I had an epiphany yesterday, about a suit. Yes, a suit - one that my protagonist's mother gives him for his birthday. If you think about it, if you use those words alone, it's pretty generic. Could be the real world, or a fantasy world, or a science fiction world. The epiphany came to me because I found myself spending a lot of time describing the details of this suit, and wondering why I was doing so. After all, I'm not writing Regency romance where the fashions are much of the point. I don't want random stuff in my book that isn't relevant in some important way.
Let me tell you, it irks me when someone says, "But you're writing fantasy. You can make up anything you want."
I'm not going to waste words describing a suit if it's not important. And it is - in much the same way that the sun armor was important in "Let the Word Take Me" (discussed in my post "Focus your Worldbuilding Efforts").
But wait, there's more to it even than worldbuilding. That's why I thought it would be worth breaking it down here. First, an excerpt:
"Inside the box [Tagret] found a cutaway coat of mottled blue and green with touches of white. Parts of it glimmered like spider-silk, while others seemed woven of more common fibers. Underneath were two glowing white silk shirts and a pair of trousers in matte slate-green. [...] The new shirts had long cuffs that buttoned with pearls up to the elbow, clearly intended to match the coat's short, flaring sleeves, and to echo the darker pearl buttons that fronted the trousers. This was a style the Pelismara society had never seen - a choice that said 'Mother' all over..."
Even though it occurs in two locations in the scene, this is a lot of words to spend on the details. I asked myself why all these details were important. There were lots of answers.
The idea of a cutaway coat is familiar from our world, and the term is important to suggest the shape of the coat, but other details like spider-silk, the long shirt cuffs and the short coat-sleeves are there to make clear this isn't your typical Earthly fashion. Furthermore, the coat is woven in an ocean pattern (ocean is also evoked by the pearls) - but in this world of underground cities, nobody sees the ocean unless they travel, and travel is very dangerous. Thus my protagonist has to describe the pattern as he understands it, one detail at a time. "A style the Pelismara society has never seen" also implies world, because it shows some of the social significance a fashion like this might have. In fact, the Pelismara society ladies and gentlemen are accustomed to wearing jewel colors or earth/stone colors, and the ocean design causes a minor fashion scandal later in the story!
" - a choice that said 'Mother' all over..."
The presentation of the suit precedes Mother's entrance into the scene, and though she's been seen before in the story, this is the first time we see her through the eyes of someone who knows her well and cares about her (Tagret). Essentially, this is when we first see who she really is: a noblewoman of considerable intelligence, with a penchant for humor and subversion, who is trapped in an extremely restrictive social role. How do I get all that in, when the two of them will be talking mostly about the social issues that my protagonist is currently dealing with? Well, I can't tell readers about her (her son would never think about her that way), so I use the suit to imply it. The suit has been specially commissioned, so she's noblewoman with a great deal of money at her disposal. It's a very unusual fashion, so she doesn't follow trends. It also brings an image of the surface world down into the underground city where such things are never seen, suggesting that she doesn't think like everyone else. The rest of her outfits for herself are also going to use surface motifs, so once I had this piece in place I got inspired to expand its scope.
One of the major ideas that recurs in this novel is that of being trapped and wanting freedom, but having real freedom and the search for it be full of risks. The underground city/dangerous surface travel situation parallels Tagret's inability to escape from the political situation his father thrusts him into, and also the awful marriage situation that Mother suffers. When Mother brings images of the surface down into the city, in this suit and in her own clothing, it shows her struggling against her situation in the limited way she can - a struggle and a tendency for subversion that she's passing on to her son.
"Parts of it glimmered like spider-silk, while others seemed woven of more common fibers."
This was an artistic choice by the artisan who created the suit to try to represent light on the ocean water by mixing spider-silk and other fibers. It's also more than that, linking back to an earlier scene when the protagonist takes his friends (all dressed in silk) to a concert hall attended by members of Lower castes (who dress in matte fibers). Tagret remarks that "Tillik-spider silk might be an unregulated commodity, but evidently it was expensive enough to sift Higher from Lower all on its own." The mixing of the fibers in the coat given to him by his mother thus gains an extra meaning of subversion, and hints at Tagret's future, where he'll see that the separation of the castes is another kind of trap and work to break the barriers down.
That's why I described the suit - but I did it before I realized any of these connections. Sometimes you don't know precisely what you're doing - and you don't have to - but your subconscious says this is how it has to be. The exciting part for me about seeing these larger patterns was knowing that I could extend them further across the book. It gave me insight into Variner fashion, and into Mother's character as well. I didn't have to "make up" the rest of the clothes she wore, because I knew what kind of thought had gone into the design of Tagret's suit, and thus the same kind of thought could be applied to her choices for her own clothing. And I also knew that she'd be brave enough to be the only one wearing clothes like this, strong enough to set off a scandal and eventually a new fashion trend in the claustrophobic, decadent Pelismara society.
Because of a single suit, I know so much more about my novel now.
Yesterday was a good day.