I’m going to revisit the old “chainmail bikini” thing for a moment – I’ve written about it before, and everything I’ve said there still stands, but I’m encountering some new territory regarding it while I’m writing a story, and I want to bounce a few ideas around.
On the one hand, the chain-mail bikini (or the female warrior wearing almost nothing) doesn’t make a lot of reasonable sense in any martial application. Likewise, the idea of a woman killing things in her underwear is also not inherently sexy – it’s kinda off-putting in terms of sexual attraction. Both of those things I cover in the linked post there. I want to take this discussion a bit further, though. For instance: what happens if everybody is wearing irresponsibly small amounts of clothing?
I’m thinking, specifically, about sword-and-sandal type stories. Here, we have shirtless barbarians, toga-wearing kings, and a complete lack of pants to be found on anybody at all. Nudity and partial nudity seem to be the order of the day, right? Even guys in ‘armor’ are basically just carrying shields and helmets and, if they’re really well equipped, the occasional matching sets of greaves and bracers. If they do wear a breastplate, it is more-or-less shaped like their actual chest anyway and, let’s face it, the subgenre rarely has anybody wearing breastplates.
So, say you put a female protagonist in this subgenre. A strong female protagonist – not some bimbo for Conan to save, but rather a female Conan (and no, not Red Sonja). Do you dress her in furs and keep her covered up? Do you have her bare to the waist and brazen about it, fully in control of her sexuality and dismissive of the audience’s cultural attitudes towards nudity? I mean, to be fair, the males in these stories wear every bit as little clothing as the women do, so presumably nudity as we understand it isn’t a problem in that world’s context.
But it is a problem in our world’s context. Women’s bodies and how they are portrayed so often shows them as objects of sexual desire, and the artwork associated with the Conan stories
and similar are designed to paint them in that same light. Is Red Sonja really memorable for her strength as a character, or is she rather popular for her scant clothing? Can the two be easily divorced in the mind of the audience? How does so-called ‘rape culture’ affect our ability to accept the idea of a woman wearing almost nothing as still an independent person with all the same power and potential as shirtless Conan over there?
I’m writing a story right now set in an ancient-world fantasy setting aboard a trireme. A woman has control over a crew of pirates and is forcing them to row deep into uncharted waters. It is hot. The men, naturally, are wearing little-to-nothing (loin cloths and that’s it). The woman, my kick-ass protagonist, would probably be wearing something similar – loin cloth, some kind of top, maybe a cape. That’s what makes sense for the setting, anyway. Hell, it would probably make sense for her to wear not much more than Red Sonja, but then I get into the trap of the audience focusing on her body more than her predicament, which is both counter-productive and objectifying. If I stick her in something else (a robe, a toga, etc.), I risk underscoring her identity as a woman of action – she wears what the men wear out of practicality. She does not fear them, nor is she shy or afraid of her image, so to put her in a piece of clothing untrue to her character for the purpose of assuaging prudish (or maybe prudent?) concerns about depictions of the female body seems to ring false.
So, I guess in the end I have a line to walk. This character is not meant to be a sexual object, she just happens to be dressing to fit the setting. I want to let the audience know this, and I want them to know I know, since what I’m ultimately trying to do is tip upside down all those old Boris Vallejo paintings and let the woman be not object, but rather subject, in a world where loincloths and chain-mail brassieres are the order of the day.
For Christmas, my wife got me the DVD set of every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ever made. This was both unwise of her (she is going to be watching a lot of Star Trek now) and extremely kind (it’s amazing how much I miss that show). It has also made me keenly aware of how the show began airing in 1987, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the clothing worn by its civilians. Whether it’s Wesley’s ridiculous sweaters (seriously, kid, why do you constantly dress like a coffee-shop dwelling Maine hipster?) or whatever the hell thing Riker decides to wear off duty, everybody looks the stupidest they possibly could in clothing made from fabric. You suddenly understand why anyone in their right mind would want to join Starfleet – their primary color unitards are actually quite fetching by comparison.
But it’s the Future! Fashion Changes!
This is the common riposte here. In the 24th century, fashion has changed significantly and, therefore, the things they wear look strange and silly to us. The suit and tie, for instance, would likely look silly to people of the 18th century, western dress seems foolish to eastern eyes, and so on and so forth. Fair enough.
We should not and cannot forget, though, that works of science fiction and fantasy exist for and are created by modern society. It therefore follows that our modern cultural concepts of fashion have great influence, even if only subconsciously, on the clothing our characters are depicted as wearing. Even when we consciously deviate from it, we are deviating for a purpose. In Star Trek, it seemed as though the choice was made to make everybody’s clothing look comfortable and functional – a nod to the newfound utopian society that the Federation stands for, wherein social class and, therefore, status-as-image is a thing of the antiquated past.
Likewise, if I were to tell you that the fashions of my own fantasy setting, Alandar, are inspired by the clothing of the 17th-19th centuries in Europe, that is an admission that I’m discussing a society where status is deeply ingrained in clothing almost to the point of absurdity. Elaborate dress is important here on a variety of levels, and if I’m going to do the setting justice, I need to have some concept of what those levels are and how they are conveyed.
This, incidentally, is difficult work for someone not inherently concerned with fashion or clothing, such as myself. Indeed, I would say that I am far from alone in this regard: many men, and many of them geeks like myself, show only cursory awareness of fashionable trends, what they mean, how they are important, or why we should pay attention to them. My sense of style is primarily motivated by what I feel comfortable in (and what my job requires of me), and I give only scant attention to others in this regard. Tyvian, though, is quite the opposite – he judges people by their clothing regularly and incisively, to the point where he can judge a man’s prospects by the stitching in his doublet. Writing him in his world requires an attention to detail I typically overlook in my daily life.
As much as I might be alienated from the fashion world, I have to admit it has great power over how we see and understand others, even if we don’t comprehend or recognize that power ourselves. Accordingly, when creating fantastic or futuristic worlds, we need to be aware of two things: how fashion is understood in the world we’ve created AND how the real world will interpret that fashion. Let’s face it, it is difficult to take any of the civilians in Star Trek TNG seriously; they look like bozos. You meet a guy who’s supposed to be a gritty, self-reliant mercenary captain and he’s dressed like the owner of your local yoga studio, ‘intimidating’ is not the mood that will be expressed. It doesn’t matter how much you want to talk about ‘fashions changing’ and ‘their world isn’t like that’ – the effect of sartorial aesthetics is beyond your power to overcome, dear storyteller.
Even if we don’t care how we dress ourselves, we can’t ignore our characters own fashion decisions. At least not always. Clothing tells stories every bit as much as words do.
Dear Captain Destructo,
Thank you for ordering your Financial and Operational Underwriting Limited (FOUL) spring catalog. As of this moment, you should note the red LED display at the top center of the masthead on page ix. Failure to complete your perusal of this catalog before the counter reads zero will result in a deadly neurotoxin being released from the binding, killing any living thing within three meters and causing the paper itself to decay rapidly. Please make no attempt to disarm the device, as that will render any orders you submit through the catalog null and void and your money will not be returned. Please understand that this is for the safety of our organization and, by extension, your own interests. Thank you.
Table of Contents
Lounging around the death arena? Plan on catching some rays on the sun-deck of your moonbase? Have a few hours set aside for stroking a Persian cat and sipping champagne?
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