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Yes, I know the answer for this is "no, that's unrealistic and ridiculous," but magic in my world may just change that. You see, mermaids have the (super)natural ability to create and manipulate seashells (and pearls, but that's outside the scope of this question).

Now, I've decided that mermaids will use seashells as clothing (specifically seashell tops, but other seashell attire will exist too) in my setting, both for modesty and practical reasons (explained below), but that made me wonder. Could seashells even work as clothing?

I mean, realistically, there are only three justifications for seashell tops:

  1. Magic-This should come as no surprise. Only with magic can seashells be conveniently molded to the wearer and given the strap (or straps) necessary to hold them in place.

  2. Supply/Availability-Seashells are pretty easy to obtain in the ocean, and with their magic, mermaids can easily bend and even merge them to suit their needs. (Merging fuses two shells together into one seamless object, essentially turning four small shells into one big shell.) Generally speaking, humanity works not just with what is there but with what is easiest to work with, and this makes seashells a prime candidate for mermaid clothing material.

  3. Protection-I believe it goes without saying that the female chest is a vulnerability and must be protected. Which would be better at that, specially made seashells or seaweed? Yeah, I thought so.

However, just because I came up with three reasons to justify seashell tops (or seashell clothing in general) doesn't mean they're actually viable. Perhaps they just can't be made comfortable enough, or maybe seashells have some irredeemable flaw that would prevent them being used in this way. So my question is, Are Seashell Tops Viable Clothing For Mermaids?

Specifications:

  1. The best answer will account for the variables that determine the desirability, usefulness, and popularity of clothing, then explain why seashells pass or fall as a viable clothing material. These variables are supply, workability, comfort, and cosmetic potential (as fashion will be important to mermaids, they'll want something capable of as many different colors and designs as possible).

  2. The best answer will also contrast seashells to other options mermaids have for clothing to see how they compare. As far as I can tell, these options are seaweed, marine animal hide, sponges, sea stars, sea anemones (decorator and boxer crabs do it, so why not mermaids?), and maybe even fishbones. Rubber was mentioned in this question, but I'm not actually sure how feasible that is, and while I am asking about seashells in particular, I am also willing to accept a better alternative as long as its pros and cons are explained alongside that of shells.

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    $\begingroup$ for what purpose do your mermaids wear clothing, clothing offers no real insulation underwater and they don't need protection from sunlight. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 4 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ Why are mermaids suject to puritanical beleifs? usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2012/10/14/… $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Sep 4 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ @John Clothes designed for dry use do not offer real insulation. Those who live underwater would design for them to insulate there. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Sep 5 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary insulation does very little good underwater, the thermal capacity of water is just too high, even the best insulated wet suits only provide benefits in water of 50 degrees or warmer, and those suit are super thick. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 5 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ @John outdoor swimmers and triathletes would disagree. It all depends on the effort level, but swimming wetsuits are usually thinner than surf suits despite often being worn in cold conditions. Good fit and trapping of water helps once the initial cold water influx has warmed. Poor fit allows too much water exchange and adds drag; I had one that I didn't bother with the second time in 11°C (52°F) - it was no warmer than shorts $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Sep 5 at 10:08
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Yes.

https://www.naheri.com/products/african-inspired-cowrie-sea-shell-necklace.html

seashell top

This top (really a necklace) is eminently practical for a mermaid. Shells are available. Cowrie shells are smooth, waterproof, durable and common. Varying sizes can be used to provide more or less coverage for the front as desired. They are heavy enough not to float up when she is in the water; a larger necklace could wrap around and tie in back at the midriff and so secure it against the body when she swims. A top like this could be made more extensive to provide protection from the sun.

Plus it is a sweet and exotic look. Project Runway here I come!

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    $\begingroup$ Chainmaile + 25% fashion -10% swimming speed, 5 points of armor $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Rad140 That's not chainmail, that's lamellar. That said, seashell lamellar seems entirely feasible. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Sep 6 at 7:03
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Doesn't sound very practical.

Corsets weren't very practical.

Foot-binding wasn't very practical.

Stiletto heels aren't very practical.

Why not?

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    $\begingroup$ Corsets were and are very much practical, best lumbar support ever and it is body armor aswell...two in one. $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Foot-binding, as some researchers speculate based on the practice prevalence, was very useful for keeping daughters working at home. Foot-binding, for example, was not adopted as widely in regions where women worked in the fields (IIRC, wet-rice agriculture and foot binding have a negative correlation). Stiletto heels are not practical if we are considering walking and running. However, high heels change the posture and gait and increase the perceived attractiveness of a walker, hence, increase reproductive success. Everything, including bizarre fashion, has a purpose. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Sep 4 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ Right, and seashell bras are hot - that's 'explanation' enough $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Sep 4 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Alendyias Nope - the fact it's "fashion" literally defines it as not having a practical purpose. Sometimes a practical "look" becomes popular, sure - consider trends for military-inspired clothing, for instance - but the fashionable items still don't have to actually work. The purpose of fashion is partly to demonstrate your aesthetic taste, and partly to demonstrate your disposable wealth. Nothing more. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Sep 5 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ Colloquially, "hot" doesn't mean "practical". You don't see young girls going out on a Saturday night and say, "The way they're dressed is so PRACTICAL" $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Sep 6 at 13:10
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Seashells are rigid. Totally rigid clothes on a moving body are very likely to cause blisters and bruises due to friction.

Prolongued friction might even cause ulcers. If you have ever worn boots which were not broken in for long hikes you will get something like that.

If the shell covers only the breast is not offering that much protection.

If it covers the whole chest it hampers movement and all what I have written above.

Neither option seems nice.

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    $\begingroup$ Algae behind the shells to make a soft barrier...like plate armor with gambeson to avoid cutting yourself on the plates. $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, but considering the availability of seaweed and algae, which could provide a barrier, and the possibility of mermaids having layers of protective blubber and hide, I believe it could work. If not, please let me know. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 4 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ "protection"? I'm wearing a t-shirt right now. Doesn't offer me any protection. $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Sep 4 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ No need for algae nor weed, seashells come with soft meat inside folks. $\endgroup$ Sep 4 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ @TheSquare-CubeLaw still need to be careful of prolong use though, you dont want your skin coated as pearl :p $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Sep 6 at 2:15
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To everyone saying that seashells are a no go because they are hard, remember that coconut bras are a thing in the real world. Mermaids would surely use some sort of padding to protect their voice producing organs.

That said, who's to say that those bras are made of actual sea shells? They could be made to look like shells because that's underwater folk culture. Same reason why people cheering for some sports team in North America use hats with moose antlers, which are not actual moose antlers.

The mermaids make their bras out of soft materials such as shark egg cases (which some people call "mermaid purses" BTW) and seahemp. They make them seashell shaped because it sells, but if you visit their markets you should also find some shaped like sponges, crabs and in their erotic shops there are even sashimi shaped bras. The latter are actually edible.

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    $\begingroup$ Coconut bras weren't ever a thing. Women in tropical or subtropical areas simply didn't wear tops. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Sep 5 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham They are a cultural thing in a couple states in Brazil, which is a tropical country I come from. Some native cultures think small breasts are more beautiful and women wear those in hopes of reducing breast size (even though it doesn't). It had a huge comeback in the 90's due to the influence of a band. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @TheSquareCubeLaw Fair enough for that then - I'd not heard of that before. Mainly coconut bras are associated with Pacific islanders though, and that's just a Western/European invention like grass skirts or Josephine Baker's banana outfit. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Sep 5 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ Good point on imitation animal parts, and I appreciate your perspective on working materials and potential designs. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 6 at 17:39
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Don't kill the molluscs!

It would be cruel, and then you would be left with hard shells and straps. Have you ever seen a mermaid with straps?

There are more fundamental reasons: mermaids do appear to be mammals. Marine mammals have no trouble nursing young in the ocean, but mermaids might like to do better than nature. Maybe it started out for protection, to soothe baby-nibbled surfaces sensitive to sea water.

Introducing a little magic to the breeding of pets, it should be easy enough to come up with a flattened gastropod or a one-shelled clam, bred to use its muscular foot and antimicrobial, healing secretions to conform closely to a soft substrate of varying shape. More importantly, these can be bred to accumulate milk in a sanitary internal sac, and to allow it to be sucked out through a separate small orifice in its shell by a determined infant. Filling several such shells with milk in advance allows the mother to prepare for a period of separation.

The invention of this mollusc-pumping magic helped mermaids take part in longer marathon swims and elaborate festivities where the presence of infants might be an encumbrance. Now they leave them behind in communal babysitting creches for days at a time. Some may argue that this is not truly an altogether good thing, but natural sensibilities rarely stand up to convenience and obligation.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting perspective, though I have to point out that the molluscs might not have to be killed, shells could be collected from deceased individuals, and straps are practical for keeping seashells on. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Sep 6 at 17:40

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