The importance of fashion in fiction varies across genres. Some genres, such as steampunk, historical, and romance, put a great deal of emphasis on fashion details, while others, such as science fiction, tend to spend far less time. A focus on fashion detail in a genre where it is not expected can come across as irrelevant and unnecessary, but fashion is actually far more useful than it may appear.
Fashion is about world. It is also about cultural and personal identity.
What a person wears tells you a lot about the world, because it reflects available materials in the environment. It can also tell you a lot about the character, because we use our fashion choices to show our identification with different social groups as well as to distinguish ourselves as individuals.
The "what" of fashion may not be as important as the "who," the "why," and the "how."
Often in science fiction, fashion gets de-emphasized or even made unrealistically uniform. Literal uniforms are common to many scenarios, especially military ones. Utopian societies and those that strive for equality will often be given very uniform fashion choices.
Costume designers work on symbolism in their fashion choices, and so can authors.
There is a pretty common view that fashion is frivolous, that it is frippery. This feeds into the sexist view that it is a feminine thing to care about (hint: it's not). The identity marking that we engage in with our fashion choices is common to both men and women - it's just that the two are typically associating themselves with different social groups, and thus differentiating their choices.
I explained how the caste marks work in my Varin world as an example of how you can have a regulated system of identity markers without falling into uniformity. Some fashion choices are regulated; others are traditionally associated with caste identity even though they are not required by Varin law.
School uniforms are often accessorized for individuality by their wearers.
There is also a utilitarian aspect to fashion. Dune has the stillsuits, which are a means for the inhabitants of Arrakis to retain their precious water. Armor is also utilitarian - but even utilitarian items are often decorated as much as a person can afford. Wealth shows in detail.
There was a trend in 1960's futurism toward stripping away detail both in fashion and in architecture. However, at the same time, there was a trend toward more detail, more art, more reference to world ethnic traditions, in the counterculture.
We talked about the contrast between visual media and text. In visual media, an entire outfit in all its detail can be conveyed in a split second. In text, words and implication are required. You don't want to put a lot of words on fashion choices without a very good reason. That said, character judgment and other reasons can function very effectively as supports for the relevance of fashion detail.
I gave an example of fashion being relevant to plot and character from my novel, For Love, For Power, and from my WIP.
Fashion and its significance are all around us. We can choose to notice or not.
Fashion has a lot of very specific terminology that comes with it. Within the industry are formal terms. There are also colloquial terms and regional terms. These are very important to research and track when we work with fashion in our fiction. When you work with a real or quasi-real (i.e. period influenced) context, accuracy is very important. Specific time periods bring with them certain kinds of value judgments, and those will be brought along with the fashion unless the author deliberately changes or subverts them. There is a lot of subtext. Words and terms come with baggage. When you find generic terms being used, and fashion choices being made generic, that can be a method by which authors try to avoid subtext.
Kim suggested it would be hard to create a context in which a Hitler mustache was considered endearing.
Ask how beauty and ugliness are defined within the cultures you're working with.
Reggie pointed out how some kinds of simple visual cues become iconic, such as the Groucho Marx nose/mustache combination. You could have something like this in fiction, but none of us could recall seeing it used. In the 1800's facial hair fashion was the rage for men. It influenced not only itself but other things such as the invention of the mustache cup. An unusual object like that can bring real interest to a story. Fashion has also influenced other things, such as how sidewalks and saddles were constructed. Other inventions influence fashion, such as how bloomers arose when women wanted to ride bicycles.
How much detail matters? We reveal as necessary, but small details can make for big implications, and even have multiple functions in the narrative. Details help us to avoid a sense that the world only exists for this story. They also help us to define what is normal and build reader expectations.
It's interesting to ask what value is placed on newness (of fashion or other things) and by contrast, what value is placed on old things such as antiques or vintage fashion. Also, if you are designing fashion, be careful to avoid too much uniformity of time frame in fashion (different generations will often dress differently).
Thanks to everyone who attended! Today's discussion (in 20 minutes from the time of this post) will be about Naming Characters. I hope to see you there!