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This is a constant struggling point of mine. Most of my settings take place in fictional worlds often inspired by various parts of human history.

For instance, one of my stories is located in an Ancient Egypt inspired world. (EDIT : My setting is only based on Ancient Egypt and the clothing is not accurate to what it really was like back then. My characters wear anachronistic clothes.)

In these worlds I am creating, people, well, obviously, wear clothes. Although description is far from being one of my writing strengths (I avoid this weakness by making it part of my style that I don't describe much), I almost always picture very clearly in my head the characters and the way they dress up. In fact, as I am not so bad at drawing, I even use to draw them and their outfits.

The thing is, well, I can't — and it would be stupid to try — ever avoid describing things. Sometimes, it really is important to explain the reader some details he cannot invent by himself. While just writing descriptions is a little problem in itself for me, the worst part of it is describing outfits.

Words like t-shirt, for instance seem really out of place in fictional and not futuristic worlds, like the Egyptian one I mentioned above. But when what my character wears is basically a t-shirt, how do I describe it?

Also I have to mention that I write in French and we use the English words t-shirt, shorts, sneakers or pullover as is, which seems even wronger when used in fictional worlds. But not only English words cause me problems: scarf, for example, for which we have a French word, seems out of place when describing a long piece of cloth the character is wearing around his neck, but not to keep him warm (when in the Egyptian setting it is even worse). Even trousers is weird in some settings.

A trick I often use for lack of a better way is to blandly refer to clothes with very generic words like haut (French for top):

He was wearing a white top and a long piece of cloth around his neck.

See the above example. It is really generic and doesn't tell me much about, for instance, the length of the sleeves of the said top. Or basically anything about it. Moreover, if I have to describe several characters' outfits at once, it quickly becomes boring and makes it harder for the reader to see the characters in their mind.

[Character1] was wearing a dark blue top and a long bottom1. [Character2], however, had a long piece of cloth around his neck and a red top with long sleeves. His bottom1 was short and stopped just above his knees.


1 Not sure this word can be used in this context in English. Sorry if not.

Where I could have just said:

[Character1] was wearing a dark blue t-shirt and and a pair of trousers. [Character2], however, had a scarf around his neck, a red pullover and was wearing shorts.


(Dumb example with dumb clothing)

Well, this is it. I'm sure there is no best way but I'd like to know what techniques you employ to describe clothes similar to ours in fictional words where the modern words we use seem out of place.

I'm writing in French but I believe the problem is quite the same, although even worse in my case.

  • Are you writing characters with anachronistic clothing? or are you looking for a way to describe their historically-accurate clothing? Ancient Egyptians didn't wear t-shirts, though perhaps yours do. – Monica Cellio Jan 10 '17 at 19:17
  • @MonicaCellio His setting is based off of Ancient Egypt, but his characters wear slightly different clothes. See Lauren's answer; he explains it in the comment. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Jan 10 '17 at 19:58
  • @ThomasMyron thanks. Ctouw, it would help if that info were edited into the question. thanks. – Monica Cellio Jan 10 '17 at 20:20
  • Edited the post to make this more clear :) – Ctouw Jan 15 '17 at 12:07

10 Answers 10

21

What you need to do is research the proper terms for those clothing items.

Go to a university library and browse books on the history of clothing or books on the archaeology of the time you are writing about and see what the experts call them.

If you are lucky, there is something like an illustrated dictionary. Here is one in German: Bildwörterbuch der Kleidung und Rüstung [Illustrated Dictionary of Clothing and Armor]. I have it, and it is brilliant. Maybe something like this exists in French.

  • 2
    I am afraid using ancient words for clothing can lose the reader if he doesn't know these words. Plus what I said in a comment: my worlds are just inpired by human history but are not exactly it. Anyway thank you for the book suggestion, it looks really interresteing ! Too bad I am not good at German. But I'll search for a French or English alternative. – Ctouw Jan 10 '17 at 10:50
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    Clothing styles change. If you use existing terms their use will suggest a specific historic time to the reader. If you want "timeless" clothing, you must invent your own words or use category names such as "shoe" that do not suggest a specific style or historic clothing type. On the other hand, many historc clothing terms are quite well known today. Every kid knows what a toga is. And you can introduce less well-known terms unobtrusively: "Julius tied the laces of his caliga over his foot." Now your reader knows a caliga is some kind of footwear. – user5645 Jan 10 '17 at 11:42
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    @what I think you're confusing "top" with "tank top", "tube top", or "crop top". A "top" is any garment which covers your chest: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_(clothing) – Tin Man Jan 10 '17 at 21:09
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    @what Personally, I don't see any problem with using recent words, as long as the concept/object they refer to isn't anachronistic to the setting... I'm going to suggest an edit that I think meets both our requirements, but you're welcome to shoot it down if you wish. – Tin Man Jan 10 '17 at 23:30
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    @Walt: For that matter, if you're writing about Ancient Egpyt in French then somewhere between "all" and "almost all" the words you use are anachronistic. So avoiding new words for old things is a fool's errand. That said, there's a sort of covenant between the reader and the writer, that if you stick to words that don't seem too new to the reader, they'll forgive you the actual facts. In this vein I wouldn't describe any ancient garment as a "T-shirt", no matter how similar it was in cut to a T-shirt, because I expect readers to respond to T-shirts as a modern thing. – Steve Jessop Jan 11 '17 at 2:56
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Why does it matter what they are wearing? Are you telling me the colours so that I will know one character has more money or status than another? Was prepared for the place they are going to (eg it's dusty and they brought the thing to wrap around their face)? Is a member of a particular occupation, family, or religion? Is there going to be a scene where someone is attacked or rescued and the neck cloth is super relevant, so this is kind of Chekov's scarf? Are you telling me from the point of view of the fish-out-of-water protagonist who doesn't know what the thing is called, or a longtime resident who also owns and wears the same item? There has to be a reason for telling me. Once there is, the sentence will come much easier.

Alex pulled the dustcloth tighter around his face as the wind rose. Once again he felt grateful for the advice from Sam.

Alex glared at the new arrival. His dark blue clothes, untouched by dust or time it seemed, announced his heritage to all. Once again Alex burned with shame at how short his own top was.

You can also make up words, introduce them in context once ("Alex pulled the matiyah over his head and made sure the sleeves were not twisted, then tucked it into his belt") and then just use the word later at will. This lets you be subtler ("the newcomer's dark blue matiyah seemed far too expensive for a trip like this") when you mention it in the future.

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    Alex's problem seem to be that he thinks a dustcloth is for protecting your face from dust; the new arrival's clothes look so nice because he knows that a dustcloth is actually for wiping dust off things. – David Richerby Jan 11 '17 at 16:04
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Several people have said that you should look into the historical names for clothing. However, as you pointed out on what's answer, a name that the reader is not familiar with can confuse him. This has happened to me plenty.

There are two things that you can do here, both of which I would recommend:

  1. Describe the function of the clothing
  2. Equate the look of the clothing with something in your setting that looks similar.

Describe the function. The first thing is to stop relying on already-made terms. Pants, shirt, sweater... as you have pointed out, all have a futuristic feel. As what mentioned, you can use terms not tied to time, such as 'shoe' or 'loincloth'. But better yet, do not use any terms at all. Describe the clothing.

I know you said that description is not your strong suit, but you're going to have to do it. Describe the clothing and its function. Then you can call it whatever you want:

He wore a veldera, a long piece of cloth draped over his shoulders, wrapped about his chest twice, and secured with a rope.

The other thing you can do is to equate the clothing with something that looks similar.

It gave him the distinct appearance of a mummy.

You can also combine these two methods, and describe the function by equating it with something else:

The lator was made from rough wool, giving the wearer the look and feel of an elderly sheep. It fit snugly about the chest, with long sleeves that covered the arms, and was said to be as warm as the skin of a bear.

Note that the above could easily be used to describe a rough woolen sweater. Case in point.

I hope that helped!

5

Your options are:

  • Use modern terms
  • Use antquated terms
  • Use generic terms
  • Use invented terms

If you really think about it, that's all you have to work with. However, there's a wide palette of ways to mix and match these approaches to add flavor.

My recommendation would be to research the correct term for the historical dress. Once you have the most precise historical equivalent you can find, ask yourself "is this good enough?" If it is, then great! If it isn't, then its time for you to invent a term for your particular gear.

Once you have this term, treat it somewhat like you would a character. You'd never assume that the reader knows that Alice is a curious sort of girl, why assume they know that a Shalwar Kameez* is a type of loose trouser? Teach them the ways of your clothing.

This is a great opportunity for that overused phrase: show don't tell. You don't have to give a definition for every clothing word you use. Instead, show them. At some point, when your character is wearing Shalwar Kameez, and spills wine, say he spilled wine on his trousers. Back and forth utilization of the proper name, generic terms, and description will build up the nature of the clothing industry in your world almost for free! It's how we learn the meaning of words when we are children, and it works at any age!

* I chose this particular article of clothing simply because its a name that is not typically known in Western cultures. I, myself had to look it up, so if I actually got this clothing term wrong, my apologies!

  • That site is a bit ambiguous in its definition. I've always understood the Salwar kameez to be the whole outfit made up of the trousers and the shift. Salwar is the trousers, kameez is the shirt. Similar to how a trouser suit isn't just the trousers. (I'm only using the spelling 'Salwar' because that's the trnasileration I'm familiar with in the UK.) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shalwar_kameez#Description – Spagirl Jan 11 '17 at 16:21
  • @Spagirl Thanks for the clarification! I think I'll actually leave it as it is, errors and all, unless someone finds my mistake offensive. I think my mistake followed by your comment actually emphasizes the point I was making =) I wish I'd thought of it! – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jan 12 '17 at 2:45
4

The answer to this is "do your research."

If you're writing about Ancient Egypt, you start by Googling "clothes in Ancient Egypt." If you're really serious, you find books about Ancient Egypt and go to museums to study what's been unearthed, written, and saved.

Your paucity of imagination is remedied by cracking open a book. That will tell you the terms you're looking for.

  • The problem is that my world is not ancient Egypt, it is just inspired by it. So the clothes differ from what ancient egyptians were wearing and are closer to modern clothes. This is often the case in my settings but reasearch is certainly the best starting point. – Ctouw Jan 10 '17 at 10:45
4

If I were writing about someone in a historical/fantastic setting, and I wanted to indicate he was wearing a t-shirt, I'd call it a "tunic." It's a relatively well-understood word that sounds old-fashioned.

My point is that for your purposes, the word doesn't need to be either one-hundred percent accurate to the era or to the item of clothing, it just needs to sound old, and give a general indication of what you're talking about.

[Character1] was wearing a dark blue tunic and long pantaloons. [Character2], however, had a long pashmina around his neck and a red outer garment with long sleeves over his short breeches.

4

If the fashion is important to your secondary world story, make up some terms for the outfits and describe then throughout the narrative as part of the worldbuilding, while using more generic ones, like sandals or robes, without explanation. The level of detail is up to you, and you do not have to drench the reader in a precise description of how the hem of someone's qwerty was trimmed, but if you say that it "billowed behind her like a maroon cloud, barely touching the floor" you will be building a more or less sufficient image.

I had once to describe what would be an equivalent to a kimono in my world (a martial artist agreed to give a hand combat lesson to another character) and ended up sending a servant into town to buy something resembling "a baker or miller pants and shirt, but wide enough not to restrict movements", etc., but the scene allowed to play with it on several different levels, so I had my fun.

One thing not to do: use modern or very culture-specific terms, like trenchcoat or sombrero :-)

1

What I personally experienced is that describing things is not only often the only way to go (Parts of my own story are written in perspective of the main protagonist and as she's no botanist or herb woman she simply doesn't know a flower to be an arnica, so I'll have to describe it at least rudimentarily) it is the one tool to greatly enhance the experience of reading your story.

The good thing about describing things is you decide its level. You don't have to go all Tolkien and throw down pages of nothing but detailed descriptions, you can give the reader the freedom to imagine things by himself, just describe detailed enough to give the right overall image. Tattered is fine enough, only mention the trouser's holes on the knees if the context actually requires it.

On that note I advise you not only to describe, but rather to include the description into an interaction. There already is a huge difference between

Even if Jeremy was no beauty, his eyes were nuanced in an intriguingly deep blue color.

and

Intrigued by the remarkably intense colour she tried to sneak a shy glance into Jeremy's deep blue eyes whenever she got the chance to.

It gets even better when you enhance the description with figures.

Pleasant shivers of cold wet water ran down her spine whenever a shy glance gave her the chance to dive into Jeremy's deep ocean blue eyes.

Luckily I'm German and our language, formed for centuries in the former land of poets and thinkers, is basically made for figurative speech but with a little more effort it's nearly as easily possible in English. If you lack the words or depictions I advise you to read, a lot. If writing fascinates you, you'll get the knack sooner or later.

In matters of clothing (I feel free to use Thomas Myron's example) this could be something like

He felt like something in his clothing was off, so he fiddled with the fabric's drape on his shoulders and its dual wrapping about his chest and tightened the rope at his waist, which failed in fixing the cloth so far.

  • Just FYI, the third example might sound fine in German, but in English that's "purple prose." It's too much. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 11 '17 at 15:14
  • In German it isn't necessarily, but thanks, didn't know that. Anyway, It was just a side note in any case. – Otto Abnormalverbraucher Jan 11 '17 at 15:24
0

If you check out the Dark Tower series, you can see how Stephen King tackles this in his imaginary world. Made-up terms get woven into the narrative, usually used in a context that explains its meaning. Or the narrator will come right out and explain its meaning to another character. I guess the same would be true for Harry Potter but I haven't read any of those.

  • Thanks for the book suggestion, I'll have to read it. In Harry Potter series (that I strongly recommand you to read!), I don't recall of any made-up term for clothing (although I read it about 6 times): wizard-specific clothing is mostly composed of capes and hats that don't need new words to describe. – Ctouw Jan 15 '17 at 12:35
  • Oh no I mentioned Harry Potter series for examples of using made up words and terms not specifically clothing. – Nicholas Hirras Jan 15 '17 at 12:37
  • Oh, sorry, I did not understand well. My bad! – Ctouw Jan 15 '17 at 12:42
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A t-shirt is a short-sleeved pullover shirt. A chemise (a term still used) is a short-sleeved pullover dress, like a nightgown. Robes are full or half sleeved garments, typically open in front and tied or buttoned closed, that reach to mid-calf or even the floor.

Describe how the clothing is used, donned, or appears. Is it tight or loose? Does it reveal a figure or hide it? Are the arms or legs exposed, or not? Is it trousers or a dress or gown? Where does it end on the leg: Mid-thigh? The knee? The calf? The ankle?

A dress can be closed at the waist, made to be stepped into, with a belt or sewn on ribbons to cinch it at the waist. It can be open-backed with buttons to close it, or ribbons or ties.

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