Characterizing Cultures With Clothing

Last week, I talked about how to develop a character through her clothing. But it isn’t just characters who can benefit from these sorts of techniques. Instead, you can try to characterize an entire culture through what it wears; not only does this allow you to hint at the culture as a whole, but it can carry over, by parallel or contrast, to the clothing-based characterization of individuals from that culture.

Photo by zolenys

The most logical thing a country’s dress will tell you about that country is the climate. This isn’t just “warm climates have less and lighter fabrics, cool climates have more layers and heavier fabrics”, though that’s an easy place to start. Think also about variation; a country with real seasons is likely to have clothing for the winter and clothing for the summer, while one with less seasonal variation won’t need to differentiate as much. Weather might come into play as well; in places prone to precipitation, garments that have loose fabric that can double as hoods will likely be more common than in dry areas, and a place with a lot of wind is likely to have heavier fabrics and minimize the amount of cloth that can catch the wind so as to avoid the wearers being blown off course.

Clothing can also tell you a lot about what materials and techniques are available to the culture. In some places, people depend on skins, particularly if they know how to treat them. Wool requires wool-bearing animals; while these are normally sheep, alpacas and their ilk can be used, as can goats (heck, I’ve had a dog you could probably get decent wool from), and it’s hard to get cotton without the proper growing conditions for cotton plants. Silk, similarly, requires some variety of silkworm—this was why the Silk Road was so important, as in many hotter climates they had the need for light fabric but not the materials. You’re not going to get woven fabric if people haven’t figured out how to weave.

Even fitting and fastenings are going to say a lot about their cultural antecedents. In general, the simplest clothing is going to just tie on, and some cultures find it easiest to leave it that way. Laces are also a straightforward way of keeping clothing together, if you’re looking for a better fit. Buttons and buckles generally come later. And in general, if clothing fits well, one of three things is going on: either you’ve got a really advanced textile industry, there are a lot of fastenings to work with, or you can afford a personal tailor. Probably a combination of the above.

In some places, differentiation in clothing can be used to demonstrate separation between groups. This doesn’t have to mean that one group is considered ‘lesser’ than the other, though it can. It might simply mean that they have different priorities. In our world, divisions have included rank, gender, profession, religion and bloodline; when you get into fantasy worlds, you might add things like favored source of magic, elemental association, or relation to some sort of divination system. Almost any kind of divide can be mirrored by clothing; you just need to figure out what sort of aesthetic the clothing matches, and then demonstrate it by making sure people are dressing according to their station.

Even colors can be used to characterize a culture. If one dye’s particularly common, and another’s particularly rare, odds are the use of the rare dye is going to be a sign of rank or wealth. Some try to blend in with the world around them; others try to contrast. Sometimes, coloration of a certain group’s clothing is supposed to be symbolic of what they do; other times, it’s more practical, like dressing a soldier in a sufficiently dark red-brown that bloodstains won’t show up; yet other times, it hearkens back to their religion.

Patterns and embellishments can tell you just as much. Many cultures favor stripes in their fabric, as those are easier to weave and to plan out. Cloth with integrated, rather than embroidered or applique, patterns are likely to imply more advanced weaving techniques. If they use animal or nature patterns, those are probably going to be reflective of their surroundings; if they don’t, think about what they use, and why they don’t use patterns like that. Do they have different rules for jewelry than for textiles? If they use animal imagery, is it stylized or realistic? Does it mean something? Do they do patterns, or do they favor small numbers of images?

So when you’re trying to make a member of a certain culture stand out in a crowd with what they’re wearing, think about these—give your audience a chance to make guesses about the culture before you’re even finished introducing the character. Won’t it be fun?

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