Costuming a Futuristic Heroine
by Vivien Jackson
The moment Katniss Everdeen rolls out in her chariot with her cape made of flames and transforms into the girl on fire.
The gown made of curtains that Scarlett O’Hara dons as battle armor in her quest to get money for Tara.
The longing-laden description Cathy gives of her mother’s party dress in Flowers in the Attic.
In fiction, clothing does double duty. Yes, it gives a reader the visual, but it also reveals the character’s wants and insecurities and self-perception. Clothing is how the character chooses to present herself to the world, the face she wants all of us to see. Which is why getting the costuming right is so much more important than assigning height or eye color or other physical descriptions.
I read a ton of Regency romances – they’re a personal fave – and I never get tired of hearing about the ball gowns and riding habits and sprigged muslin and heavy velvets, or the wallflower’s desperate addition of a flounce and ribbon to last year’s frock in pursuit of her last-ditch matrimonial plans.
But clothing in futuristic settings is a bit trickier. If you can literally print glass slippers off a 3D printer modified to produce glass, your fairy godmother is no longer magical. Similarly, ribbons, laces, buttons, and buckles are no longer symbols of wealth or ease. We have to dig deeper to find clothing options that reflect not just the character but also the world she lives in.
One of my favorite pod casts, Writing Excuses, did an episode on the topic of futuristic costuming. In it they discussed the need to delve into the economy of clothing, by which they mean the ways you can use costumes to denote geographical and socioeconomic status. Characters who live on a space station aren’t going to wear the same things as characters who live on a water world. Sourcing fabrics and clothing items can be a huge boost to worldbuilding.
When I was trying to come up with a formal evening gown that my character, Senator Angela Neko, would wear to the presidential inaugural ball, I wanted her to shine. Literally. So her dress includes LEDs. Earlier in the book, most of what she wears is made of smartfabric that has biodeterrents built in, filters so that she cannot be attacked with a biological weapon. She lives inside a personal shield of fashion. Unsaid in the book is that a lot of women right now in 2017 create similar shields with their clothing choices, only our don’t-touch-me armor has non-technical names, like contour cosmetics and Louboutins.
I know not everyone will be writing this character in this setting, scheming these schemes, but some of my research links still might be interesting, so I’ll just leave y’all with them:
- Gorgeous LED-backed wedding dress, because wouldn’t it be fun to get married in the dark?
- A video about fiberoptic fabric that is controlled by a smartphone app. (I saw some of these items for sale at Universal Studios in Orlando this past summer. So. Cool.
- Article on wearable technology, including workout shorts that measure “the electrical activity of the muscles.”
So what do you think about those clothing-related flashpoint moments in fiction? Has any particular costume in books or film given you that rush of certainty that now you completely get the character?
More About the Author
Vivien Jackson writes cyborgs, pixies, and down-home salacious kissery, and she’d would love to chat all things SFR. You can find her here. Her book Perfect Gravity, featuring the sartorial diva Angela, releases November 7, 2017. It’s pre-orderable now.