Let’s talk about clothes. Yes, those things you put on your body. Believe it or not, your fantasy characters wear them too (unless they live in a dystopian nudist colony)! This means that we as authors need to think about our characters’ fashion.
The first thing that comes to mind when considering female fantasy clothing is that quintessential fantasy look: the medieval princess dress. You know the one—flowing sleeves, silver belt, train sweeping majestically past the ankles. It’s the one every little girl wants for a wedding dress. In other words, it’s awesome.
But let’s have a bit of a reality check here. What would it be like to wear these dresses year-around, as our dear old princesses did? In the winter, sure, it might be warm enough. But then in the summer, you’d steam yourself to death! (Note to self: possible villain torture idea?) And let’s doublethink those sleeves, too. With all the excess trailing fabric, it would’ve been extremely bulky, clumsy, and heavy to wear on a regular basis.
Next, the general “dress” is a much more versatile art form. There’s your poverty-stricken rough and sacklike dress, and then there’s the gorgeous-silk-with-rustling-beaded-train-thirty-feet-long dress, which will give your darling heroine just the grand entrance at the Prince’s ball that will achieve her deepest dreams. In the steampunk variation, your heroine wears a corset over a loose creamy white peasant dress (which, by the way, always looks way too clean to be realistic).
Then there’s the question of what to wear under the dress. Hoopskirts can provide quite the comical spectacle, used atrociously. Petticoats can be a source of endless frustration, or else much-needed medical bandages (speaking of which, why do the heroines always tear up their petticoats? Why not the outer dresses?). Corsets are always a big hit.
As for colors, the possibilities are endless—limited only by your imaginative fantasy dyeing processes. Browns, greens, and “natural” shades like darker blues and purples seem to be particular favorites. However, don’t be afraid to throw in the occasional splash of lime green! You never know, it just might be exactly the touch of color your story needs.
All that is not to say that your heroine must wear a dress. Sure, it’s conventional practice. But who says fantasy is about convention? Personally, I think it’s all about innovation: dreaming the new and daring to step out into uncharted territory. So go ahead, let your girl try on the trousers or breeches of her dreams. Let her wear a tunic and cape if she so likes (more on those garments in the next post). Just make sure that you reason these things out carefully in the context of your world. If she’s breaking conventions and tradition, make that clear, and don’t be afraid to judge her for it.
Another note about fashions, too: before the Industrial Revolution (and thus in the time of most fantasy worlds), there was no such thing as ready-made clothing. Everything was tailor-made or made by hand to fit. However, as fantasy authors, we can take a few liberties here. For example, you could create a “magical” automated process for producing some item of clothing—say, lace. Then your evil villains (or long-suffering and impoverished heroes) can use this ingenious production method to achieve their evil or noble ends. (Actually, Christopher Paolini used this idea in his Inheritance Cycle, but I won’t spoil where it comes up specifically.)
Whatever you do, please don’t make it typical. Do something different—maybe a different fabric (fibers from the fireflower makes the dress fireproof?) or a different color (yellow dresses dyed in faerie wax makes the wearer fall into a deep sleep?) or a different cut (sure, maybe knee-length hasn’t been done in your world for a few centuries. Why should that stop you?).
Now go take a look at your fantasy stories. Where can you add more detail about clothes? Where can you change the details you include and make them realistic and—most importantly—different? Then come back and share what you think!