Creating new clothing styles for fictional worlds can be a daunting task, there's just so much out there already and so many elements to play around with to create a fun and unique style, no matter whether the art form is visual or not. But the biggest challenge can sometimes be simply making something look futuristic or historic fantasy-ish, which is the main focus of this guide.
There are some elements which are common among most works of fiction when it comes to clothing, with these elements in mind it becomes a lot easier to turn the clothing we wear today or wore throughout history into a futuristic or more fantasy oriented equivalent. There's a few other elements to keep in mind as well, but in most cases it's best not to worry at all, let your imagination go wild and simply create and enjoy what you want to create. But if you do want some guidelines, inspiration or just help this guide'll hopefully provide it.
First and foremost we need to know who we're designing for. We often express ourselves through our clothing, at least when we have the freedom to do so, so knowing who we're designing for is the first step in creating the perfect outfit for a character. This is less important for non-visual arts as clothing isn't always described in writing, but it can still be incredibly helpful to have a fully detailed character in your head or written down somewhere for reference and just to make everything feel more real and alive.
For example, a shy person will often wear 'regular' clothing, clothing that isn't too bright or outgoing in both design and colors. Whereas a more confident or attention seeking person might seek out the edges of what's socially acceptable more or just wear more stylish and potentially more colorful or flamboyant clothing.
This is a heavy generalization of course and entirely based on Western culture of today, but these rules may not apply at all in a fictional universe, no matter if it's futuristic or based on a historic setting. Which brings me to my next point.
Besides knowing who we design for we also have to know what the rules for designing are within the universe of our characters. All cultures have dress codes to some degree, some more so than others and some more stricter than others, but every culture has a range of styles that would be considered normal, 'out there' and unacceptable to most.
These elements are very important when taking into account the previous point. A person who doesn't want to draw attention to themselves would dress completely differently today than they would even a few decades ago.
There's also the element of technology that has to be taken into account. Much of the clothing we wear today were either rare or completely nonexistent a hundred years ago. Nylon and polyester fabrics weren't invented until almost the mid 20th century for example.
Technology goes beyond simply what kind of clothes could be made though, it also relates to how technology is incorporated into style in general. For example, headphones aren't really a piece of clothing, but they definitely affect our style. We have all sorts of headphone designs to reflect our clothing styles and just wearing or not wearing a headphone will completely change how a character is often perceived. The same goes for other types of technology that could realistically be incorporated into the design of your character's clothing.
Finally there's the aspect of fashion to take into account. Some materials are used more than others, some colors are more desirable than others and some accessories are more desirable than others and these all changed throughout time. These aren't the only elements either, pretty much every part of clothing changes with the times and depend heavily upon what's fashionable at the time. It's part of culture, so it's definitely something to keep in mind since your fictional universes will have some form of culture as well.
Before I delve into the more detailed aspects of creating clothing there's one final thing to keep in mind and that is that fashion repeats itself. This is mostly something to keep in mind when designing for characters living in the future, but it could work for alternative historic universes as well.
Fashion trends come and go and they often return later, albeit in a slightly different form. So sometimes all it takes to create futuristic clothing is to take a trend that has passed, alter it slightly and you're done. Well, mostly.
Not all trends return and fashion isn't perfectly cyclical. The changes and improvements made by technology will often create new trends or alter old ones to the point you may as well consider them a new one, so depending on the technology available in your fictional universe you may wish to create a completely new trend.
So let's delve deeper into the details of how to actually figure out what your character wears. I'll make a separate point for sci-fi/futuristic clothing and fantasy/historic clothing. Sci-fi and fantasy don't necessarily have to be futuristic and historic respectively, but they're commonly associated as such, so for the sake of simplicity that's what I'm going with for the purposes of this guide. If you want futuristic fantasy simply follow the sci-fi/futuristic tips more or mix and match both sides. Have fun with it.
To create a more futuristic looking style an easy way of doing it is to incorporate technology into the clothing itself. It's what we're slowly doing today. Shoes made with bendable displays already exist, allowing you to change your shoe's design on the fly. We already have spray on clothing technology. We even have the technology to create clothing without seems. All of these advancements will become more and more common as time goes on, so it'd make sense for them to be part of our clothing in the future.
Other elements you could include are mood-based changes (exists today), clothing that uses lights or glowing elements (exists today), clothing that can be repaired or changed on the go (exists today), smart technology woven into the fabric of clothing (exists today), changing colors (think chameleons) whenever you feel like it (exists today, kind of).
But let's take a step back and look at what kind of clothing is usually associated with futuristic settings. If you look at popular works of fiction you'll find two trends, one is the simplistic and often tight-fit look and the other is the more over the top and extravagant look. Examples of the prior are Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey and to some degree Star Wars and Tron. Examples of the latter are The Fifth Element and The Hunger Games. In both of these it was mostly the rich who had the extravagant clothing, which brings back the earlier point of how culture influences what a character might wear. Not to mention the social status of a person.
One major element that makes creating more futuristic clothing easier is to make sure it doesn't look familiar, to make sure it doesn't look like something you'd come across today. This may seem like a tricky thing to do as there's so much out there already, but it can often be as simple as simply changing a texture, the patterns used or the amount of fabric. To illustrate this let's take a standard men's suit as an example.
To make it futuristic you could change where the buttons are, they're normally quite low and form a v-neck line when buttoned up, how about moving them to the top and creating an upside down V shape at the bottom. You could even move the buttons to the side and have it close diagonally instead. Make it look very clean and smooth and it immediately feels more modern. Now turn the edges a different color or make them light up and you immediately have a more futuristic looking suit.
Now this won't work for every piece of clothing of course, not everything has buttons or edges that allow for simple changes we don't already use today, so here are a few ways that are commonly used to make things look more futuristic:
- Make things look glossy, smooth and clean. Metallic works well too, but make sure any metal bits or metallic looking bits are smooth and clean looking too, otherwise it might look too historic.
- As far as colors go they often seem to be either toned down or bright and happy (or even over the top), depending on the style. Think the previously mentioned Fifth Element and Hunger Games clothing versus Star Trek, Star Wars and so on clothing. Black and white usually does the trick as well. As far as guidelines go this is the first to be broken though, consider this one more of a starting point rather than something to necessarily end on.
- Another way to use color is to make things seem like they're glowing even if they're not and to use gradients. It's something we have today as well, but they're oddly uncommon and work great for more futuristic looks.
- "Digital look". Using a squared, pixelated look or circuitry patterns usually works great too, which can even be combined with layered clothing to create the circuitry feel.
- Geometry. Similar to how pixelated designs tend to look more futuristic so do designs full of geometrical shapes. These are usually a little trickier to do well as they can look familiar quickly, but it's a usually a good element to have at your disposal.
- Break up clothing into more separate pieces and give them their own styles. A simple t-shirt could be cut diagonally in the front, give both shoulder parts a different style from the arms, elongate one side and so on.
- Use lines to break up a piece of clothing and create a kind of mosaic. This is often enough to make something look more futuristic, especially if used on something that looks glossy, shiny and/or smooth. The line could be thin or thick, glowing, metallic-looking or just plain, padded or smooth, patterned, decorated or simply a seem. It's easy to try this out too, at least the simple line version. Get an image of a blank shirt and simply draw the lines on it, it'll form a great base to work with.
- 'Stealth'. To add to the previous mosaic part stealth technology can provide great patterns. I'm talking about the jagged, triangular shapes you find on some stealth planes or the digital camouflage patterns. Note that with the camouflage patterns it's best to use this style, but make them less randomized to avoid the military look, unless that's what you're going for of course. - Use nudity. I don't mean make your characters walk around naked, but exposing (or covering) body parts in ways we don't today helps make ordinary clothing look different, which in turn helps sell the idea of it being futuristic.
- Gadgets, hair styles and accessories. Finally there's all the little things that can make an outfit look more futuristic. Glasses, headsets, lenses, jewelry, belts and so on can all help sell the futuristic look. Even things like tattoos, hair colors, eye colors and so on can help with this. If done right you could even use these elements alone with clothing of today to sell a futuristic look.
Now on the other end of the spectrum we have fantasy clothing and more history based clothing. In most cases simply copying the style of whichever era you've based your story on is enough, but it can be fun to create your own styles and in some cases it'd make sense to have your own styles as well. Whenever other races or species are involved, like elves and trolls, it's often best to give them clothing that differs from whatever humans (and other races) wear, even if those differences are subtle.
One easy way of creating a more customized look is to simply use cultural elements in the standard clothing. A common (wood) elvish theme is to have lots of green tints, flowery elements and intricate embroidery. The clothing itself can be just standard medieval gear, but with these elements they immediately look (wood) elvish.
Earlier I mentioned how it's important to try and keep a feel of unfamiliarity to futuristic clothing. The complete opposite is true for fantasy and historic clothing. At least in most cases. The more outlandish the fantasy species your character is the more outlandish you can usually be with clothing, but familiarity is usually still a solid ground for a realistic feel, even if the universe and the creatures are completely unrealistic.
To illustrate this in a way we did with the futuristic shirt example let's take a standard medieval tunic and turn it into a fantasy-themed version. A few easy changes are to make one side longer than the other, so basically creating a diagonal cut instead of the standard horizontal one. Now add a thick, layered scarf or attach a hood to this tunic and you're already well on your way to a customized look. Scarves as we know them today weren't really a thing in the middle ages (they were way different) and hoods pretty much came in the form of chaperons and liripipes (Google for reference if needed), not as part of a piece of clothing.
With these two changes alone you already have an item that didn't exist in medieval times, but is familiar enough to work in a fantasy setting. You can continue to alter it to add cultural elements, like the previously mentioned elvish elements or you could stick with this and keep it simple.
Of course there are more ways to alter historic designs and the middle ages aren't the only period to draw inspiration from. So here are some more ways to alter a design while sticking with familiarity and a more historic feel:
- Change lengths. Most clothing throughout history consisted of longer pieces of fabric and with minimal tailoring and cuts. In some cases because they simply didn't have the technology for it, in others because it was too expensive and/or time consuming for the average person. By playing around with this you quickly create very subtle, but more unique fantasy-themed items. It can be as simple as making a dress shorter, a jacket longer or sleeves wider and longer.
- Diagonal lines: Diagonal lines aren't all that common in historic clothing and they usually only came in the form of neck lines, the edges of unbuttoned jackets or from large pieces of fabric being held up (think ancient Rome). They are more common around the chest and torso in Asian cultures though, so keep that in mind when adding diagonal lines.
- Furs and other animal parts: A quick and obvious way of making something look more fantasy-themed is by simply adding elements of fantasy creatures. Dragon scales, fiery furs and feathers and other elements can quickly turn a standard item into a fantasy one. But even regular elements can help with this. For example, fur usually wasn't used as a piece of decoration for clothing and if used at all was often worn around the neck and shoulders or underneath other (often hide) clothing to keep warm. By using fur for decoration you quickly create fictional pieces in no time. In other words take what exists and apply it differently. That decorative belt? Make it mandatory to hold up a piece of clothing. That cloth ribbon tied around their waist? Let it hang diagonally across their chest and over their shoulder instead.
- Convert future clothing to a historic version. Another quick way of making standard clothing fantasy themed is by converting clothes form the relative future to one that could be created in whichever time period your universe falls under. For example, the corset wasn't popular until the 16th century and while earlier versions can be found incredibly early they weren't common place. But they are a common element used in fantasy clothing in all sorts of works of fiction.
Other clothing pieces could be various types of hats and scarves, (trench) coats and even something as simple as pockets or buttons used for fastening rather than as decoration to name just a few.
- Taboos and nudity. Again, I don't mean make your character walk around naked, but add elements of covering up or exposing certain areas of the body. Nudity was often either a complete taboo or just common place in many cultures throughout history, so by changing these taboos (and others) you immediately create a fictional piece. That fancy Ming dynasty dress looks completely different with exposed shoulders and that medieval set of pants look completely different if you turn them into shorts with exposed legs.
You can even use different pieces of clothing to cover up body parts differently. Stockings, long gloves, scarves or separate layers of clothing make a huge difference.
- Mix cultures. This can be a very effective way if your universe is based on an existing culture. I'll allow my fangirl side to shine for a second and use the Legend of Korra as an example of how mixing styles can work amazingly well. They mixed more traditional Asian styles with the more Western Industrial Revolution period styles. Another similar and perhaps way more popular example of this is Steampunk.
So we've covered ways to make clothing look both futuristic and historic, but these are all just guidelines and mostly based on what's been done before. They work, they're safe and in many cases have become a standard. But that doesn't mean you can't deviate from these guidelines completely and do whatever you wish. It's your creation, your imagination and your time you use and spend, so make sure you use and spend it on something you enjoy. If it fits your universe it usually works, so don't be afraid of doing something different.
Also, don't feel like you have to include every point I've made. Sometimes the simplest changes are enough to create something completely new and ideal for a particular universe. Besides, these are all just guidelines meant to spark some inspiration in you. If all else fails use Google images and find some visual aids and inspiration sources, they can work wonders.