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I've been trying to create a world which mermaids are a part of. These mermaids have the ability to transform into an elf when out of water and dry. Technically, they are less mermaids turning elves and more elves turning into mermaids. They are water elves, and there are other types of elves in this world as well that remain elven constantly. These mermaids have access to typical clothing, or as typical as can be in a fantasy world. I'm trying to think of what type of clothing these mermaids must wear to keep warm in the winter. Mermaids that live in the deep sea have adapted to that and have different bodies to live in the freezing and dark water, however other mermaids remain near the top where it is warm. Anyone have thoughts on what clothing they could wear when cold? For clarification, this is for when underwater.

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    $\begingroup$ Just to clarify - this is clothing to be worn while swimming in mermaid form? Not clothing to wear outside the water in elf form? Or is the same clothing that must be suitable for land wear in elf form and swimming in mermaid form? $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ Water temperature in the ocean is pretty cold anyhow, whatever time of year. Why would you assume they'd be affected by the cold on land when air leeches warmth much slower than water? $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ They migrate? Or they wear otter pelt. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 26 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Are mermaids warm-blooded or cold-blooded? $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ Something made from MERino wool maybe? $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 5:43

15 Answers 15

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Blubber.

As L dutch already pointed out, the cold water drains heat very effectively, no plausible fabric can stop that *.

It kinda breaks the spell of the mermaid by having them as anything other than the epitome of feminine beauty, but if the water is going to get dangerously cold, then realistically they'd spend autumn gorging themselves to fatten up to the point that they are heavily insulated with a good few cm of blubber.

They would look like sea lions. By human standards they'd be obese.

enter image description here


Alternatively - they'd migrate, or hibernate in packs.

* Or if you can explain a subsurface neoprene manufacturing industry, and your mermaids look like this:

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ "breaks the spell of the mermaid by having them as anything other than the epitome of feminine beauty" YMMV. As a wise man once sang, "My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns, hun". Except for this I was going to post the same thing, +1. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ Re, "subsurface neoprene manufacturing" They might not have to manufacture it underwater if they can produce anything else underwater (Fish?) that they can trade for goods manufactured on land. P.S., probably not much neoprene in that survival suit. It's mainly a nylon shell with urethane coating to make it waterproof. Doesn't provide any warmth: You wear long undies beneath it for warmth. The hood probably is neoprene. And there are going to be various rubbery bits here and there which could be neoprene, could be natural latex, or silicone, or some kind of synthetic rubber $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Hey, supposedly one origin of mermaid legends was sailors spotting walruses at a distance, so this checks out. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ Sea otters have no blubber and spend almost their entire lives in very cold water. So these mermaids could skip the fat and instead have a thin coat of highly-insulating fur. $\endgroup$
    – Lime
    Jul 27 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ If blubber doesn't fit OP's conception of "water elves", then maybe a nice thick layer of insulating mucous on the mermaid's skin would be appropriate? $\endgroup$
    – The Photon
    Jul 27 at 19:53
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Only Disney Mermaids Wear Seashells
Why would they wear clothing at all? If they're able to shapeshift and they've adapted to watery life (by becoming part fish or part manatee), then they wouldn't need clothing at all.

Consider normal nudity. Humans have historically gotten along just fine & naked in a cool maritime environment (Tierra del Fuego - don't let the climate type fool you, it's COLD, rarely getting into the 50s in summer), there's no obvious reason why Elves can't similarly adapt to their own environment and more especially to a partially aquatic environment.

Your Elf-Merfolk won't wear anything in winter (or summer).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is the right answer considering that the question has no "science-based" tag. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 26 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ Also possible to mention that their natural heat generation or insulation "order of magnitude" better because of water is potejt heat sink, 10C in water and in air are 2 big differences. Air is more kobilemso wind can lower that diference, but still. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 26 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ The statue notwithstanding, merfolk would also likely be hairless. Those long tresses may look good on Ariel but they are a significant source of hydrodynamic drag and a source of entanglement (gravity is negated by buoyancy) while maneuvering underwater. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 0:44
  • $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan -- Correct! Presumably an Elf could assume a hairless merfolk form if they so chose. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 27 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Hair may serve the purpose of a sexual attractant... look at me, I can afford to have this massive drag, and still be fit and healthy. It's usually males that have such encumbering sexual displays, but it would appear that amongst hominids, females must also attract males. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jul 27 at 2:40
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The problem when being in cold water is that water is pretty effective at dissipating heat. To avoid that turning into a mortal problem, a warm blooded creature need to have a good insulating layer to reduce heat losses.

If that's not possible, the only clothes which can offer protection are thick drysuits, like those used by scuba divers in cold water. Anything more loose would allow water circulation around the skin and also allow the related cooling.

Incidentally they would not affect too badly the hydrodynamics of the swimmer as more loose clothing would, which is also an aspect to not be neglected.

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    $\begingroup$ even modern clothes will not offer much protection if they are breathing the cold water, the thermal loss through gills is huge. this is the reason tuna can't manage much more than 10 degrees above ambient temperature. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ Divers in cold water always wear drysuits (wetsuit allows water underneath, drysuits are completely watertight and sealed). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jul 27 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec, not being an expert on the topic I thought wetsuit was the generic name for it $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 27 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch recreational divers (and other water sportsmen like surfers) usually dive in relatively warm waters, so they only encounter (cheaper and simpler) wet suits. But in colder water that's not enough, so dry suit seals around the face and either includes mittens or seals around wrists and the diver has additional layer of normal clothing underneath. They are also required when ferrying single-engine aircraft over cold water like north Atlantic. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jul 27 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman under wetsuit no. Under drysuit, however, definitely (except for the perfectly pressed part). Here is a video of Atlantic crossing in a single engine aircraft where they have drysuits just in case of emergency and you can see they have normal clothes underneath (also note how difficult it is to pee in that thing around 20" mark 😉). $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jul 27 at 19:15
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Considering that these shapeshifting elf/merfolk are shapeshifters, there are two possibilities:

Firstly, that the act of shapeshifting to their aquatic form gives these people the ability to tolerate the temperatures of the seawater in which they live. While they may live in warm seas, warm seas are nevertheless capable of being sufficiently cold that a human exposed in them long-term could suffer from hypothermia after many hours or a few days. This means that if these merfolk are adapted to their aquatic environment, then they won't need clothing while in the water.

So... if the act of shapeshifting is what allows the merfolk to tolerate the lower temperatures of the seas they inhabit, then the attire of their elven forms would necessarily be identical in its protectiveness to that of other non-shapeshifting elves in similar environments, though not necessarily identical in appearance.

Alternatively, if it is the physiology of the merfolk that gives them the ability to tolerate the temperatures of the seas they inhabit, and this tolerance or resistance to hypothermia is a constant between their terrestrial and aquatic forms, then this significantly alters these people's need for clothing.

Given that they aren't likely to be insulated from the temperature of seawater by medieval clothing, and clothing would be a hindrance underwater, they must be able to tolerate the temperatures of warm seas, which as I have said may still be significantly lower than human body temperature.

This tolerance to cold environments would transfer over to their terrestrial forms. Since air has a much lower thermal conductivity and specific heat than water - which is to say that cold water draws more heat away faster than air - these merfolk would likely be able to tolerate rather cold conditions without needing any particularly warm clothing.

So, in this alternate case, we might expect merfolk to go about on land scantily or lightly dressed even in cold weather, and they may not feel the need to don extra clothing unless the weather is both cold and wet, or snowing.

However, as water attenuates ultraviolet quite effectively, I would expect that unless they have dark skins, these merfolk would probably be as susceptible or more so to sunburn than their non-shapeshifting relatives, and so might dress in light but concealing clothing in summer conditions.

Having presented these options, it is up to the OP to decide which of the two options best describes the merfolk in question.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! I love how it takes a logical adaptation these merpeople must have to survive and explains how it'd answer the question! $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Jul 26 at 18:02
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They stay on land. Clothing we be ineffective against cold in water. Since they are not adapted to the cold they migrate to land ever winter and back to water in the spring.

They can wear stander human/elf cold weather clothing while on land.

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    $\begingroup$ that could be a great plot point, where a character overcomes the cold $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 13:35
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Either they don't stay warm, something else does, or the answer is more simple than you might think.

Have you ever heard of cleaner fish? No? What about clownfish, which have protective mucus? Cleaner fish evolved to remove parasites to A) secure an easy source of food, which would be invaluable to fueling a mermaid's large brain and B) avoid predation, as cleaner fish aren't eaten by their 'clients.' Therefore, why not cleaner mermaids?

Now, mermaids need a place to sleep, right? And if they're anything like people, they'll want a place to call home. Given that they'll already be spending a lot of time in something else's mouth, why can't that be their home?

Now, it's a natural instinct to defend one's home-one's territory-so these mermaids will defend their host while using its mouth as shelter, each defending the other when needed. This strategy of course comes with certain risks; acid reflux, saliva exposure, accidental swallowing-and because of natural selection, it seems our cleaner mermaids will develop progressively greater acid resistance, up to the point where they can get swallowed for fun-or warmth.

TL;DR: Assuming mermaids develop a symbiosis with certain sea monsters, they don't need to stay warm, because something else will be supplying the heat. Otherwise, any mermaid, through magic and/or biology, can and will have adapted to thermoregulate (and cope with freezing temperatures) in water, as even tropical seas can become too cold to sustain human survival, therefore ensuring the whole clothing/blubber kerfuffle completely moot.

In my humble opinion, if you want to know what mermaids will need to deal with cold air or water, just look at a dolphin.

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A seal-skin coat. (ok, that's selkies not mermaids but becoming a seal makes more sense in cold water)

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They wear nothing in the water. They just shift to third-form when they need to dive below the warmer thermal layers, or when winter winds steal the warmth from the shallows. As first-form is fully elven, third-form is fully fish, complete with a cold-blooded circulatory system, capable of surviving extremely cold water.

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    $\begingroup$ Why a third form? Just make the mermaid form cold-blooded, problem solved. Except that it generates a new problem: when transitioning from mermaid to elf, they would need to take the time to warm back up, internally. Nitro-boosted metabolism? ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jul 30 at 11:11
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Fur pelts. It's not the most ethically sourced of materials, but it's remarkably good at heat insulation (especially when the fur comes from a polar animal). Marine mammal pelts (pinnipeds and sea otters) in particular would be good fits for beings who spend much of their lives underwater.

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    $\begingroup$ only as long as you can keep them properly oiled. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ Penguin pelts would be ideal. An extremely non-PC PR nightmare in modern times, but medieval folks didn't have such sensibilities. And nevertheless they had much less negative impact on the environment, partly because they were much less numerous. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jul 30 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ @RalfB, I am a naturalist (not my job), and penguin pelts just, in my opinion, are cruel to penguins, not to be rude. $\endgroup$ Jul 31 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ Surprise surprise, I wouldn't kill a penguin too. But there is no point in getting interested in worldbuilding if one is only capable of looking at other cultures or eras through the lens of modern sensibilities, don't you think? Would you even read a book set in Roman times, in which the Roman protagonist used every other paragraph to virtue signal about how wrong slavery is? Or one set in the Aztec empire, where the author took every opportunity to demonstrate his shock about human sacrifice? Priests wore human pelts there, you know, and nobody raised an eyebrow. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Aug 4 at 21:22
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Wool

Victorian bathing suits, when worn, were not for modesty but for warmth. Hence, they wore wool, which keeps its insulating powers even when wet.

For that matter, check out Victorian bathing suits for the style, with some alternations for the tail.

This, mind you, is for winter and other cold situations; they would have to be better adapted to the cold than a human, and this just be a supplement.

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  • $\begingroup$ wool is heavy, by the way $\endgroup$ Jul 31 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ They have to be strong to swim. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jul 31 at 23:06
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Leather made from Seals, Whales or similar creatures. Not only will your mermaids be warm... but they will be warm and in style to meet any fashion need.

Can Seal And Whale Skin Be used to Make Leather?

Yes

Seal skin has been used for leather for a long time. Indeed, it is leather as all skin (including human) when properly tanned is leather. It's really a question of how thick it is. Human skin isn't thick enough to make a good leather.

Whale leather also exists, but some comments online suggest many species' skin is too thin or rubbery to make what we humans would consider a good leather. Nonetheless, not finding a lot of whale leather products today may have a lot to do with decades of sustained Green Peace effort.

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    $\begingroup$ 1. leather is not a good insulator, 2 leather rots very quickly underwater. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27 at 4:13
  • $\begingroup$ @John Leather on a... mermaid? We'll believe that mermaids exist but not methods to make leather better/feasible underwater from... beings living under water? $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Jul 27 at 4:20
  • $\begingroup$ the top rated answer has the mermaid growing the blubber themselves, you can't make blubber containing leather its a completely different layer of tissue. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ @John so fictional mermaids can't make leather that bends the laws of reality? $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Jul 27 at 6:20
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D&D Sea-elves, kinda

Since you mentioned these mermaids of yours transform into Elves when on land, I personally say their fashion doesn't matter and they should be put to death on sight, the arrogant "we live longer therefore we're better in every way" pieces of... cough... sorry.

There's a race in Dungeons & Dragons: the Sea Elves. I recommend you turn your attention to researching them, especially in the Forgotten Realms setting.

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Because water expands as it freezes, both water that is warmer and that is colder than four degrees Celsius will rise, so normal convective processes will keep the main body of water at four degrees, with fluctuations only near the surface.

So if they cannot withstand four degrees, they will have to stay near the surface even in summer; if they can, then they have a zone where they can stay all winter.

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Maybe like, a close fitting suit of hollow, lightweight synthetic fiber. That would be both waterproof and warm. Or maybe one made out of stretch polyester blend, and it'll be ultra moisture wicking, traps warm vapor but keeps you dry, and it's also lightweight. Or perhaps synthetic fleece. That breaths well and is lightweight AND moisture wicking. Ooh, what about polyester blended with Merino wool? That would be warm and sorta lightweight. But that would be for land. As for if they want to stay as mermaids during the winter, perhaps a jacket (does the mermaid's tail need to stay wet? If not, then maybe a exact replica of their tails, only slightly bigger and made of either of the materials above; synthetic fiber, stretch polyester blend, polyester blended with Merino wool, or synthetic fleece.) made of the materials above, which are synthetic fiber, stretch polyester blend, or synthetic fleece. I would also suggest the color of the suits be a dark color, because dark colors trap in heat more then light colors. So a black, dark grey, or another dark color would be practical.

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Mermaids could make use of fur coats and shed it during warmer months.

Some river otters shed their under fur during warm seasons and don’t make use of fat to keep warm; they instead use thick fur tightly packed together like snake scales to prevent the under fur from getting wet. As another layer of protection, their glands produce oil to allow water to bead off keeping the otter from freezing.

Your mermaids could make use of the same adaptation producing thick fur and oil during winter months to moult it completely off during warm weather.

Now, if your non-deep sea mermaids need to wear something because they don’t have that adaptation, you can go the dark route and have them slay deep-sea mermaids for their coats and oil. Not much different than we did to Japanese river otters (which are now extinct).

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