Designing Fictional Fashion:
Figuring Out What Your SF Characters Wear
Trying to decide what your science fiction, fantasy, or future people might wear? Here are some principles that can help you figure out some plausible and likely fashion for them.
A lot of fashion trends are set by just a few people. In times past, it was often royalty who set the trends. In contemporary times, singers and actors have a lot of influence. No matter which era it is, the big trendsetters are probably going to be people perceived as glamorous, successful, and/or admirable in some way.
Remember, availability of material can have a huge impact on fashion. If supplies are low or if people can't afford much, clothes are likely to be fairly simple - you won't likely see a lot of fanciness or excessiveness in material. This can even include the rich, as flaunting their wealth to the masses might be bad for PR.
Time is also a factor. The more intricate or detailed an article of clothing is, the longer it will take to make - especially if there are no machines to aid the process and/or if the clothing has been fitted. For example, a recreation Regency-style dress took an estimated minimum of fifty hours to sew without a machine. So if your people live in conditions where they have little, if any time to spare on things that aren't strictly necessary to survival, you shouldn't see much of that kind of thing - if any of it.
Remember that climate can affect fashion in a myriad of ways. For example, people in warm climates might avoid wearing thick, heavy clothes to avoid overheating. If they wear lightweight fabrics, you won't see much in the way of embroidery or beadwork, since it's unsuitable for that type of thing. On the other hand, in cold climates people are much likely to wear thick, heavy clothing to stay warm. If high-quality synthetics aren't widely available, animal-based materials might be more common, as shorter growing seasons can make it less practical to produce as much plant-based material. And in places where trade is slow and/or costly, the most common clothes will most likely be made from materials they can produce for themselves, with imported textiles being rarer.
Other necessities can drive fashion, too. For example, is the ground covered in sharp stones or plants with massive thorns? Then people might wear thick-soled shoes to protect their feet. Are there a lot of biting insects around? People might wear layered clothing to keep them off. Is the sun often bright? People might wear something to keep it out of their eyes when outdoors. And clothes need to be able to adequately resist damage, too - part of why many people who spend a lot of time outdoors wear pants made of canvas rather than something flimsier.
Fashion can be influenced by people's values and beliefs. For example, clothing intended for public wear will be designed cover any part of the body deemed inappropriate to show in public. If a culture looks down on ostentation or excess, clothes will likely not be any fancier or frillier than they have to be. People might also choose to wear something that symbolizes something important to them, or that makes their loyalties clear to others.
People might avoid fashion associated people and groups they don't like or disagree with. Reasons for this include making it clear to the disliked people or groups that they don't support them, or to avoid being mistaken for supporters of the disliked people or groups by others.
Design elements can get ridiculously exaggerated if people start trying to outdo and one-up each other. This can be how you end up with things like skirts or collars widening to ridiculous proportions over the years. This can keep going up until the point the element is no longer practical to wear, or until an alternative fashion catches people's eyes, or until enough people start perceiving it as a symbol of someone or something they don't like, or until money or materials to make it run short.
Fashion might draw elements from past time periods that people romanticize. It happens now and then that people use design elements from bygone eras they romanticize to make new fashion. But keep in mind - these designs will never look exactly like the clothes of the past, but will instead be hybrids of current and past designs.
Fashion can be influenced by popular media. For example, a popular historical or period show can spark clothing inspired by the clothes worn by the characters. Same goes for even a fantasy or sci-fi show with mass appeal. These kinds of trends can be brought about both by fans of the media and by people who trying to market to fans of the media.
Fashion can be influenced by anything else that catches public attention in a positive way. For example, the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 influenced the Art Deco movement. During the "Space Age" of the 1960's, fashion took on a "futuristic" appearance (per what designers of the 60's imagined the future might look like) and incorporated many synthetic materials (synthetics being perceived as the fabric of the future).
Fashion can be influenced by superstition and folklore. Is a particular color considered lucky? Then you might see a lot of people wearing it. Is a color considered unlucky? Then you probably wouldn't see anyone wearing it. Are certain symbols considered lucky, or capable of warding off bad fortune? They might be incorporated into clothing and jewelry designs.
If possible, every generation will redefine fashion to express itself and its values. Younger people might want to set themselves apart from the older generation, or just stand out from the crowd. They might want to send the signal that they are individuals, and not their parents' puppets. Or they might just take a fancy to something that they feel speaks to them or says something about them and decide to wear it. (However, exceptions may occur in strictly-controlled societies where people must wear an accepted style of fashion or else.)
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