Designing sci-fi or fantasy outfits is an amazing way to give depth to both your world and your characters —all while adding a splash of color to your setting! Let’s take a look at how you can design your own sci-fi or fantasy clothes so that they feel like a natural part of your world!
1. What are you designing these fantasy outfits for?
First things first, you should think about what’s the primary function of this outfit. Designing a sci-fi military uniform is really different from coming up with a wizard’s robe for a fantasy setting! Even street clothes have a very important function: keeping you warm or covering parts of the body that are considered taboo.
Now, how can you express function through design? Well, for starters, if you’re working on a uniform you’ll probably want to have elements that help the wearer do their job. A soldier will probably wear some sort of armor (and if they don’t, why?), while a wizard school’s uniform might include a bag to carry all those heavy spellbooks! But you can be more subtle than that: your typical wizard’s robe is probably not comfortable for physical action, so if your magic users are more on the action side of things, they’ll probably want to wear pants instead!
Should all fantasy outfits be practical?
Absolutely not! While practicality is important for a uniform, there are many cases where it’s not a priority! This most often happens with nobility or characters who value aesthetics over function. And it can also show the current state of society! The Stormlight Archive, by Brandon Sanderson, is a great example of this: one of the main characters keeps complaining about his fellow noblemen wearing fancy impractical clothes instead of military uniforms —even though they’re at war! This contrast immediately gives the reader a sense of false security.
And, of course, making a practical outfit doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty! Take a look at superhero costumes, for instance: they usually compliment the superhero’s abilities in some way but looking cool is also part of their purpose! No one wants to be saved by a hero with a bad fashion sense, after all.
2. Consider the culture when creating fantasy clothes
Culture should ALWAYS be something to consider when worldbuilding. With sci-fi or fantasy outfits, you can express culture in many different ways. Avatar: The Last Airbender has a really obvious way of doing it: each culture has its own color scheme. See that green-brown guy over there? Yep, he’s most likely from the Earth Kingdom! This can work great in settings where cultures have innate traits that other people can’t have —such as bending, in this case.
Game of Thrones is another great example. Compare the clothes from the Iron Islands to pretty much anyone else. The Ironborn have a strong culture of raiding and getting everything they own from others. So their clothes look ragged and like they’ve spent a week under the ocean (which is probably not far from the truth). In contrast, House Tyrell is settled in very fertile land, which gives them enough resources to afford expensive dresses.
Now, these are very obvious examples, but you can be more subtle than that if you prefer. A great example of this is actually real life! Some people wear necklaces with a cross, which is a religious symbol. This is very common in fantasy settings too with characters who get their magical powers from a deity —but you don’t need magic to wear religious symbols! Tattoos, headdresses, or even shirts with specific symbols printed on them can serve a similar function. Your imagination is the limit!
3. What’s the costume’s history and evolution?
It’s time to think about the past! Even if you’re designing an outfit tied to a brand-new organization or faction, this is still relevant! After all, new organizations appear because of history. So, how can a fantasy outfit evolve over time? Or even more, a sci-fi outfit! Because, of course, the older your world is, the more history it will have. And fashion is not static —even completely utilitarian outfits will change as time goes on because the purpose they were made for will probably evolve too. That’s why you don’t see soldiers running around with full plate armor anymore!
But at the same time, old and traditional organizations tend to be slow at changing their ways. For example, in Star Wars, most Jedi Knights traditionally wear robes with just minimal armor, even though they’ve been at war for a while (they learned the lesson the hard way, I guess). Why? Well, the Jedi were never meant to be an army. They were supposed to be protectors of the peace —and when you’re doing that, you want to appear as non-threatening as possible. When the war started, their traditions had them keep the same clothes instead of adapting.
Clothes can also tell a lot about the history of the specific character wearing them. Someone wearing a dirty military uniform might be a deserter, for example. Someone who seems uncomfortable with noble clothes is probably not used to a wealthy lifestyle. In contrast, a noble sitting comfortably in dirty poor clothes might tell a lot about their background. Which brings us to our next point!
4. How do characters behave with their fantasy outfits?
How do people act when they put on these fantasy clothes? And how do people around them re-act? This might seem more of a character thing than a costume design one, but knowing how people see the clothes you’re designing will go a long way to putting them in context.
Remember the fancy dresses of House Tyrell we talked about earlier? In Game of Thrones there’s a scene where Margaery Tyrell is walking with one of these dresses in one of the poorest areas of the city —which, of course, is quite dirty. Her assistants are worried that her dress will get dirty because it’s extremely expensive, while Margaery herself doesn’t care. This says a lot about both the context and her character. She wants to appear as someone who cares for the people of the city, and sacrificing a dress like that is a small price for her.
Another great example of characters interacting with their costumes is the Clone Wars series. The clone army is made up of identical-looking men who all wear the same armor, with the only difference being to mark their rank or unit. However, throughout the series, some clones start customizing their armor, usually by adding colored patterns. This is very useful to the viewer, of course, but it also shows an internal conflict of these characters, who are all supposed to be the same but are actually different people!
5. Don’t forget aesthetics!
Clothes are usually not just utilitarian. Unless you’re designing a very strict uniform code, characters will probably care about how they look —and even if you are, YOU are the one designing the uniform! So don’t be afraid to pick colors and shapes just because you like them. That said, there’s a couple of things that can make a design pretty while also having some sort of meaning. For example, colors are symbols. This is true in real life, but it probably is in your world too, even if the symbolism changes. Take this opportunity to show what each color means in your world!
Aesthetics can also say a lot about a character or their context. If a druid is wearing a pink neon jacket instead of natural-looking clothes, what does that tell you about the character? They could be trying to hide their origin, or maybe they’ve abandoned their love for nature for some reason. What if druids have a bad reputation in your world? This is a great way of showing information instead of telling it explicitly!
By the way, we have a costume design challenge running in collaboration with the amazing Ginny Di! By now you should have the tools needed to design sci-fi or fantasy outfits for your world, so go create your account on World Anvil and take part in the challenge!