As a costume designer and maker I get a fair few customers who need help and advice on what to wear to suit the character and game world they want to play so I have spent a long time thinking about what does and doesn’t work in different settings and analysing why an outfit sometimes feel ‘off’.
One of the key things I think is worth bearing in mind when creating a costume is that it tells people a story about your character before you even do anything or open your mouth. It’s like a shorthand sketch of who they are. Obviously at the end of the day roleplay is the most important thing in a LARP context, but a suitable costume can help you define a character and indeed make you feel like them too.
But how do you design an outfit that suits your character? I think there are some key aspects that are worth thinking about when planning a costume to make it easier to find the right look. A skilled costumer designer can of course bend the ‘rules’ and make it work but what I am trying to do here is offer some suggestions on how you can have the confidence to put together an outfit while knowing it will work in the setting you chose.
In this article I want to talk about just one of those aspects – silhouettes.
When we look at something or someone our brain takes all the masses of information it is seeing and estimates it into something it understands – that is why things like optical illusions work because they trick our brain. It also means we all have certain shapes which our brains interpret as meaning something and that is why silhouettes can be so powerful.
Take a look at the three silhouettes above; they would all fit into a medieval fantasy type setting and they are all easily identifiable. I don’t need to tell you which is the Wizard, which is the Fighter and which is the Ranger. Even someone who isn’t at all into fantasy, roleplaying or anything similar would still be able to tell you which was which because we see them so often the shapes are wired into our brains. If you put the wizard hat on the knight it would look weird and wrong because the shapes don’t go together.
Similarly there are some shapes which are iconic for certain time periods, even if you haven’t studied any history since school you will probably be able to place these two roughly in the right time periods.
Most people know the silhouettes of the major historical periods even if they don’t actually realise they do – we all pick them up from history lessons, films and so on. Sometime when an outfit feels ‘off ‘ it’s because it has the shape of a different time period to the setting or the other costumes in a game. Often it is best to stick to silhouettes that come from the time period of the setting even if you then add details from other time periods.
When designing a costume think about how it will look in silhouette, what image will it portray? If someone sees you silhouetted in a doorway or on the horizon what or who will they think you are?
Some shapes are quite generic, a long coat could be from many time periods and types of person. However add a high collar or a shoulder cape and you start to get a more specific shape. Add a Tricorn to the high collared coat – you have a highway man. Add a deerstalker hat and pipe to the coat with a shoulder cape – you have Sherlock Holmes.
You may have realised by now I like hats! With silhouettes they tend to be quite important – possibly because we look at the head most when looking at a person.
There are however many other things which give you instant clues just on shape, a skirt or a robe gives a different shape and feel to trousers. Very fitted clothes give a different shape to long flowing ones. One of the reasons I picked Henry VIII is that it is a very strong example of a change of look. Medieval clothes are generally form fitting or soft and draped, whereas when it comes to the Tudors period clothes become very structured with padding and corsetry creating a more rigid and forced shape. Henry is just one of the most extreme and easy to recognise images from that time, I could have easily picked Elizabeth with her wide skirts and ruffs.
You can also give a instance feel of the type of person the character is, look at these two women, both from the same fantasy setting. You can make a lot of guesses about what they are like and what they do just from the silhouette.
So when you are creating a new outfit have a think how the silhouette will look – it’s how people will see you in the dark or across a field and it’s also one of the things their brain will use to shorthand what your costume is about. Consider each item, particularly things which stick out or make a distinctive shape. Do they add to the look you want or detract from it?