The Clothes Make the Sentient
I touched on today’s observation very very briefly last Thursday. I mentioned that clothes say a lot about a person. While what clothes say about their wearer is often open to interpretation and most certainly prone to inaccuracy in the real world, in visual fiction (comics, theater, TV, and movies) clothing is a serious tool for adding depth of personality to a character. You’ll notice that characters almost never wear simply jeans and a t-shirt. Oh, they may be wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but that t-shirt might have the logo for a favorite band or the jeans might be torn (or bleached if it’s the 80s). For to do otherwise is to pass up a golden opportunity to define who our characters are at heart. What we choose to decorate our bodies with, whether it be plain, practical, fancy, layered, nuanced, blatant, abundant, skimpy, fabric, metal, or ink is dictated by our own values and sensibilities and thus are expressions of what makes us who we are.
You’ve probably noticed how loud the shouting matches get whenever a superhero changes their costume. This is in no small part due to the fact that those costumes are intrinsic to who these characters are. While even fictional characters are more than the clothes they wear, there’s something special about superhero suits. Clark Kent can change his preferred color of tie and no one even notices, but fans would riot if Superman wasn’t blue and red. Actually, this has happened already. More than once. That costume is more than just so you can spot Superman at a glance, it’s an icon proclaiming all that he is. That’s partially why it’s so difficult to re-design some superhero costumes, and why fans are so resistant to those changes. Changing the costume can easily change the feel and identity of the hero. Even if the new design is really good. It would be a smaller change to make Superman blonde than to get rid of his red super-shorts, because in many ways his costume is more who he is than the man inside it.
Wild, right? That’s how important clothing can be in a visual story. That’s how much clothing can say about a character without a single line of dialogue involved. Which is why it boggles my mind when I see people design aliens and then don’t think about the clothes they might wear. Whether they wear elaborate flowing gowns or just a handful of beads, clothing is one of the first and most obvious trappings of civilization. Without it the line between “animal” and “person” weakens and it requires more effort elsewhere to shore up. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with nudity, but without some sort of decorative element of self expression or social status, an unfamiliar life form is going to be read as non-sentient at least until it speaks.
Besides, pockets are too damn useful for a sentient species to not have.