the road is wet or muddy, don’t forget trench foot.

But what if you set your story in a hot, dry climate?  They’ll wear bikinis, right?  Well, maybe.  It’s your story, after all, but the reason why Bedoins and desert gardeners alike cover up when outside in the searing heat is that the sun can kill you if you get too much of it.  Also, while jungles might be equally hot day and night, dry climates like deserts tend to plummet in temperature when the sun goes down.  Make sure if your adventures go from one climate to another, they keep their original clothing, because then they will either be too hot, too cold, or too damp. Damp clothes eventually get moldy and mildewed, and any clothes can get body lice and scabies if they aren’t washed frequently. Does that quaint tavern where the party spends the night have a high-heat washer and dryer?

Many, in fact most, cultures find the outfit that works and stick with it for centuries, but if they’re one of the rare few that has fashion, use it. Skirts can be poofed out with metal ribs or padding so that your heroine can’t go through doors.  You can use baleen, wood plates, or futuristic technology to constrict and alter arms, legs or torsos so that they are as thick or thin as fashion dictates.  It doesn’t matter how “advanced” your culture is, humans are irrational enough that they will insist that people wear what is considered pretty, even if it’s painful, impractical, and damaging to the wearer’s health.  Better yet, if you’re in a futuristic society, you can even add tails, slit eyes, or artificial skin color that breaks down and poisons the fashionista.

But if you’re feeling merciful, there are some options to make your characters lives easier.  For example, knitting is low-tech; why do northern barbarians wear fur bikinis instead of sweaters?  And even if your characters are pre-industrial, there’s no reason why you can’t have both men and women wear sack dresses.  It makes the call of nature easier, it’s easier to sew, and your characters can put on many of them one over the other, dressing in layers as so many mothers have advised.  If they’re in a hospitable climate (like a tropical beach, or inside a spacecraft) your characters could opt out of clothes.  They’ll still need a way to tell who’s high rank and who’s a peon (so they know who to persecute) but you can fix that with jewelry, body paint, or tattoos. After all it’s your world, you can bedeck them as you want.

And if you’re really nice, you’ll let them wear coats.

* Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamatous 14th Century

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2010 5:50 pm

    You paint a general picture of pre-industrial clothing being mostly simple, primitive, and, for the lower classes who can’t afford tailors, poorly made. The real picture, I believe, is much more complex. Pre- and non-industrial peoples have to make everything they use, so they are much more skilled than we are, at many, many different crafts including tailoring. You or I might not be able to manage a pair of pants, but the farmboy hero’s mother would make pants that fit her son properly, because she made all the family’s clothes, and likely spun and wove the cloth as well (unless her society was so organized that professional clothmakers and tailors catered to all economic classes).

    The clothing of the wealthy or the tribal leaders would naturally have more expensive materials and more elaborate designs, but the rest of society would follow on similar lines with the resources available to them. A Native American beaded and fringed leather jacket isn’t much like a sack with holes, nor are the extensively codified Japanese garments of over a millenium ago; and there’s little that’s simple or primitive about the gorgeous fabrics of the sari and the sarong.

    Naturally, though, we can do whatever we want in our stories, as long as we make the clothing believable!

  2. September 11, 2010 10:34 am

    Don’t forget about the value of knitted gloves and mittens! And boiled wool, as well: it’s practically waterproof.

  3. October 15, 2010 7:19 am

    There’s a benefit to wool cloaks, however scratchy and heavy: you’re much less likely to catch on fire!

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