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The past few years I've been getting into the cosplay world. It was kinda inevitable - seeing as I've been sewing since I was 5. I've always loved figuring out how the various shapes in fiction would be achieved. But often, I see stuff that is just impossible to pull off - not without some serious deviations from the intended design. There is only one way that I can think of to make people start designing clothing for their comics/anime that would be logical. Teach them how to sew. Show them why this stuff is impossible.

This is actually three rants put together. Why artists should at least be familiar with clothing design, designing functional clothing and designing clothing for a new culture. It is an expansion on my short rant in my review of Tokyo Majin.

First off - sewing is really easy. No really - it is. Your ancestors have been making their own clothing by hand for millions of years. Once you get used to putting together 3D shapes from 2D material, wear the clothing that you made. If it isn't working right - you did something wrong. Try again, and adjust the design. It's actually really really easy. If you're an artist, you'll already be able to visualize and foresee how to the shapes would change. You'll notice that a lot of things don't work the way you thought it would. Like gravity. Gravity works on clothing. Those gigantic boobs will need a support system built into that strapless dress, or some way to cover up the support underneath.  There's a trend in anime designs lately which has these detached sleeves that are tied around the upper arm. You'll discover why this is stupid. You'll discover that a design that requires double-sided tape isn't a good idea when designing something that needs to be worn every day.

Designing Functional Clothing

This is probably the biggest problem in fiction. First thing to think of is "How does the clothing interact with the plot?" Often times, I see writers describing and artists drawing clothing styles that are impractical or down right dangerous for the characters to be wearing. Everyone remembers the "running in heals" cliche, and plenty of people have ranted about the uses of armor in fantasy fiction. This is kinda like that - just with regular clothing.

Take the rather innocent lovely blue-green dress that Sophie wears in Howl's Moving Castle.

It's a late 1800's style dress - built to go over the top of a corset and several layers of peticoats and bloomers.

Somehow, that dress becomes this:


And then back again!

Firstly, if you've ever stretched a T-shirt collar out, you'll notice that it it doesn't ever regain it's shape. This stretching out is an extreme of that. Why hasn't her dress, which just previously was a petite little thing, which was obviously designed to be worn over a corset - suddenly a large, baggy dress? There are several dangerous problems in this transformation not covered. The collar in the young version is very tight. She'd be strangled by the dress as she transformed! And what happened to the corset? She'd be like someone stomping on a tube of toothpaste - except with internal organs and ribs spewing out. Why is she wearing the corset again later on in the story?

A better way to handle the transformation would have been to have her go to bed in her nightgown, which is much more roomy and lacking in constricting undergarments, and when she wakes up she finds herself old and fat.

Transformations aren't the only times that the restrictions of clothing needs to be taken into account. The ambient temperature is also important. People wear heavy clothes during winter. They wear lightweight clothes in the summer. On a windy day, a wind breaker. On a rainy day, a raincoat. Think of all the different ways that you adjust what you wear in accordance to the air around you. If you're cold - you throw on a sweater. If you're hot, you take a layer of clothing off, or change into something more lightweight.

So, your ultra-cool protagonist is hitting the streets in its continuing mission to slay demons for the protection of mankind, in the middle of winter. You started the series when it was summer, and you have a really cool costume for your masked fighter. Great. Now, there need to be some adjustments made to make it feasible during the middle of winter. And no, I don't mean "add a scarf." Scarfs on their own don't do much.

I hate this one so much. Yeah, she's hot. Why does she have protection for her knuckles but none for her internal organs?

I mean, you're going to have to change your masked fighter's costume to match the weather. If the only way your character can be recognized is because of its one costume, perhaps you should work on the design more, or work in ways to identify the character when not drawn in its main costume. The best I've seen this handled was in Fullmetal Alchemist. The problem of the way metal reacts to cold temperatures and Edward's automail was actually dealt with and not ignored. A nice touch.

By the way, short skirts aren't very warm. Hot chicks are still hot when they're wearing pants.

Now, lots of artists and writers love to describe/draw long flowing clothing. There is a very good reason not to give long flowing to your characters.



Long flowy clothing gets caught on stuff. Or stuff gets caught on it. The reason that the long flowy designs get popular for the upperclassmen in many cultures is that it is very constricting. If you can wear long, flowy clothing, you don't have to do much manual labor or anything that requires you to be able to move around with ease. The same idea applies to hair. Long hair is like a handle waiting to be grabbed and yanked. Factory workers at the turn of the 20th century had to chop their hair off or wear it in tight buns to keep it from getting caught in the machines. So, artists and writers should not only have to make the clothing but have to wear it. Try running through an obstacle course in that gown. It's really hard, isn't it?

When you're designing your characters' "look" - make it fit what the character does. Don't put it in things "because I think they're cool!" but because "this is what this character would wear". If the character prefers to wear something impracticle - then it'd have to suffer the consequences.

Designing a New Culture's Clothing

Oh, the weird ass shit I've seen in fantasy series...

First thing to do when coming up with a clothing style  for a new culture is to forget your own, and look at it like an anthropologist. Actually, you should have been doing this all along. I've already mentioned the Prestigious Clothing concept - a mark of prestige is wearing impracticable, constricting, difficult to wear clothing. Keep that in mind.

Start simple. VERY simple. Most clothing styles of cultures has developed in two ways:

Wrapping the material around oneself:


This sort of clothing resulted in kilts, togas, and saris.

Poking a hole in the fabric for your head

The poncho start results in clothing like the Japanese kimono, Roman tunics, and modern-day T-shirts. It's likely that pants also developed from this starting point.

It's perfectly fine to mix the two, or have one for men and the other for women. The idea is to not just recycle our own history's styles or throw them into random cultures of our world's clothing.

If you look into how clothing and clothing styles develop, you'll notice that there's very little original thinking going into their development. They just revise or add to what they already have. Japanese kimonos are identical for men and women. The difference is the sashes. Women wear incredibly restricting sashes that are wide and made of stiff fabric - often with lots of padding to give them a cylindrical shape and gigantic knots to tie them off. Men wear a narrow sash with a small knot.They obviously come from the same idea.

Think of how the different styles would develop for the different classes. The lower classes are going to have clothing that is easier to make, easier to wear, easier to move about in, and that require less material. They'll also have ways to easily mend the clothing.

In cultures with a very large difference between the upper and lower classes, the lengths that the rich will go to to prove that they don't need to do any manual labor will be to the extremes. In China, wealthy men would grow out their fingernails to insane lengths to prove they never had to use their hands. In Rome it went the other way - men who could spend their time body-building and tanning their skin weren't having to work a trade. If the culture also puts men or women above each other - it will be reflected in the clothing. Keeping women as incapable of movement as possible is a trait of patriarchal cultures. You'll see it in Chinese foot-binding and in the ridiculous corsets in Europe. If it takes a lifetime of mutilating your body to achieve, you must have had a life of leisure. You can actually see this happening in our culture today - with cosmetic surgery.

Another important point is that different styles will often develop to be used as markers of different sub-cultures. Think of the goth sub-culture. The clothing and adornment isn't actually all that different from the main stream, it's just been altered a little bit.  Think also of the hippy movement in the 60's. Then, a lot of foreign clothing styles were adopted to mark that subculture.

Often, the clothing changes to meet the needs of the profession - Cowboy clothing styles - and later gets expanded on to other layers of a society when the society revolves around that profession.

So, you can use clothing/costume design to tell your readers a lot about the cultures you're designing. You don't have to be restricted to a bunch of modern cliches and archetypes of other cultures.

July 2015

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