Clothes of Female Characters in Fantasy

Update 29/4/24: Thanks to the surprisingly informative platform that is TikTok, I’ve recently learnt tightlacing was a particular style for corsets that not everyone wore. I leave my woefully uneducated original article below, as some of its points still stand and it talks about my female characters’ choices of clothes.

If you follow me on social media, you may have recently seen me complaining about the availability of comfortable/practical options for girls clothing. I’ve been looking for school uniform for my daughter, who starts school in September, but the trousers from the shop we can afford (a supermarket) are all form-fitting stretch material (which gets hot in summer and cold in winter), and the shoes are mostly T-bar and Mary Jane styles, or are light up. (On a side note, why are supermarkets making light up school shoes?)

From the moment girls are born, they have pinks and frills thrust upon them. Even on underwear. Yes, gentlemen readers, the trim on young girls underwear is almost always frilled elastic, rather than the nice turned over piece of fabric boys briefs have. This kind of elastic can rub. Some find it comfortable, but for those who don’t, the only real option is to buy boys underwear, unless you can afford something other than supermarket/big chain clothes (lucky you).

But I don’t want this entire post to be a rant. I want to talk about clothing for female characters in fantasy. Women seem to have two options for clothes in fantasy: dresses or form-fitting leather trousers. Have you seen the episode of the TV show Friends where Ross wears leather trousers? Imagine wearing a tight-fitting pair of those while running around, fighting for your life. No thank you.

In the book I’m currently querying, Echoes of Chaos, the main female protagonist, Eryn, does wear dresses. She likes them. In her home nation of Arlis, they wear layered flowing fabrics, and the skirts of dresses are asymmetrical, often stopping just above the knee at the highest point. Eryn likes running and climbing trees. She also likes her dignity. This brought me to a decision about women’s clothing in my books. For most fashions, be it long shirts, flowing asymmetric dresses, or riding dresses with slits in the skirts, women almost always wear leggings beneath them.

But then there’s Ada, the protagonist of the book I’m currently working on, Reborn in Ash. The time she lives in is dark. Only a year before the book there were mass riots, and having lost her much-younger sister, what Ada fears most is having a baby and losing them too. Living alone, she can’t afford to take risks with her safety. She starts binding her breasts and wearing men’s clothing. She discovers that not only is she safe in dark alleys, but the clothes are far more comfortable and practical. They also lead to her taking up thievery to survive. Only from the rich, of course.

Image by Dorota Kudyba from Pixabay

Bronwyn, the protagonist of another series I’ve part-drafted, Key to Truth, begins as a timid woman wearing dresses. But as she travels into immortal lands and comes into her own, she goes through several outfit changes. At the height of her power, she wears trousers and a shirt, much like Ads, but she also wears an embroidered surcoat that adds back in some femininity. She doesn’t feel the need to hide who she is, but she also wants to wear something powerful.

I’m a pantser (discovery writer), so I very much feel like my characters told me these were the outfits they wanted. They didn’t want tight corsets that would take away their breath as much as any love interest’s. They didn’t want anything impractical (although in a scene cut due to word count, Eryn did pine over some embroidered shoes). Like most women, they wanted something they would feel comfortable in. And for some women, that would of course be pretty corseted dresses or tight leather trousers, but I’m not writing those kinds of women.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, think about the outfits you’re putting your female characters in. Do they have a maid who can tighten their corsets for them? It’s tricky to do yourself. Does your world even need corsets? And let’s not forget fighting. Don’t leave it all to the men, but will a female character be able to fight in a dress/skirt? Rosalyn, a character I briefly introduce in Echoes of Chaos, wears a loose skirt but is also highly skilled with a sword and magic. She uses her skirt to her advantage in battle, the flowing material masking her movements and sometimes even tangling weapons.

We write fantasy, and though by (outdated) tradition it’s set in medieval clones of the real world, we can absolutely change these secondary worlds for the better.

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