One of my favorite new books is M.A. Carrick’s The Mask of Mirrors, a second-world fantasy. “M.A. Carrick” is the pseudonym of two well-established fantasists, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. I loved this book for lots of reasons, and one of them is how well the story uses clothing and fashion to create this world.
In this story, Ren, a young con woman, is trying to score a place in a noble family, in an occupied city. The Liganti are imperialists, trying to control the native Vraszenian people. Ren is a Vraszenian who was adopted into a harsh crime-gang when her mother’s death left her orphaned. Ren and her sister Tess fled the gang, and now Ren has created the persona of the daughter of a disgraced Liganti noblewoman who left the city twenty years ago. Ren’s secret weapon in her con-woman arsenal is Tess’s amazing tailoring ability.
Clothing and fashion show us this world. Even the people whose clothes are utilitarian wear them slightly differently from us. For instance, some things don’t button up center front or back, but up the side.
It is in the realm of fashion, though, that we learn a lot about the Liganti nobility. (Plus, the story’s “fashion wars” provide interest and suspense. Will Ren be unmasked by a fashion faux pas? Will her social adversaries recognize a “repurposed” item?)
Specific items of clothing are named very early in The Mask of Mirrors. We read of underdresses and surcoats, and later learn of the Vraszenian sashcoat, which gives their clothing a different silhouette. Among the Liganti nobility, two fashion accessories are vital; gloves and masks.
Masks might seem obvious, given the title, especially when you learn that there is a masked Robin-Hood-style vigilante in the city. Masks are favored by the Liganti during social events and festivals, but soon we learn that masks are a vital part of the Vraszenian spiritual system. Nearly every deity has a masked aspect. Without delivering a long expository lecture about it, the book shows up how the Liganti took a revered spiritual element of another culture and made it a fashion element.
The world-building in The Mask of Mirrors is detailed, intricate and complex. Wardrobe is only one part of it. It is part of it, though. The clothing they wear springs from all aspects of the imaginary culture they were raised in and the imaginary world they inhabit.
What do your characters wear?
Clothing can be a quick and fun way to delineate aspects of your world. Fabric, colors and clothing types can show contrast, and give you a shorthand way to demonstrate the society’s technological, economic and social levels without pausing the story to deliver a page and a half of exposition. When creating wardrobes for your characters, think not only about shirts, trousers, dresses, etc, but jewelry and footwear.
Things to consider:
- What textiles do they have available? Do they make it locally?
- What is the climate, and the weather, like?
- How does clothing get made? Have they automated or mechanized manufacturing? Do they have access to dyes?
- Do they trade, or have regular contact other nations/societies?
- What’s your society’s economic base? Agricultural, hunting or shepherding communities may have a different approach to clothing than a city filled with merchants and cloth brokers.
- Is the society egalitarian or hierarchical? While sumptuary laws dealt with more than clothing (often regulating types of food and drink), colors and fabrics occupied a large part of the discussion. Does your society reserve certain colors or certain fabrics for certain classes?
- Does religion or politics dictate modes of dress? The Puritans chose simple black and white clothing to distinguish themselves from people who dressed in ways they considered pleasure-loving and immodest.
- Does your society have rigid gender roles? Does clothing enforce that? Do women lace themselves into corsets that restrict breathing? Do men wear boots, or certain types of belts, or weapons to amplify their gender? Are men pressured to have beards?
Wardrobe can deepen your world, and it can also be a lot of fun. It’s an amazing playground, so go play! Here’s a fun site to get you started.