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.