In a world I'm currently developing, I'm working on a merpeople equivalent (more or less physically identical to your bogstandard mermaids, for the purposes of this question), and I want them to wear clothing. I know there are plenty of arguments against the practicality of this, but regardless, it's an element I'd like to have.

For context: these particular merfolk breathe air, and can stay out of water for significant periods of time. They live in rivers, lakes, and oceanic bays alongside a ground-based civilization, and so there's some communal culture going on (or at least communal standards of fashion). They're a part of the economy and society of said civilization, which is at least at a technological level complex enough to manufacture dentures (I know that's oddly specific, but I think it sets the tone). In other words, the have access to a lot of materials and production they otherwise wouldn't.

I've thought about the issue a bit, exploring various options (they say seaweed lasts for ages without deteriorating, if you don't cut it, etc.), and I hit upon the idea of them using natural rubber (latex I think is the word?) for their most basic and functional garments. They say the Myans would dip their feet in it to make shoes, and I wondered what the practicality would be of a mermaid bathing in latex up to the neck, letting it dry, and then cutting / peeling it off and devising some means of fastening it. Would this be a good way to make a waterproof suit? Even just an undergarment or something along those lines?


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    – Ender Look
    Jul 23, 2018 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I see the problem. A civilization advanced enough to make dentures will probably be able to make molds for rubber clothing, no? Or, if the rubber doesnt have to be airtight and is mostly decorative of for modesty reasons, sheets of it can be made and sewn together with a rubber lace, allowing to easily get OUT of the clothing as well as get IN. Because, let's face it, if you roll in latex and let it dry you'll probably get sometihng very much like a gimp suit which is almost impossible to get in and out of without some lubricant like talc powder or oil. $\endgroup$
    – Kaiannae
    Jul 23, 2018 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent point! Molding had occurred to me, but I hadn't thought of rubber lace. $\endgroup$ Jul 23, 2018 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ It makes a difference what purpose the clothing has. temperature control, armor, reduced drag when swimming, improved swimming generally like swim fins, protection from parasites (there are things like underwater mosquitoes, and things like underwater lice that could get under clothes), fashion (impractical shows your status is high enough you don't need to be practical), hide wounds, disguise smells, etc It makes a difference. Merpeople adapted to tropical water could survive cold water without a lot of fat, with an insulator. They'd need a way to deal with lice though. $\endgroup$
    – J Thomas
    Oct 3, 2018 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ they can still make clothing from natural fibers like flax, reeds, wool, or cotton. this will have the added bonus of having pockets and being useful for making fishing nets. Wool in particular retains a lot of its insulating properties even when wet. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Oct 3, 2018 at 13:21

3 Answers 3


Yes, I think this is total feasible. From a materials perspective natural rubber (which is derived from latex) is easily up to the aquatic environment (it is often used to make wetsuits). Here are my thoughts on how this would work for various types of clothing.

First, you need to harvest the latex. Many types of plants produce latex, it's actually moderately common. If your world is set on an alternate earth, feel free to read about latex-producing plants and pick the one you think would best suit your needs. Otherwise you can just make up a plant to produce your latex: it's common enough that I don't think anybody would question you.

Now, there are a couple ways you could go to actually make the clothing. One is to make form-fitting clothing, as you mentioned. There are some issues with this, but I think it's workable:

  1. You don't want the latex to adhere to the body once it has formed into a rubber. This is easily solved with some kind of body lubrication.
  2. You need to allow the latex to dry without rubbing it off. This would is a little tricky. For a human, I would say they could stand there until the layer is cured, and then re-dip their feet to fix the part that was messed up by standing. Something similar might be possible with mermaids if they can stand on their tails well, otherwise you need another solution. Perhaps solving this suggest a different application method (perhaps it is painted on in sections, instead of dipping the whole body at once).
  3. As mentioned by Kaiannae, the suit will be hard to get back on once the wearer is cut out of it for the first time. This could be ameliorated by cutting the clothing into sections and then binding them back together less tightly, but this eliminates the main advantage of this type of form-fitting clothing (namely, the ability to hold a water layer near the body, providing insulation from cold waters). It may also be solvable using the same body lubrication as from (1).
  4. This is less of a technical problem, but one of the main purposes of clothes at least in human societies is to outwardly display something about the wearer, be that their individuality, a group identity (i.e. uniforms), or some personal trait. Clothing made in this way would have less potential for fashion or decoration than a more "traditional" type of clothing. This may not be a problem, depending on the society of your mermaids (maybe they're very collectivist, and the uniformity helps them form a strong group identity), but it's worth thinking about.

Now, there is another possibility. Latex could be cast in flat, thin layers and then bound together into garments. These garments would do little for keeping warm, but they have some other advantages over form-fitting clothing:

  1. They are much easier to make. All you need to do is make a flat surface - maybe a stone that's been ground flat - and pour the latex onto it, maybe with a layer of lubricant to prevent adhesion, and maybe with a tool to smooth the layer to be thin. Then you let it cure, and cut the sheets into strips or other shapes to form the elements of clothing. Bindings could be made from thin strips of this same material, if a different material doesn't suit better.
  2. You could make many different styles of clothing: skirts made from strips or sheets, shirts with many layers to act as armor, fashion accessories like armbands or tassels, and so on.
  3. You can modify the latex itself easily during casting. For example, mixing in plant fibers would yield a tougher, less stretchy piece of rubber. Mixing in sand or some other powdered ceramic may strengthen the material for armor, or could be used to add colors. If they have advanced enough technology, they could vulcanize the rubber to make particularly strong and rigid pieces. Some of these things could be done with a body-dip or paint-on method, but not all, and it may be easier in flat castings.

Overall, I think there's no reason to restrict yourself to one way or the other. Maybe certain things are made to be personalized and form-fitting (gloves, wet suits for keeping warm, tail guards, etc) and others (skirts, armor, decorative clothing) are made the other way. Having multiple methods adds some believability to your world: it's rare for there to only be one way that something is done.

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    $\begingroup$ This is exactly the answer I was looking for—thank you! I actually was envisioning a very flamboyantly dressed and fashionable mermaid culture, so your point about the body-mold outfits being less customizable was very pertinent. Casting the rubber in separate pieces and assembling garments from there sounds like the best option, especially since, in my particular mermaid culture, clothes are more an expression of individualism than a necessity for warmth. But the idea of an interior water layer is brilliant, too, for colder biomes. And, as you said, no need to limit myself to one method. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2018 at 20:52

While I don't understand why they would need or want clothing at all, I see no reason why Merfolk couldn't make or use clothing made from rubber. With the caveat that they probably won't be able to harvest or process the raw stuff on account of the trees being on land and them living primarily in the water.

But you say they live near and participate in a human (?) social network: they could certainly trade for rubber, rubberised cloth, and any other things they'd need to make themselves feel fashionable in this society!

  • $\begingroup$ A latex wetsuit would probably be amazing for staying warm if it was possible to make one $\endgroup$
    – Andrey
    Jul 25, 2018 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ Clothing is an element of culture and can be used as a form of social status. $\endgroup$
    – cls
    Jul 25, 2018 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ Think of swimming in the North Sea in January and you get the need for warm cloth (neopren is synthetic, but it should work with natural latex as well). $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2018 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ I understand the uses of clothing --- but Merfolk, having evolved in the water (or having been created as semiaquatic people, or having moved into the water from the land and become adapted to it (tail, fins, etc)) would not need warm clothing to swim in cold water they're already adapted to. At best, I can see their "clothing" as bits of decoration. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 26, 2018 at 15:18

If dipping into latex to make clothes underwater then the latex liquid would need to be heavier or repel from water, being in water. There are examples of this in the natural world where different types of water meet, just google for images. For producing the latex, the plant live could be engineered over selection of species over hundreds of years to get the right results. Bleeding the latex into pools or maybe the flowers dropping with the stuff under soft currents of the sea. Also with selective breeding of these water flowers, instead of changing just the colour of the flowers. Maybe also changing the colour of the latex it produces. Plus also think what other foods or materials these plants would produce too.


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