Research for fantasy clothing isn’t really a thing. After all, you could put elves in spandex and goblins in pink tutus because it’s your world. But to make the notes on clothing a little more complete, I thought I’d add some thoughts on research, clothing in fantasy and where I would take a little extra care.
Remember, the reason for research is to stop the author looking like an idiot. There is another point, which is, research should be to make the writer’s life easier. So the time that research comes up when writing a fantasy novel is if you are using a real world society at a point in time as a basis for your writing. And even then you have wiggle room. But let’s think about Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer – what can they wear?
When we talked about fantasy locations, I had the brave duo in three separate settings based on Samarkand, Oxford and Havana. A quick internet search for clothing at the date of 1200CE, the date I picked at random last time, will throw up all sorts of information. You can pick and choose among the offerings. A word of warning, though. If your story is heavily based on a particular society, for example, fifteenth century Japan, there will be people on the internet who live for that time period. They will know the exact authentic hem stitch on every garment and the dyes used to produce the colours of every piece. If you are not that obsessive then skate quickly over vague details and concentrate on the assassin’s route into the closely guarded home of the hero. If you are that obsessive then you have a fan base. Ask questions on their forums, be clear about why you’re asking and then make sure to share a link to your novel when it comes out.
I use research to make it easier for myself. If I want to write a story set in a fantasy world, I’m likely to use Medieval Europe as a starting point before tweaking things to the way I like them. As I’m familiar with that, I’ll use that as an example. Let’s start with Kurt the Barbarian, mighty and manly.
One of the garments common in Medieval Europe was hose. It was a covering for the leg that also covered the foot, like the equivalent of pantyhose or tights. I had a quick look at ‘hose’ on Wikipedia and was somewhat surprised at the different fashions. And I think of a cloth legging that covered the foot would be perfect under boots and breeches if you were striding across the frozen tundra. It would certainly help to keep your assets warm. I can’t see me describing Kurt the Barbarian wearing tights, though, so I’ll stick to things like furs and tunics. Just because I find something in research doesn’t mean that I’m going to either use it or describe it. That goes double for codpieces. If you don’t know what a codpiece is then it’s probably not a good idea to look it up on a shared computer or at work. I’m going to stick to vague descriptions of clothing that doesn’t sound ridiculous in our era.
Kurt and Gwendolyn both obviously have cloaks. There are all sorts of cloaks for the time and place on the internet. As it’s still 10th of November, they need something nice and warm. I’m not a fan of fur in the modern world. My view is that if you have to defend yourself in an unexpected life or death situation with a fur bearing animal, and you win, then you can have a fur coat. Otherwise modern textiles will cover all of your needs. The medieval world, however, was lacking in microfibres and Kurt the Barbarian was much more likely to have fought off bears, wolves, polecats and possibly bunny rabbits with his bare hands so I’ll allow him the fur. However if you are using real world analogies and Kurt is brooding on the city wall of the equivalent of Oxford, then you should have an extremely good reason for giving him a cloak lined with jaguar fur. It’s worth having a quick look around to see what animals were being used for fur in that area, give or take, and what the story needs.
Gwendolyn’s cloak is more likely to be wool. In our day, the main source of wool are sheep, and there were plenty in the countryside near Oxford at that time. Obviously there are different qualities of yarn, spinning and weaving, but it all works with the plot. Perhaps Gwendolyn’s cloak is old and stained after difficult times and travel or perhaps she has a wonderfully warm new cloak lined with lambswool from a grateful patient. If, however, Gwendolyn is standing at the gates of Samarkand then her cloak could be sheep’s wool but it could also be cashmere or angora – or even yak. I have yarn in my stash that is labelled 40% yak and it feels lovely and warm. In the unlikely even that she needs a warm cloak in Havana, though, it’s more likely to be made of imported alpaca yarn. Wool bearing animals appear in all sorts of places, although as its original purpose is to keep the animal warm you are not likely to find many decent sources of wool in the jungle. Again, it’s worth looking around and seeing what the local equivalent in our world is, or even inventing an animal.
It may be that you need to talk about underwear. Practically all underwear in the north of Medieval Europe was linen of some type. Silk in Europe was horrifically expensive, so if you are giving Kurt the Barbarian a silk shirt then you need to know that it probably cost as much as a horse – the equivalent of a fancy car! Gwendolyn may have crazily expensive silk underwear but if she has the money then she’s more likely to have fine quality, easily washed linen and spent any extra money on ribbons or braid. There are plenty of resources on the internet about medieval underwear but remember that people like to be comfortable and the basics have been the same for many years. Don’t get too carried away.
Cotton is tricky. It’s one of the oldest fibres known and has been found in archaeological sites in both the old world and the new. Obviously some cotton could have reached Oxford, but it would have been unusual and comparatively expensive. An enterprising merchant could have brought cotton material from, for example, Egypt, but I doubt that they would have made much money. If you imagine holding some silk fabric in one hand and some cotton fabric in another, it’s likely that the silk is going to feel like it’s worth paying a premium to import at stupidly high costs to cover transport while cotton may not feel as good as top quality linen. It may be a staple in your world, but it’s more likely to be hiding under outer clothes in Samarkand or Havanna than it is in Oxford. Besides, if you’re concentrating on what the underwear is made of, you’re describing the wrong things.
I’ve talked about using research to keep consistency. After all, if I’m using Oxford as a sort of analogy and wonder if velvet was available there in 1200CE, I can just look it up and keep things consistent. I have to wonder, though, if that is overrated in fantasy novels. Tolkien, who really knew his stuff, had Bilbo run out of Bag End without a pocket handkerchief. While a hobbit may find these important, however, I can’t imagine Denethor worrying about a handkerchief or Elrond checking his pockets to make sure his handkerchief was in place. And, after all, clothes that were worn by nobility in London or Paris would be subtly different from those worn in Stockholm or Naples and incredibly different from the clothing available to a poor shepherd in Northern Scotland or a peasant in the Caucasian mountains.
And if you are running short of world building inspiration, it’s okay to look at what people wore in places in our world that are similar to your setting. You can get a feel of how people managed the heat/cold/damp/sun/resources to keep themselves comfortably clothed and extend that to your characters. As long as the focus is on the character and the stories then don’t worry about whether the hastily grabbed blanket is llama, alpaca, yak, angora, goat, camel or even muskox. It’s much more interesting to write about the feverish stranger shivering underneath it after a daring rescue than fibre content. After all, it’s all about the story.
If you have any topics you would like me to rummage through, please let me know. I can’t promise that I’ll know anything about a topic, but I can share how I look around and find out.
You can find more in this series here – Research and the Author Collected Posts