The role of fashion in science fiction and fantasy

I’m thinking of the monologue that Miranda Priestly delivered to Andy Sachs in the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada a very comical amount of times, especially when hunting around a “tragic casual corner” debating the difference between turquoise and blue.

Fashion, whether we have that coveted ‘taste’ or ‘French girl aesthetic’ or not, is what we live in. What we wear is a statement of who we are. Choosing not to worry about what you wear is also a fashion statement. You are still saying something about yourself and in turn telling the world what to think of you.

Fantasy authors use fashion to symbolize what their characters represent in the world of the story. There is the direct symbolism of a peasant dressed in rags showing their socio-economic status. There is also the use of different colors to convey emotions, such as gold for wealth or white for purity. And how many stories have used a jewel to symbolize or evoke a memory? In less than a sentence, a fashion statement can tell readers everything they need to know about a character.

In real life, it’s easy to just use your eyes and see how fashion says something about someone… and social media helps. Emma Chamberlain wore a look to this year’s Met Gala that could have been iconic… except she chose to wear a necklace stolen from an Indian king. So now her fashion choices do not reflect the wealth, status, influence and western beauty she no doubt wanted to convey. Instead, her fashion choices have become a powerful symbol of how the insidious nature of European colonialism is not a relic of the past, but rather living history.

I say this because a fantasy author’s fashion choices, or even the lack of fashion choices, is still a statement to readers. Whether the expected results have the intended impact or are unpredictable is in the hands of the readers.

It is interesting that in letter No. 211 J. R.R. Tolkien wrote: “I do not know the details of clothing. I visualize with great clarity and detail landscapes and ‘natural’ objects, but not artifacts.”I personally believe that Tolkien was too focused on the historical details and spiritual metaphors loaded in his stories to worry about fashion. But fashion was still important to how his story became popular with millions of fans; in fact, Peter Jackson had a different idea for film adaptations of Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson needed to visually convey Tolkien’s historical details and spiritual metaphors without the use of words, and fashion was the answer. This is why we see Galadriel dressed in pure white, almost like an angel, when we first see her in Lothlorien. Now this makes sense because as we know from Unfinished tales, “The Story of Galadriel and Celeborn,” “Even among the Eldar she was considered beautiful, and her hair was considered an incomparable wonder.” What better way to show the beauty and justice of this character than her all-white attire? Viewers will also understand the subliminal message in her all-white outfit.

in A memory called Empire by Arkady Martin, a noblewoman named Nineteen Adze appears in the first 100 pages of the book and is described as “a Teixcalaanli woman dressed entirely in bone white: trousers and a layered blouse and a long asymmetrical jacket.” My first thought when I read this was: power suit. Nineteen Adze wore a power suit that effectively conveyed her social status, power, and influence. In one sentence, Martin establishes the foundation of an important character, conveying her power and status in relation to the young diplomat who is the main character. Any deviation from this power pack image will now reflect a change in Nineteen Adze’s status.

This is also the second example where I mentioned white to convey strength and even beauty. In fashion, white is considered a “primary” color that can be combined with almost any other color on the wheel. But don’t let that fool you. White can symbolize purity (eg a bride on her wedding day), but historically it can also represent privilege because it is so difficult to keep clean. But here’s a catch: white for Hindus is a color of mourning. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Hindu who first saw Galadriel on screen and momentarily wondered if she was returning from a funeral.

A memory called an empire, Arkady Martin book cover

This brings me to my next point: the clothing described by the authors is a direct reflection of their own cultural perception of the world. For all his mastery of the written word and meticulous world-building, Tolkien was still a 20th-century man who probably saw fashion as something in the realm of women. After all, most of his female characters wore traditional feminine clothing. When Eowyn subverted gender roles in the final battle, it was a marked difference that was definitely outside the norm for Middle Earth.

On the other hand, Martin posted A memory called Empire in 2019 and is no doubt aware of the cultural discourse surrounding power flats that symbolize women trying to break the glass ceiling.

Science fiction and fantasy novels are fictional worlds that emerge from the minds of the authors. The clothing worn by the characters and power players in these books is not only a reflection of those characters’ status in this world, but also how that author perceives that clothing. In the Western world, white is a symbol of innocence and purity, the perfect color for a fair elven queen. It’s also a basic color that can make a statement when used for a suit, the perfect color for a powerful courtier.

Want to learn more? Read all about the connection between fashion and literature.

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