Fashion & Costume: Part 1

As part of your visual development work we need to think about dressing your characters. The clothes worn by a character, and how they wear them, are another aspect to consider as you develop the personality of a given character and place them in the world you’re creating.

Part 1: Introduction to Fashion & Costume

In part 1 of our Fashion & Costume post series we’ll be considering some basic questions about how to approach this element of character design in a thoughtful way. Does your character exist in a specific historic time period? Can your character’s clothing place them in proper context within the world you’re building? Do clothing choices tell us where the character lives or what time of year it is? What questions do clothing choices answer for your characters?

The images at the top of this post were drawn by comic book artist Bryan Lee O’Malley. We’ll examine some more work by O’Malley later in this post, but for now let’s take a look at this:


It’s Archie, Betty, and Veronica from Archie Comics. If you’re not familiar with these characters then you’ve apparently never stood in line at the grocery store: Archie Comics have been around since the dawn of time and aside from the yellowed newsprint the big clue that we’re looking at a panel from the early to mid 1970s would be the clothes. Fashion was always (and continues to be) a major element of Archie comics and is an easy-to-spot signal that helps us place any given artwork from the comic into the era it was created in.

Historic Costume

If you want to set your story in the historic (or seemingly historic) past then the  clothes that your character wear can help reinforce that, especially if you do your due diligence and conduct some research. Research is an important part of developing a period piece and it’s fairly easy to identify when an artists hasn’t put the time in to study the era they’re trying to portray.

19th & 17th century characters by Yamada Akihiro:

Triumphant knights by Sara Kipin:

Erin Kavanaugh explores 1920s fashion in these concept drawings:


Solid research can lend authenticity to your story, like Moana’s clothing in these drawings by Jin Kim:

Costume in Context

What your character is wearing can place your character in proper context with what is going on in the story. Is your character hiking in the mountains or sitting in a fancy restaurant? Is your character a peasant farmer or royalty in the castle? Is it winter or summer? Asking yourself these questions throughout the visual development process can inform the choices you make when dressing your characters.

Choice of clothing can tell you what season it is and where the story takes place, like these drawings by newmilky, who compares winter in Santa Monica to winter in Moscow:

The latest Pokemon game, Sun & Moon, takes place on a tropical island so the choices made by series artists took that climate into account when creating characters and costumes. There are no fur lined parkas or thick sweaters needed here:


Contemporary Clothing

Setting your story in our own time offers up an easy way to research costume: just think about what store(s) your character shops at and head to their website to start getting ideas and reference.

Saskia Milledge creates characters that each have a distinctive sense of style that probably reflects aspects of each character’s personality and temperament:

Looking at Milledge’s characters it’s easy to start getting ideas about who these characters are or what they’re ready for. Does it look like Grantaire works in an office building or in an artist’s studio? Do Marius or Cosette look like they’re dressed to go camping or have lunch at the cafe?

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comics are typically take place in a contemporary setting and fashion has always played a role in his comics to differentiate characters or place context:


Visual development work on O’Malley’s latest comic book:

Fantasy & Science Fiction

When you create a fantasy world the possibilities are endless; sometimes the possibilities are so endless it can stall your work as you try to get a handle on the overall look of how to depict buildings, vehicles, and costumes. Some artists will reach for tried and true concepts that have been used by other fantasy artists so that viewers or readers will quickly grasp the general concept behind the work. Using well worn visual tropes can help get past the look of the world and get you into the heart of story and character development quickly, but can run the risk of looking derivative.

figure_headThis Link action figure (above) features the new costume for Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild (2017). To freshen things up Nintendo has opted for a blue tunic (again) in lieu of the more traditional forest green associated with this character. Even so, reassuringly familiar fantasy elements abound: tunic, leather belts and brass buckles, forearm bracers, shield, sword, gauntlets, and calf high boots. Even if someone were unfamiliar with the Zelda franchise, a quick glance at this character would be enough to telegraph ‘fantasy’.

As an exercise, artist Koi Carreon created these drawings after reading about Dungeons & Dragons character classes in preparation for a D&D campaign:


The Dungeons & Dragons universe, itself heavily influenced by Middle Earth created by J.R. Tolkein, has been a major catalyst and influence on fantasy storytelling since the 1970s.

With her oversize red bow and rosy cheeks, artist Jake Wyatt cleverly subverts the common look of a fantasy warrior (of any gender) with the protagonist in his Necropolis comic:

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Yoakeno Hikari blends real world contemporary clothing with the fantastic to create a look that is familiar yet easily telegraphs to the viewer that these characters don’t live in a world exactly like our own:

The Japanese artist Haccan has worked for years as a character designer in the video game industry. For the Fantasy RPG Avalon Code (Nintendo DS, 2010), Haccan developed costume designs heavy with detail:

There is a great diversity of approach when you look closely at Haccan’s costume work here: varied textures, colors, and materials help to sell the idea that these characters all come from different places and walks of life.

Keep it Simple

While lavish costume detail can certainly be fun, there are some artists that feel that an overabundance of detail can obscure the character and distract from their personality or temperament. In addition, it has long been a practical consideration in traditional animation to strip a character down to the most basic and essential details as a time-saving strategy in what was already a labor intensive process.

Heather Penn spares the details in her character designs for the comic she’s working on:


Thea Glad has a deceptive simplicity to her line work that carries through to costume and clothing choices:



That does it for part 1 of our Fashion & Costume series. In subsequent posts we’ll go a little bit more in depth on some additional aspects of this subject:

Fashion & Costume