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I'm developing a world with many different races, many of whom live in relative isolation. I'm trying to understand how the fashion of each cultures/species would evolve. In our world we're obsessed with clothes, the idea of walking around town without them is near unthinkable. However consider a colony which has very limited contact with the outside world, why would they develop the concept of clothing in the first place?

It's my belief that clothes perform three main functions

  • Warmth
  • Status (my clothes are prettier/more expensive than yours)
  • Modesty

However in these isolated environments where the weather is good (or at least the weather well suited to the species living there) there seems less need. After all status symbols could be anything from jewelry to weaponry. Modesty is a taught behaviour, however once people start covering up and are exempt from certain comparisons it could help explain the rapid spread of the tradition.

What factors would lead to a culture developing clothing and fashions in the first place or is it simply a matter of outsiders (who do need to cover themselves for warmth/protection) influencing their fashion?

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    $\begingroup$ This site has some awesome titles... $\endgroup$ – Ethan Bierlein Oct 7 '14 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ I think we might be able to beat the Nethack questions on Gaming.SE here. $\endgroup$ – Epiglottal Axolotl Oct 7 '14 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ It's important to remember that modern Western culture is on the prudish side when it comes to incidental nudity. Many other cultures, at other times and other locations, valued clothing but didn't freak out at nudity. Ancient baths and gyms separated genders but everyone was naked, Roman cities had nude artwork and erect penises around every corner, beggars of various periods might go casually naked, and infants could play naked without controversy, all of which would be unacceptable to some modern people. When designing your cultures, be sure to ask "how much do they CARE about clothing?" $\endgroup$ – Nerrolken Oct 7 '14 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ I think protection is a substantial component to clothing. Penises have delicate skin and substantial blood vessels just under the surface. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 7 '14 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ Forget modesty and style, and if you have climate-controlled environments warmth isn't as big a factor. Clothes provide pockets, and until we all have direct neural links to replace our cell phones and computers, that matters. :-) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jan 20 '16 at 3:28
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Pragmatic concerns of clothing aren't restricted to warmth. The idea of wearing smaller/more revealing clothing in warmer climes is a modern and impractical one. Anywhere that is hot and sunny requires people to protect themselves from the sun, which is best accomplished by wearing garments that are long, loose, breathable and light-colored, so as to reflect back as much of the sunlight as possible, while also allowing sweat to evaporate. It's especially critical to protect the head and scalp, as well as the eyes. If the environment is also dry and dusty, protecting the mouth is also advisable under certain circumstances.

Other practical reasons to wear clothes are for protection from other elements in the environment, especially given a lack of fur, scales, shell or some other hard and protective exterior. Anything from sharp thorny undergrowth to mosquitoes to stinging nettles. If you have ever gone hiking in warm weather and surrendered to the temptation to wear shorts instead of jeans, you will know what I'm talking about.

On a social level, clothes are used not only for status but also for self-expression. Clothing, jewelry, tattoos and other forms of adornment are a way in which people communicate their identity to the environment. They help people identify each other quickly, for example as members of an in-group, or a certain profession. Knowing on-sight whether someone is, for example, a member of the clergy can be vitally necessary for social development.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting you mention hiking in jeans. In the UK given the amount of wet/cold weather jeans are often considered a dangerous choice - many guides will not take out clients wearing jeans! $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 7 '14 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ I suppose if the weather is very wet, any clothing that doesn't dry quickly is a hazard. $\endgroup$ – lea Oct 7 '14 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ There's another important bit of utility to clothes you skipped: They let you carry more stuff. Pockets and pouches and belts are tremendously useful when you need to have things but also don't want those things getting in your way. $\endgroup$ – Saidoro Oct 7 '14 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @NPSF3000 Darker skin and eyes are not sufficient protection from the sun. $\endgroup$ – lea Oct 13 '14 at 4:27
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    $\begingroup$ @lea err... they are! Sure, well-designed cloths may lead to a longer, healthier life, but are not necessary nor an instinctive development. $\endgroup$ – NPSF3000 Oct 13 '14 at 4:33
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You may be confusing modesty with morality and overlooking one of the prime purposes of modesty - to control visual information. For instance, if a given race's arm turned red when angry, a diplomat might wear an arm covering solely to hide that.

You're also focusing too much on sight. What about smell or touch?

What if a shark-like creature's skin got rough and scratchy when happy? Wouldn't they then wear clothes to prevent hurting playmates when playing?

In humans cultures and animals (and this varies from culture to culture) certain displays communicate information such as sexual readiness/avilablity or mourning, etc. In certain situations this may be more or less desirable, and clothing is a common solution to that.

What about a female creature wearing thick loincloths to prevent advertising that she was in heat?

Hopefully that helped spark some additional ideas. :)

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    $\begingroup$ Good observation about controlling visual information. Humans often use sunglasses for that purpose. Also hiding the penis is quite common even in native cultures where people are otherwise naked; maybe the reason is that you can hide an erection that way? $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 7 '14 at 16:55
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To take a more practical slant on things.

For each species identify what they actually need clothes for. Think about the biology, the environment and the histories and traditions of that race.

Example 1

For example a scaled swamp-living lizardman might have no need for clothes for warmth or protection (and they wouldn't last long in a swamp anyway), however they do need to carry things. In that case you can expect them to develop harnesses, pouches, backpacks etc but not actually clothes as we think of them.

Modesty would never exist as a concept, and adornment would be approached by decorating the harnesses.

Example 2

Desert dwelling nomads - not sun adapted.

In this case clothing is needed for protection. Social taboos may well develop to reinforce that need for clothing so modesty may or may not exist.

Clothing would probably look similar to that developed by desert cultures in our world.

Example 3

Desert dwelling camel-riding nomads - sun adapted.

In this case clothing is not needed for protection from the sun, but they may well carry face masks to protect themselves from sand. Carrying things is normally done by putting it on the camels so for the most part they don't need much in the way of bags, harnesses, etc except to carry things they need frequent access to.

Conclusion

I hope this helps you see how you can break down each race and its environment to see what it's actual requirements are. From those requirements you can then work out and see what they need - and from there draw conclusions about where/if they would adorn things and whether they would develop a modesty taboo or not.

The need for clothing outdoors doesn't automatically lead to a modesty taboo of course - and even a race that doesn't need clothing may still develop one. That could be an interesting part of that races back story though. For example perhaps a primitive race that doesn't need clothes had an encounter with a race that does need clothes. They saw the more advanced technology of the other race and decided to copy it, including the clothes...

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  • $\begingroup$ I remember reading about an existing human culture (can't remember the name, likely will never find the citation; think it was somewhere in the Amazon) that developed a modesty taboo despite not wearing what we might consider substantial clothing; the men wore only string utility belts, but for a man to go outdoors without his belt was grossly indecent. (can't remember what the women wore but it was similar) $\endgroup$ – Leushenko Oct 7 '14 at 15:47
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Not in all of our world, but in most cultures, yes. You can see examples of alternatives on Earth, both in tribes in warm climates (in Africa, Indonesia, South America...), and in modern nudists. Though even all of those groups find some clothing useful much of the time. The reasons you listed, as well as protection and cleanliness, and for utility (they can help carry things) and to do certain kinds of work.

When there are harsher conditions, clothes become more normal, and people's expectations go that way. Clothes help people survive weather in most of the year in most places.

Also, many peoples who don't wear much clothes, still decorate their bodies, e.g. with paint.

Since you are talking about fictional races, some of them may also have adaptations which serve many of the functions of clothes - e.g. durable skin, scales, or fur, and/or temperature adaptation.

Postscript: It also occurs to me that clothing is used for concealment and privacy, both to hide possessions, and to cover up and not share our bodies. The aspect of hiding what our bodies look like, and even making our bodies appear that their naked form would be different (with belts, corsets, shoulder pads, etc) is one of the ways people dissociate from their bodies and choose to project and/or also self-delude about who and what they are, which is a major aspect of modern civilizations that people with less clothing do less of.

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There are two distinct reasons for clothing and other adornment:

  1. Comfort and protection
  2. Status, style, and modesty

The primary reason for clothing in most civilizations began as protection from the elements; sun, wind, and rain. Even in a warm climate with good weather, there is an occasional cold night over overly hot day. What starts out as a giant leaf hung over your head to protect you from the sun may well turn into a hat or a poncho; what starts out as an animal skin to keep the cold away may turn into a cloak.

When weather has been dealt with, there will still be dangers from the surroundings: dangerous (or annoying) animals and insects, thorns or nettles, rough rocks, and so on. It doesn't take long to realize that a tough animal skin protects you from scratches (or even weapons), and soon that animal pelt becomes a tough leather vest, capable of protecting from slashing claws or knives.

Once simple survival is no longer a looming threat, clothing can evolve into more than simple protection, into comfort. A leather vest may turn a knife, but a leather vest over cloth will let your skin breathe better. Clothing that is harder to make, or materials that are harder to come by will naturally be given status; as a civilization moves from clans and chiefs to cities and kings, status will play a natural part in clothing. A "country bumpkin" may still wear leather vests, but in the cultured city, where they don't need to worry about stray thorns tearing their clothing, they wear silk and dyed cotton.

Not all civilizations had the full evolution of clothing from basic protection to the "stylish" clothing of today; many cultures never moved beyond the first step. There are tribes around the world that still wear little more than a belt. On the other hand, there are cultures that thrive on clothing of all sorts, the more impractical the better - look at the ridiculous wigs, dresses, and powdered faces of men and women of the French court in the late 1700's!

The clothing choice of a given civilization should depend on their roots, the climate, and their lifestyle, along with the available materials. A jungle tribe would most likely wear little more than a necklace or a belt, because anything else would rot. A tribe in the far north would wear almost exclusively furs, to protect them from biting cold. An early European tribe would need protection from wind, rain, and sun alike, and they would have access to a wide choice of materials - wool, leather, furs, even silk - and thus would have a wide range of clothing styles. As time wears on and clothing evolves, the jungle tribe may not change much; the northern tribe would adopt warmer, layered clothing; the European tribe would continue to branch out, adding colors and simple designs, trying to make clothes that can stand up to both heat and chill.

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Hmm. Seems like a lot of comments on man parts being delicate and needing protection. So, I'm going to weigh in with something you might not have considered.

A monthly period and lady parts with a real working vagina.

Which leads to another reason for clothes: sanitation and safety. Clothes also protect the environment from YOU, and everything that might come out of you, beneath the waist, which in turn protects others from disease.

I don't know how your races work and if your ladies are anything like human ladies, but there are certain things that happen as a woman that I think sort of require underwear. I'm not talking about modesty, I'm talking about a predator being better able to track you, and I'm talking about sanitation as well (which, if your people poop, is another factor you might be looking at, male or female, because a primitive society without underwear is society with more diseases spread by fecal matter).

See, ladies can't hold their period like they hold their pee. It just comes out. There's nothing they can do about it. Next thing you know, there's blood everywhere.

Also, a healthy vagina has a constant discharge. They can have a constant, unrelenting ooze coming out of them, which varies by individual, according to age, and hormones in any given hour.

So if your ladies are built anything like humans are, once a month anything they sit on will look like a massacre, or as they walk they will drip, and when it isn't that time, everywhere they go they may leave a bit of themselves behind.

If your people care about cleanliness (and even as far back as Greco-Roman and Medieval times, yes, people did) they aren't going to want everything covered in blood. Carrying a thing to sit on is not going to help. Because without actual clothing, they would not be able to move from one spot. Yes, there were cultures that locked their ladies up in a special hut for the duration, letting them out after it was over, because it was considered unclean. It just seems more practical to put on underwear with something to catch it and let them go about their day.

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  • $\begingroup$ The highest rates of dysentery per capita were in industrialized cities during the industrial revolution. This is after industrial scale looms made the cost of fabric much cheaper. Clothes do nothing to prevent dysentery. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Apr 28 '17 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings a water supply is more likely to be contaminated with a higher population, but as much poop as there is on everything (and there is A LOT) I imagine that would be higher if no one wore underwear. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Apr 28 '17 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings but I went ahead and edited it just for you! changed it to diseases spread by fecal matter. :) $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Apr 28 '17 at 20:38
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Environmental protection

Staying warm has been mentioned already, though, consider both rain, and wind. Wind can drop the temperature you are experiencing quite quickly. And, of course, in very hot places, some clothing can help keep you cool by keeping the direct sun off your body.

Places warm enough to go without clothing usually are also warm enough to be teeming with insects. Clothes are not a perfect protection, but people quickly find if they have to deal with bug bites there are places far less comfortable to get them - and those spots get covered up.

Then, of course, there's daily life - walking, grabbing and carrying stuff - it's easy to get chaffed, scraped, or blisters, and certain types of clothing can help against that. Many people develop some form of sandals or shoes pretty early in making clothing, just for the sake of protecting the feet and toes.

Object Storage

Pockets! Pockets are useful. People quickly find the small pouches and bundles that you can make relatively easily become logistically unwieldy, especially if you need to keep many objects available and organized.

Even in the most bare bones society, the first person who usually needs this is your healer/medicine person, since they'll have to deal with a lot of plants and materials.

Improved Appearance

Decoration matters. Being able to hide a bit of belly fat, or wrinkles on your legs is a baseline thing a lot of people find useful for their appearance. Some colors work better with some folks than others.

In a completely different direction, you might want to intimidate or scare someone, such as enemies from a rival group. Monstrous masks, broadened shoulders, shoes that sound loud and heavy...

Practical Identification

Who is the leader? Who is the holy person? Usually in nearly every society, those two folks get special clothing first. That's because there are expectations with how you act and treat those people, different than others. Allowing people to see this, easily, allows people to know how to act. This also directly ties to "passing down the cape" as a generational act of roles.

The more respect or changes in behavior that are expected between roles, the more you'll see specific markers to be worn to display that. One of the earliest and most common ones is "adulthood". In hunter societies, unsurprisingly, if you hunt a fearsome predator, wearing the skin is an indication of your skill.

Historical records

Once you can successfully decorate your clothing with some kind of dye or paint, or weave colors of different materials together, you can create decorations and portable historical records. It's not surprising that many cultures have history in blankets, cloaks, tents, skirts, and so on.

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Clothing can be used to flatter or disguise certain body features via optical illusions.

Depending on the cut of a garment, you can emphasize (or deemphasize) certain features on your body. For instance, a woman with slim hips and a fuller upper body might wear a full skirt to make her appear more balanced. The same skirt on a woman with full hips and slender upper body would only make her look more bottom-heavy.

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