To add authenticity to your story, you need your characters to wear the accurate style of clothing for that time period. Regardless of whether or not your story takes place in the real world timeline, medieval people are not going to be wearing jeans and hoodies. (There are exceptions for this, but let’s look at traditional high fantasy in this post.)
Some writers tend to leave out the specific details of clothing, allowing room for imagination. Others write every detail of the outfit. I’m more in the middle with this. I like describing the clothing if it’s important to the story, but leaving it to the imagination if I just need the plot to move quickly along in the particular scene. Regardless of your style, you should make references to what your characters wear to give readers a better understanding of them. Clothes don’t just define the setting; it often defines the character.
Let’s start with the common folk, the people who serve the king, who work less than desirable jobs to scrape up enough money for food. These people would dress in dull colours–grey, brown, white–because colourful clothing would be far too pricy for them to purchase, and dyes too expensive to waste money on. Their clothing would be plain, with little to no decorative detail. The stitching would be crude because they’d be too poor to afford more clothes when they outgrew the old outfits or ripped them in places. Trousers would be patched when torn and dresses made of different materials at the hem when girls continued to grow.
Richer people (merchants, nobles, wealthy business owners) would dress in finer clothing, colours including blues, greens, and reds. They’d show off their status in society with jewellery, belts, and fine hats. Clothes would be tailored by a seamstress and woven from expensive fabrics. A rich person would be easy to spot in a crowd by what they wore, sticking out almost instantly in a poorer area of a city.
Royalty would own the finest clothing, of course. Gold, purple, and red are popular royal colours. Long, sweeping dresses with several layers, brightly coloured and finely stitched. Lace and jewels would be stitched onto the dress. Not only women wore jewels. Jewelry was a symbol of status–the more expensive the jewels, the higher in society you stood. Royal clothing would be worn by no one else; it was a statement for the royals to look apart from their people.
Those of the church wore modest clothing, much like poorer folk. They dressed in robes of grey, brown, white, or black, with hoods and low-hanging sleeves. Little skin was shown, regardless of gender. The clothing was also stitched by their own hand or by the hand of someone within the church, little to no coin spent on fabric.
Armour was worn by soldiers and knights (amongst other military ranks). Choosing which armour to wear depended largely upon the state of the province–is the kingdom in a time of peace or war?–if leather or iron was scarce or in high demand, or if the kingdom followed certain customs where clothing was concerned. In a land of iron and steel and smoke, iron armour would be the way to go. In a land surrounded by water, where iron was hard to come by, leather armour would make sense. Perhaps there is no armour. Perhaps your soldiers wear uniforms and rely upon skill to win the day.
Those of different ranks in the military also wore different kinds of armour. Higher ranks had better armour. Foot soldiers were given the basics: a helmet and a sword. And those highest on the chain might be suited in the best gear but might never step foot on the battlefield. Armour could be for show as much as royal clothing could be.
Colours don’t just refer to status in society when talking about clothing/armour. Like in the real world, colours are important to define where you live and what government you follow. People of certain countries would wear different styles of clothing, and each kingdom would have its own colours to live by. Soldiers would dress differently to distinguish themselves from warriors of other countries.
You should always be aware of what your character is wearing in a scene. If they’ve just made their way through a swamp, their clothing shouldn’t be clean when they arrive at their destination, and a few rips here and there couldn’t hurt. If the character has taken off their scarf, make sure they aren’t wearing it in a later scene.
Going from one country to another in a disguise is a great way to introduce new cultures through clothing in your story. The character has to look the part to blend in. It’s a subtle way to describe the world around you.
Use clothing to define a character. A woman who prefers to behave more outgoing and athletic rather than how society wants her to behave would wear boots over shoes or wear pants under her skirts.
Clothes can be alluded to when describing character movement. A girl trips because her dress is too long. A man hides a card easily because of his lengthy sleeve. A knight slips a dagger into his belt. The dog pulls on her shoe.
Ryan, from Sword in the Sheath, has posted a link in the comments to a great Wiki page for finding specific pieces of armour. Look into it if you aren’t sure which armour parts you need to use in your story.
That’s everything for now. Like I mentioned in the last post (Religion in Fiction), I’ll add more if I come across more information while writing my high fantasy. Everything contained within my posts are my own thoughts while working on this project and I hope these tips come in handy for others in the same boat.
You can check out my Worldbuilding post to view my list of categories when writing fantasy.
Tomorrow I’ll be back with a post on weaponry in high fantasy. Be sure to check it out!