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I'm writing a story in a fantasy setting, where there are characters who dress with ancient Egyptian type clothing - such as haram pant and usekh collars. Since the story is a fantasy and not set in the real historical Egypt, should I call them by their proper names? I can't find a comfortable way to describe such particular dress pieces without it seeming forced or unnatural.

  • Hello! I took the liberty to edit your question and tags to make it clearer, I hope this helps. Welcome to SE! – FraEnrico Jan 15 '18 at 8:02
  • If he wore a jacket-like clothing item, or pants; would you call it a "jacket" or "pants"? Do you, for the rest of characters' clothing? :) – xDaizu Jan 15 '18 at 16:10
  • Highly related: How to refer to clothes without modern words ? (e.g: t-shirt). Ironically, they also were using an ancient Egyptian setting! – Cort Ammon Jan 15 '18 at 20:24
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I would call them by their proper names. Normally in a story, you should describe the dress when it matters in the story, the pants or the collar get in the way of the character wearing this garb doing something.

Alternatively, another character unfamiliar with the dress can describe what he sees (or the narrator of the story can describe how he sees it).

Finally, if the unusual clothing never matters in the story: No character cares about it, likes it or dislikes it, infers anything from it and nobody is influenced by it, and the clothing itself never has an impact on the story or anybody in it, then it doesn't matter what you call it. In my stories, the clothing would not even be mentioned if it absolutely doesn't matter.

But if somebody likes it or thinks it looks cool or wishes they had it, then from that person's POV the clothing can be described, along with what they like about it.

The only exception I can think of would be screenplay or play writing, in which case it is a costume choice and should be referred to by its correct name and needs no description. The opposite is true for a novel: Don't put JUST correct names in, with no description. Do not expect readers to look it up, and it is your job to get the reader to see what you see.

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    I think a lot of it depends on the narrator of the story. If the narrator has never been to Earth, they may not come up with the same names as we have. I think description is more important in this context. Now if the narrator has had experience in ancient Egypt or researched Earth at some point, then yes using the proper names sounds the way to go. – BugFolk Jan 15 '18 at 0:42
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    @BugFolk With that reasoning, if the narrator has never been to Earth, how can they come up with any word that we would understand? – Muschkopp Jan 15 '18 at 12:35
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    @Muschkopp They likely wouldn't but you have a point. Balance. Usekh collars isn't just a generic neck piece, but something very specific to a particular culture. A reader who knows what one is may expect the culture in the book to be more familiar with Ancient Egypt. Those who don't may have to pause to do quick research to figure out what they mean. – BugFolk Jan 15 '18 at 18:36
  • Either way as soon as a reader makes the connection Usekh collars = Ancient Egypt. haram pant = Egypt/ Middle East. They are going to make comparisons based on what they know vs. the book. If the book is just using the clothing but not the culture or the location, the reader may get whiplash wondering, "wait I thought this was set in Ancient Egypt or a desert, not a snowy tundra on planet A." – BugFolk Jan 15 '18 at 18:47
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    @BugFolk I'm with Amadeus' last few sentences. Don't make me look it up. Give at least a rudamentary description. I can look it up if I'm curious and want to learn more, but don't make me look it up to understand the story. – a CVn Jan 15 '18 at 18:54
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In my humble opinion, there's nothing wrong in principle with using the name for Egyptian clothing or the clothing of any other culture. This has nothing to do with whether the characters or narrator in your story would be familiar with ancient Egypt. It has to do with the fact that your story is, presumably, written in English.

If I was writing a story set 5000 years in the future involving people who had never heard of Earth, I would not hesitate for a moment to say that a character was wearing "pants" or "a hat". I would similarly have no hesitation saying that someone was wearing breeches or a turban or carrying a sword or living in an adobe hut. Yes, characters in the story probably don't speak English and wouldn't know these words. But the story is written in English, so I assume everything is supposed to be translated anyway.

The only thing that would make me reluctant to say that a character was wearing, for example, a "usekh collar" is that I would not be sure that my readers would know what it was. I don't, and I think I'm a reasonably well-educated person. I think many readers would have to look it up, or more likely, would not bother and just skim over it and thus miss whatever significance it is supposed to have in your story.

Ditto to the point made by several others that you should only bring up what the characters are wearing if it's relevant to the story. If you want to make a point that these people are from another culture and the hero cannot help but notice their unusual dress, then certainly mention it. Or if it's relevant -- the heroine cannot run fast in her voluminous Victorian skirts or the hero uses his tie as a rope or whatever -- cool. But avoid excessive descriptions that just bog the story down. Like, "And suddenly, an assassin leaped out and attacked him. The assassin was wearing brown pants and a blue shirt. The pants were slightly worn around the knees but otherwise in good condition. The shirt had white buttons, but one button was missing on the left cuff ..."

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    Good answer. The excessive description of the assassin's clothes made me laugh! – storbror Jan 15 '18 at 9:02
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    @storbror Unlike the character focuses on details all the time, to the point of being crippling — sort of a Sherlock Holmes who can't ever stop observing even the tiniest detail about everything. Although then the description becomes a character-development detail rather than a clothing-description detail. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 15 '18 at 13:05
  • wow, @LaurenIpsum at first I read your comment as "storbror, unlike the character, focuses on detail all the time, to the point of... sort of a Sherlock...", which I took as a (weird, to some) compliment for a split second before I realized that you, of course, haven't read any of my work. I suppose you mean that this sort of excessive description is more useful in showing(/developing) character than it is in the flow of a scene or a story? – storbror Jan 15 '18 at 15:07
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    @storbror oops, that should have been "unless," not "unlike." my bad! :) Yes, I meant that you could use that excessive detailing to show that the character can't ever turn off his/her observing, even in a crisis. In that situation, what the character is observing is almost irrelevant. You're showing that the character can't stop making note of every tiny detail about everything. You wouldn't want to have that kind of obsessive detail in a scene for no reason — Jay is using it to demonstrate that it slows down the flow of the scene. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jan 16 '18 at 10:48
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    @LaurenIpsum In a Sherlock Holmes story, all these tiny details always turn out to be relevant to the plot. Holmes notices that the hat is of a style that was popular 10 years ago but has gone out of fashion, and this proves to be a crucial clue in solving the crime. But yes, the fact that a character obsesses over tiny details of how people dress could be an important point in character development. And of course how people dress can be relevant: it says something about a man that he always wears a suit and tie even when others around him are wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, etc. – Jay Jan 16 '18 at 16:56
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Edit to clarify

Apparently a lot of people in the comments were confused about what I meant, thinking you couldn't use any words at all to describe things, because words originated here on Earth. That's not what I meant. However, because I did not explain my standing fully, I will do so below. I have removed the original answer.


One of the attractions of fantasy worlds is that they are different from our own. Some readers read fantasy for that very reason. That's why you want to avoid breaking that reality and bringing them back to the real world (and likely the real world problems they were trying to escape from in the first place). With me so far?

There are a few things that can break the fantasy-reality. One of the most common is referring to objects that do not or should not exist in the fantasy setting.

If you are relating a tale about elves, dwarves, a dark lord, and a familiar quest to destroy a powerful artifact, you do not want to describe elves as wielding shotguns, or dwarves as possessing kevlar. Unless your story is urban-fantasy, steampunk, or something similar. For the sake of clarity, we will ignore that possibility for now, and assume that the theoretical story in question is high fantasy.

Note: Because some people are still reading too much into this, I have to say that it should not be assumed I am saying elves cannot carry shotguns. Remember that I am using a High Fantasy Setting as an example. Elves generally use bows, swords, and/or magic in High Fantasy. If the shotguns reference just isn't working for you, replace the word with 'mathematical calculators'. The effect should be the same.

Why don't you want shotgun-carrying elves? Because - unless shotguns are inherently part of your fantasy-world - they are a tie back to the present times, the real world, and anything your reader might have been trying to escape.

What if you do, in fact, have elves carrying 'staffs' that are, in effect, shotguns? This is, I believe, what the OP is asking about (he has people wearing Egyptian clothing when no Egypt has ever been present). At that point you describe the 'staff', give it a different name, and carry on with your story. It's fine if the reader deduces the staffs are in fact shotguns. In fact, that's a good thing, because then they'll be able to relate to the appearance of a shotgun, rather than having to rely on your description. As long as you never actually call it a shotgun, the fantasy-reality remains unbroken.

What I am not saying: Does this extend to everything? Should you, for example, never call something a hat, simply because we have hats here in the real world? That's not what I'm saying.

If you have an object - a specific object - which strongly correlates to something not present in your fantasy-reality - be that a person, place, thing, or idea - do not use its proper name. Here are some examples of things you should describe and invent different names for (assuming you are dealing with a high-fantasy setting):

  • Elvis Presley's hair style. Unless Elvis can travel between worlds in your book, you will be better off describing this and hoping the reader catches the hints.
  • A helicopter. Helicopters imply a modern level of technology, a technology that is likely not present in your fantasy setting. If you have a flying machine that operates by spinning a blade through the air very, very fast, fine. But don't call it a helicopter, even if that's essentially what it is.
  • The Sahara Desert. Tempted as you may be to describe something as 'Sahara-like' to show how hot it is, don't do it. Unless you actually have a Sahara Desert in your novel. Describe the heat.

Here are a few things which you should use the proper names for:

  • A hat. Hats are largely universal. They are not tied to any particular person, place, time, thing, or idea. If your wizard has a hat, say he has a hat.
  • The ocean. The ocean has always been there. Unless your world has no ocean or the characters have never seen it, you don't need to describe exactly what it is. Just call it an ocean.
  • Seals (or other animals). Some fantasy settings remove a lot of the familiar animals. Some don't. Unless your world specifically doesn't have such creatures, there's no reason you can't use them to describe something. Like hats and the ocean, they are not tied to any specific time or place.

So to answer the OP's question directly: should you call Ancient Egyptian clothing by its proper name in a world with no Ancient Egypt? Absolutely not. Why? Because doing so will pull the reader (at least to some extent) out of the fantasy-reality. Am I saying you can't describe clothing as shoes, hats, pants, shirts, robes, sandals, trousers, skirts, gloves, or boots? Absolutely not. If an article of clothing has a specific tie to something only found in the real world, don't call it by that name. Otherwise, you are likely fine.

Now if your fantasy-reality essentially is Ancient Egypt, you have a little leeway, because readers are expecting the garments that go with that civilization. I still wouldn't use the proper name right away. I would describe it, and then name it. If you really wanted to, you could use the proper name then. But don't use it to describe the clothing. Use it to name the clothing. Worst case scenario is that the reader thinks you can't come up with different names. Best case scenario is that you spark an online debate as to whether or not your setting actually is Ancient Egypt, and book sales soar.

Note: Make sure the description of the clothing is relevant. Amadeus has a good point here. If you don't need to describe the clothing, don't describe it. Especially if it's holding you back from writing the actual story.


Those in the comments continue to read words into this answer which are either not here, preposterous in nature, or just pure trolling. Therefore, I will create a disclaimer below, which I will add to as more comments roll in. Since nothing seems to be stopping that inevitable action.

This answer does not say, suggest, or otherwise imply:

  • That you should not use words to describe things, because words originate on Earth.
  • That elves/dwarves cannot/should not use shotguns (why people think this is even a relevant comment I do not know).
  • That I have no evidence for what I am saying. The answer is built around a logical argument which supports my claims. You are welcome to disagree with it, not to act like it isn't there.
  • That American and/or European culture is universal and all other cultures are somehow unfamiliar or strange. This answer does not support that view, and comes nowhere remotely close to even suggesting it. If you can find exact lines supporting this view, I will gladly change them.
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Another edit to clarify: It's not the use of real world words that is the problem but how specific you get when describing. Usekh collars = Ancient Egypt. harem pant = Egypt/ Middle East. (I believe most people think those locations first in mind.)

If you're describing something so specific that readers have to do their own research to figure out what it means, it creates a couple problems.

  1. It stops the flow of events for the readers not familiar. They have to put the book down or open another tab to research. They might get pulled into the research and forget to return to the book.

  2. Those who do know what those words mean will have an expectation based on what they know. They may expect the in book culture or the author to be familiar with Ancient Egypt and use that as a template for understanding your story.

Either way as soon as a reader makes the connection Usekh collars = Ancient Egypt. haram pant = Egypt/ Middle East. They are going to make comparisons based on what they know vs. the book.

If the book is just using the clothing but not the culture or the location, the reader may get whiplash wondering, "Wait I thought this was set in Ancient Egypt or a desert, and I expected this response to happen based on what I know about Egyption culture, not to have it used this way and the location to not be on a snowy tundra on planet A.

That's why I go back to the questions of why you are picking these items for your story, their meaning and the culture you are working on. That way you can help make it less problematic if the reader knows right away this culture is very different in spite of using/ wearing items common or specific to both cultures.


Unless your narrator or one of the characters in your story world is familiar with ancient Egypt and their culture, I believe it would be better to come up with a description. You may be able to pull off a comparison if the narrator has experience/ knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Also, I agree with others, the very specific use of names stand out. I had to do a quick google search to make sure I had the right visual in mind for what you were describing. Even if you go with the Ancient Egyption name for your characters' clothing, you'd still need to describe it.

Also it may help to understand what the significance of the clothing is, why its being shown in the story. Is it for ceremonial purposes, formal wear, or something else? Is it important to the plot?

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I'd be careful with it either way. Remember, if you are writing, that means that the only picture your reader is getting, is the information you give. The means you need to be aware of the communication 'packages' you send through words.

Let me show you what I mean.

Tralacktep grabbed his anchorac and slung it over his shoulder. The weight comforted him as he walked through the prand and out into the zarak.

What the heck did I just describe? Sure, from the PoV character, who is a warrior raised in this alien civilization, and would therefore understand it perfectly. But your readers are likely here on Earth, and might not appreciate all too much whatever they just read. But. If you put it like this?

Tralacktep grabbed his studded club and slung it over his shoulder. The weight comforted him as he walked through the temple arch and into the courtyard.

By using words your audience would understand, words that resonate with them, you are far more likely to paint a picture they can understand. Using the alien's tongue is only useful if you can first establish what those words mean, but that means you expect your readers to remember all that; good luck with that.

So, if set in Ancient Egypt, who but Egyptologists could appreciate the 'proper' name for their pants, or their shirts, or their jewellery? Unless your target audience is those same Egyptologists, you'd better figure out a way to keep everyone on the same page.

One way to do it would be to show a young child being dressed by his/her mother. The child could be complaining, "But momma! I don't wanna wear a haram! Can't I just go play?" If the only thing she's helping him with is his pants, you thereby establish the pants' name: haram. Otherwise, 'haram pants' works.

As an aside. I work on a lot of Anime Fanfiction, so I write in predominantly Japanese settings and in their culture--often in Edo Period Japan. Now, that means talking about female fashion (my MCs are typically female). So talking a lot about kimono, styles of kimono, and accessories thereof. Like the obi (if you know nothing about kimono, you have no idea what that is) or zori (ditto). So how to address it?

She stood as still as she could, allowing her handmaid to wrap the obi belt around her, as tight as possible. She hated how constricting her formal kimono were, but mother would never approve of her looking anything but her best with the daimyo hosting them this evening. The DAIMYO!

Granted, he was but a regional lord, a lesser noble compared to the Mikado. Still! This could well prove her ticket up in the world! Best to obey her mother, just to be sure. She wouldn't steer her own daughter wrong!

You still follow the scene, whether you understand what the obi is. Even if you don't know what a 'daimyo' is or 'the Mikado', you can understand in context that they are important people. And given, "Granted, he was but a regional lord, a lesser noble compared to the Mikado." It becomes more obvious that they refer to nobility, important people, people this woman clearly desires to impress.

Work it in through context. It should help.

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What do you want?

  1. Do you want readers to think that they are in some kind of alternative fantasy ancient Egypt? Then call those clothes "haram" and "usekh".

  2. Do you want readers to think that they are in a world completely unrelated to any historic period on Earth? Then

    a. describe the clothing or

    b. use non-culture-specific terms (such as "pants" or "collar") or

    c. make up your own clothing terminology


But beware.

If you choose (1) because, as your question implies, you think that Egyptian clothing names make it more clear to the reader what kind of clothing you refer to and you won't have to describe the clothing if you use them, I must disappoint you. I have no idea what "haram pants" or "usekh collars" look like, and I suspect that the average Westerner doesn't know either. So even if you used those terms you would have to describe the clothing anyway (if their style and look was important to you). Using those terms brings no advantage (because most readers aren't familiar with them), so you might want to stop obsessing about them.

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