• Playing Dress Up – Even in Table Top

    by  • November 9, 2012 • Design & Art • 2 Comments

    As the daughter of a costumer, I had some awesome dress up clothes and Halloween costumes as a kid. I also learned from a very early age about the adage “the clothes make the man.” As my mom wasn’t only the seamstress for these costumes, but more often than not designing costumes for casts that could easily number into the hundreds (oh, high school directors that can’t say no…), I started picking up on how clothes and costumes can inform an audience not only about an individual character, but their relationships with other people, the way the audience is supposed to perceive them, and what the entire world was like. My mom often likes to say that, especially in fantasy settings, she likes to make sure everyone looks like “they came from the same fairy tale forest.”

    I was reminded of all of these lessons recently when I, essentially, got to play costume designer for my tabletop group, as in our Unhallowed Metropolis game we were attending a masquerade ball.

    Allow me to take a moment to set the scene: our motley crew is made up of the aristocrat Byron; his sister-in-law who is now a member of the Mourner’s guild, Moira (me!); a (slightly mad) scientist, Dr. Israel; an Irish dhampir who assists the good doctor, Marcus; an undertaker and member of a secret society who is investigating Dr. Israel, Penny; and a former prostitute now also assisting Dr. Israel, Adelle (an NPC). Byron was invited to the masquerade ball by a higher rank aristocrat and, in order to make a good impression, wanted all of the other PCs (plus Adelle) to come along as his retinue. He also wanted to make a good impression on a young lady he was considering courting, and had found out that her masquerade costume was the Queen of the Amazons.

    That gave me the starting point to start coordinating costumes for the group. Why did I do it? Well, OOCly, I’m the history buff and had just found an amazing resource of an 1887 book of fancy dress costumes. ICly, before she was a Mourner, Moira was an up-and-coming aristocrat herself (she was married to Byron’s brother, who died in a tragic accident. Or so the story goes – there’s an ongoing investigation by the PCs into his assassination). Byron knew enough that he wanted to coordinate his outfit with his young lady, but with Moira at his side,we were able to coordinate an entire tableau for the group. With the Queen of the Amazons as a starting point, Byron first asked if Hercules might be a good complimentary costume. Considering Hercules’ history with the Amazons, Moira squished that, but then as I recalled some of my own favorite historical and literary ties to the Amazons, I suggested Theseus as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened with Theseus and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, discussing their impending marriage.

    From there, the rest of the group’s costumes fell into place. I tried to advocate putting an ass’s head on the dhampir and calling him Bottom, but instead he chose Puck. Dr. Israel became Oberon, king of the fairies. Penny needed to keep her scythe on her in case of trouble so we turned her into a fairy of the harvest, and Adelle into a fairy companion for Puck. Poor Moira, bound by her vows to the Mourner’s Guild, was stuck in her usual black dress, though at least she got to wear shiny satin.

    As a reward for the coordinated costumes, the entire masquerade ball took notice of us, especially the two NPCs Byron was hoping to impress. Mission accomplished.

    In a society obsessed with status and sending the right message and scrutinizing every glance for hidden meaning, it made perfect sense for us to work with that system in Unhallowed Metropolis, but it has applications in other settings as well. From a superhero game where a team could debate the merits of matching versus coordinated versus unique costumes, to using descriptions of clothing to set apart how different your wandering band of adventurers are from the citizens of the latest city you’ve stumbled into. If you meet another wizard, do you look like you both came from the same fairy tale forest, or does she wear robes and symbols utterly foreign to you. When appearing as a new person in the royal court, do you try to ingratiate yourself with the locals by adopting their style of dress or emphasize your outsider status by maintaining your usual (unusual in this setting) appearance? And don’t forget the importance of fabric! Velvets and brocades are different from cotton – though if you’re not a fiber expert, “heavy” and “sumptuous” fabrics versus “light” and “airy” are excellent descriptors as well.

    LARPers are probably ahead of the game on this, but I know at least in my groups, clothing tends to be thought of in terms of “what gives me the best armor” or “here’s a cool accessory.” I think we might be seeing a change in that, at least for Unhallowed Metropolis, after all the fun we had with this session!



    Lifelong geek and feminist, my geeky passions include YA books, movies, and role playing. I've been playing table top games on and off for almost ten years with a wide variety of games under my belt in that time. Born and raised in Michigan, I've fulfilled a life-long dream and now live in New York City with my spouse and three cats. My gaming exploits are recorded at http://www.fandible.com

    2 Responses to Playing Dress Up – Even in Table Top

    1. avatar
      November 10, 2012 at 01:30

      One interesting thing about PC clothing in RPGs is that it tends to “mark” characters, because it is almost always freely chosen by players as expressions of their characters’ personality characteristics, regardless of the player’s gender. IRL, this understanding of clothing is strongly associated with female gender identification in Western civilisation (and as I understand it, can become a locus of judgement, where a woman’s clothing choices are often read as encoding personal characteristics rather than social positioning).

      As a straight-passing white male of the upper middle class, my clothing encodes the appropriate social signifiers, but is not read as expressive of my personality in any particularly deep way, except perhaps if it departs from the expected costume for a given situation (this is true of my appearance generally). Elaborate descriptions of PCs, both their costumes and physical appearance, can be read as effeminate / queer, especially in the context of a same-sex group of straight men, because it challenges the privilege of being “typical”. I actually hear descriptions from some players in these groups of “I wear whatever’s normal for me to wear,” and I like drilling down a bit into this response and pushing them to come up with specific details (at the very least the colours and what the most distinct piece of clothing they wear is).

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    2. avatar
      November 11, 2012 at 01:21

      The clothing a character wears can also hint at backstory. The adventurer dressed in a mixture of battered and new gear versus the one in all new gear says something. Was some of the gear inherited? Was it bought used because all new wasn’t affordable?

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