C is for Clothing
The fact that he wore clothes had a way of wanting to boggle in Amber’s mind, as if the toughness of his scales rendered further covering superfluous and never mind the man’s modesty. – The Last Hour of Gann
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Today is National Pet Peeve Day or at least it would be if I was in charge of making up holidays. So in honor of this completely fictional festival, today’s NaNoWriMo post concerns a subject that has been eating my angry cheese for years.
I want you to stop and think of the first, say, ten sci-fi movies (this is annoying no matter what genre it appears in, but is especially cheesesome in sci-fi) featuring a blatantly inhuman character. I don’t mean human with pointy ears or ripply forehead, I mean in-your-face-mutha-ain’t-human character. Write the names of these characters down if you know them or just the movie if you don’t.
Now circle the ones that wear clothes.
Yeah. Not a lot of circles.
One can argue that the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise have no reason to wear clothes and I’ll give you that one, but they’re not all armored killing machines with a hive mentality. Think about it. E.T.? Chewbacca? The ewoks wore hoods and jewelry, but let their cute little teddy bear junk hang out. (And here I realize I’m exposing my love of bad movies a little more than maybe I should, but…) Station, of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey fame—the smartest being(s) and greatest scientist(s) in the entire universe–walked around bare-butt naked. Alf lived with humans, with free access to laundry, and still struts it in the furry buff more than half the time. As for the other half, is there anything more fundamentally wrong than a hairy guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt and no pants?
The aliens from Cocoon, War of the Worlds (every version) and Independence Day all mastered interstellar flight technology, but not pants. And Signs? Okay, you’re an alien race that melts in water, traveling to a planet whose surface is 80% water and where 80% of the natives live by water and, indeed, where it is probably always raining somewhere. A rain-slicker and some rubber boots and Earth is your smorgasbord! You might think I’m willing to overlook the prawns from District 9, because they’re in a slum and either it’s go nude or salvage traffic vests out of the trash, but look closely at that scene where the humans cut into the mothership. All naked! What, did we interrupt the orgy, guys? The Predator and those blue bunnymen from Avatar barely qualify as dressed. Movies like Battle: Los Angeles and Battleship were derptarded for many reasons, but by God, they dressed their aliens! (“You sure talk about movies a lot for someone who writes books, R Lee.” Yeah, yeah. But even if you haven’t seen those movies, you’ve probably absorbed enough peripherally to know what I’m talking about, whereas naming books is pretty hit or miss).
Why do we (humans) wear clothes? Many reasons. To keep warm. To protect our skin from sun, rain, small bugs and most of the filth that Nature flings at us on a day-to-day basis. To attract a mate. To show dominance or intimidate others. To form the foundation for pockets so we can carry our keys around. To protect the furniture we sit on. To fit in amongst our peers and show conformity. To hide our genitals so God won’t know we know we have them. To coyly conceal our genitals so others will want to see them. To have something to do on Laundry Day. Mostly for the pockets, though.
I don’t remember where I heard this, but someone somewhere once said/wrote, “Successful fantasy is not about the creature looks, but how it lives.” And apart from your creature’s physical features, his or her clothing is what your human counterpart is likeliest to notice first. And if you omit it, your human ought to notice that too. For example, in my Arcadia series, I thought it would be cool (so many of my best and worst writing decisions begin that way) if the Cerosan (my minotaur-ish race) wore no clothes, in part because they have fur, but only in part. As my notes say, it is “…to defiantly distance themselves from what they perceive as human standards of sentience…”
Yeah, I talk like that even to myself.
What that note really did was expose my own non-human bias. Humans are intelligent; we wear clothes. Animals are not and do not, unless they are dressed by humans, who then project imagined human qualities onto them. “But R Lee!” you cry, “My little Wufflekins loves her outfits!” She might. Or she might just like the attention that comes with being dressed? Bottom line: when we dress ourselves, our clothes become an extension of our personalities. And when we dress our pets, their clothes…become an extension of our personalities.
And that’s why aliens in movies don’t wear clothes, in my uneducated opinion. Dressing them humanizes them. Most alien movies want to keep that Us vs. Them sentiment strong. I mentioned earlier that Battleship and Battle: Los Angeles dressed their aliens, but they did so in identical uniforms with tinted helmets, creating in effect a faceless, unreasoning swarm. There remain exceptions, sympathetic aliens who nonetheless go nekkid (I cannot stress enough that if I had to spend any length of time in Station’s company, I would take my own pants off to put them on him), but this I suppose I will have to chalk up to aesthetics. Chewbacca can rock an ammo belt, but I doubt he’d look as formidable in Han’s black-and-white smuggler’s togs.
In your book, as in real life, it’s about keeping your attire appropriate to the situation. Consider anatomy; hooves, spikes and horns all present their own difficulties when getting dressed. Consider the environment; wispy robes are a nightmare in the woods and form-fitting layers are sweltering in the desert. Consider the culture; religion, occupation and national pride all have an influence on what we wear. Consider real-world examples; I have several books illustrating costumes from around the world and through history and refer to them often, either for inspiration or just to know whether you call that thing a kirtle or a surcoat. In more medieval/fantasy settings, definitely consider available materials; Egypt used linen and Germanic tribes used wool not because they looked spiffy, but because they had nothing else!
And finally, as with all the tips and tricks of worldbuilding, use an editing eye when describing attire. Introduce information naturally and only where appropriate. Never stop the story for a complete head-to-toe tour of a character’s outfit (sorry, Tolkien. You know I love you, but it had to be said).