This talk was originally given at Play By Play Festival in 2017.
Hello everyone! Thank you so much for coming today. I’m Victoria, I’m an artist working at Pikpok here in Wellington. So, my talk is called Burn The Bikini Armour – Actionable Tips For Costume Design in Games. I’m going to be talking a little but about bikini armour, and a lot about costume design, and hopefully some of the talking will be useful tips.
It will probably come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I have a longstanding and deep love of clothes, of fashion, costume design and of the history of clothes. Now, this isn’t really something I have applied to my career in games, but is instead something I’ve cultivated outside of it.
For almost a decade I’ve actively researched fashion history, costume design, all kinds of sewing techniques, both modern and old fashioned. I wear my collection of vintage, reproduction and handmade clothes from the 1930’s to the 1950’s every day, as I’m sure some of you who know me have noticed.
I’ve made garments from the late 18th century – which I don’t wear every day – including corsets, petticoats, aprons. And I’ve even made my own pair of shoes. Much of this can be found on my semi-popular blog that mostly consists of photos of me in old fashioned underwear.
As for the academic side of things, I’ve been devouring every fashion history book I could find since I was about 11 years old, and I’m part of a very niche but very awesome community of historical costumers who pioneer research in their fields and educate the public about the past. Through fashion, naturally.
Now, some notes before we begin.
Firstly! This talk will lean heavily towards historic fashion, from Western cultures. This is where my area of interest lies and it’s where I’ve done the most research…and it’s often what goes horribly wrong the most. I have made sure to include as wide a range of examples and references as I can though, as time allows.
Secondly! I’m using character design and costume design somewhat interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. Character design obviously encompasses way more than just what the character is wearing, but clothing is going to be the main part I’ll focus on, because again, that’s what I know best. Also, characters in games don’t really often change outfits, and tend to get stuck in the Iconic Outfit trope much more than other media.
And lastly…I may get salty. It’s always hard to see something you love get mangled and ignored in equal measure. But it will be fun, I promise.
Why Is This Important?
So why should you care? Fashion and dresses is just stuff silly women care about, right?
You should care because clothes are universal. We all wear them, and for better or for worse they communicate our intentions and our interests. They influence how other people view us, and how we view them. Even if you don’t care about what you wear, and dress a certain way to show that intention to the rest of the word, you’re still part of the same display as the rest of us. There is no escaping clothes.
You should care because in video games, like all other forms of media, clothes become even more powerful. They can anchor us to a particular time or place, acting as visual shorthand. They communicate ideas about the characters, who they are, where they’re from, what they like. They work within the larger context of the game as part of it’s theme, it’s mood and it’s colour palette. Your character’s designs are as important as the game mechanics and the UI and the setting as part of the package that makes your game yours.
And you should care, because I hope you already do. I know that Play By Play has always striven to be an inclusive and progressive conference, and I hope you as attendees share those same values. Clothing, or more often the lack of clothing , has been one of the most visible issues when it comes to the representation of women and minorities in games. There are countless damaging tropes that relate to clothing and character design, that persist despite resistance. And why shouldn’t we all try to be a better person tomorrow than we are today?
So this leads us into looking at what’s gone wrong when it comes to clothes in games. Now there are varying levels of wrongness, obviously, ranging from some of the more obvious examples to things like incorrect clothes for the time period or tone of the game. But if we go to my next slide…
I don’t think I really need to say any commentary for this. Let’s just all take a minute to reflect on this.
[Dramatic pause to go and get a glass of water]
It probably seems quite trite to use an example like this because we’re all so used to seeing it, but if you try to look at this with fresh eyes you can see how… ridiculous it is.
We all know this isn’t an isolated example, I could easily fill these thirty minutes with equally terrible examples from gaming’s short but storied history. There are the famously – or infamously- bad examples, the now-iconic-but-still-questionable examples and the steady stream of what-the-fuckery that comes from free to play online MMO games.
Sometimes it feels like every game has costumes that end up being some variation of this.
It’s boring, it’s certainly not creative no matter how much freedom you have with it, it’s insulting, pandering, damaging and it just plain sucks.
And I have not even begun to talk about historical or historically inspired costuming. Movies and TV shows get a lot of things wrong, but sometimes I feel like video games don’t even try. If your games starts with a fade from black and a historical date on the screen to set up its world and story, I’m going to expect you to have done some research into what people wore back then. Otherwise what’s the point of having a specified setting?
Assassin’s Creed Unity, for example, has dresses decades out of date. The game apparently starts in 1789, but has outdated clothing from decades before. It might not seem too egregious, but this is the equivalent of setting a game in the modern day and having everyone dressed for a 70’s disco.
Games have not put their best foot forward when it comes to recreating the past. And so, I am going to try and help a little bit, maybe.
So, for any sort of cohesive world design you’re going to need something that I call a Costume Language. This is the thread that runs through your entire game, your entire world. It’s the stylistic choices that you make that keep everything consistent and unified. Silhouettes or patterns or colours might be used again and again across different characters, linking everything together while still describing individual roles.
This all sounds a bit wishy washy, and it’s easier to explain with examples so here we go.
The Banner Saga, by Stoic, is an absolutely beautiful game with a textbook example of a strong costume language. The Banner Saga obviously takes a lot of inspiration from general Viking mythology, which was around between the 8th and 11th centuries. Comparing characters side by side, you can very easily see that a) They belong in the same universe and b) They have cohesive designs.
Now a small disclaimer, The Banner Saga’s art is completely hand drawn and the animation was all rotoscoped, so a lot of these characters have palette swapped designs to make it easier on the artists. But it’s still a great example to look at.
Take these characters here, they all have the same silhouettes appearing in their design. The women have a simple tunic dress, and a short cape that covers their arms. Capes also appear on the male characters, but are generally longer, and the male characters have shorter tunics that are worn with pants. The horned giants have the same tunics, but with shorter sleeves, and more layers, often held together by large metal buckles.
These are very simple ingredients, but they’re consistent across the entire cast of characters to create cohesion.
Once you have simple ingredients like silhouette down, then you can add colour. The Banner Saga has a colour palette of whites and blues, and then reds and yellows and browns, and black. These colours are used across all the characters, in different intensities and combinations. It makes it very easy to communicate character traits, loyalties and the characters place in the world. Once you’ve got a strong colour palette, it makes it really easy to put together a new outfit for a character, while matching it up to their traits.
Having a defined colour palette also makes it really easy to identify important or unusual characters, or whatever your game narrative allows. Like Alette in the top corner there is in green, maybe that means she’s one of the main characters or is really important in some way, I don’t know, maybe?
Then we have patterns. The artists have obviously done their research here, as we see the same key Viking Age and Nordic stylings appearing again and again. Patterns inspired by Nordic art are added into the clothes, jewelry leather wraps and other decorations are used too. Primary characters or other important players are marked out by their more detailed costumes, with standout jewelry, patterned cloth or bonus buckles. Secondary characters have texture added to their costumes with simple buckles and brooches.
All of these things come together in one big delicious cake mix to create a costume language for The Banner Saga. Once something like this is in place, it makes it much easier to keep coming up with new costumes. Instead of the simple dress silhouette, a new female character could have a version of the male tunic. Instead of a cape, a character could have a hooded robe.
A good Costume Language is going to help you so much. It will help you with characterization, with concepting. It will make it much quicker and easier to come up with new designs for secondary or background characters. And it will make things look right, even if a player only realizes it on a subconscious level.
So, we’ve covered how a good costuming language can help your game, now let’s take a look at the individual parts that make up a costume language.
First port of call is primary sources. What are primary sources? Primary sources are is a artifacts, documents, diaries, manuscripts, recordings or any other source of information that was created during the time you’re studying. They are the original things.
Anybody here who is an artist has probably had this drilled into them already, but I’m going to say it anyway. USE. PRIMARY. SOURCES.
You can’t create anything without references, even the most stylistically out there artwork is going to have weak design without references. You can’t extrapolate or remix or remodel or create your own amazing fantasy feminist whalepunk steampunk post-apocalyptic universe without a solid foundation of references. As Picasso once said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”. To know where you’re going, you have to know whats come before you.
When it comes to your game’s costume design, you’re in luck. There are countless examples of clothing from every time period, every continent, every culture to look at. As long as humans have been making images of themselves, there have been humans wearing clothes, to be made into images, of humans, wearing clothes. What I’m saying is that there are lots of pictures of people wearing clothes, so you should probably look at one. Maybe two.
If your game is set after the 17th century then you are even luckier still, as there are actual clothes from the past three centuries that still exist today.
Another thing I really want to stress is that you shouldn’t apply modern standards to old designs. There is a lot of weird looking shit out there. Not everything will be to your taste. But sometimes it’s integral to the look of the period.
You shouldn’t go in with the intention of changing everything to be sexy by today’s standards. Instead, take the weird shit and use it as a springboard for something new and interesting. Just remember to have some perspective and ask yourself why something might have been worn, and what importance it had to the people who lived back then.
Next up, time period.
It’s rare that games are specific in their settings. There are countless games with a vaguely medieval fantasy setting, but they look like they could be set anywhere from the 10th century to the 16th century.
So my general rule for time period is to know it.
So, the past tends to get blurred into one big lump of Ye Olden Days. There are some pinpoints along it’s long and meandering timeline, but these are burned into the public consciousness thanks to other media – like movies – repeatedly going over them. Usually these are wars or generic settings like “Ancient Egypt”.
If you’re making a game with that ubiquitous setting of “Victorian London” know what part of London and what part of the Victorian era you actually want. Queen Victoria ruled for over 63 years and fashion changed dramatically over that time period. You probably think of something like this when you hear the Victorian Era, big, frothy bustle gowns that kind of look like curtains and you maybe saw something like it at a convention once.
But when she became queen fashions looked more like this. Yeah the 1830’s were a very weird time for fashion, everyone looked like they were melting and that they had tiny heads. If your game is set in feudal Japan for example, then pick a dynasty and narrow it down from there. Being vague about things makes your life harder.
And if you think you know when your game is set…double check. I get times and dates mixed up all the time, and you might be saying your game is set in one era when you actually meant an era 100 years prior.
So now we’ve covered creating a costuming language and researching time periods and using proper sources. My hot tip for both of these points is…please do them.
And now we move onto the next stage where we actually start to put a costume together…
Silhouettes are incredibly important. They describe the form of an object in your games, the very space that it takes up in the world. Distinctive silhouette design is something any game artist needs to take into account, to allow the player to quickly parse the information on the screen. For fast paced, visually dense or action heavy games, this is even more important.
In fashion design, silhouette is often the first thing a designer puts down on the page. They often design new clothes in black first, to let the shapes and the weight of the clothing take center stage, then go back in and add colour and texture.
You probably already know lots of key clothing silhouettes. Let’s start with an easy one – midcentury dresses. This dress I’m wearing right now has petticoats under it to fill out the skirt, giving it the distinctive bell shape of the 1950’s. Another one – bell bottomed jeans. You instantly think 1970’s. Shoulder pads? 1980’s. You probably already have a ton of basic silhouette knowledge, and each silhouette anchors the clothing in a particular time, place and mood. Just like the 20th century, every other century has distinctive silhouettes that will help really sell your character designs.
Silhouettes for historical clothing are exactly the same, they just take a little bit of research to get there. Let’s start with one of my favourite time periods, the late 1700’s. This dress is a very typical example. How do you find a typical example like this? Remember point number one – primary sources.
At first glance you’re probably like, uuurgh, this is just an old fashioned dress, I don’t know it has big skirts and stuff. But when you break it down, it can become very simple. Perhaps the most famous and defining feature of this era is the wide, square skirts. If you’re having a game set around this time period, that is going to be a key thing that your character art has to nail. The bodice is almost triangular shaped, while the neckline is square and low cut. These are all just simple shapes to incorporate into your designs. The length of things is important to look at too, here the skirt ends at the ankle, and the sleeves end at the elbow.
Now this was an extremely quick analysis that I just did, only using simple shapes, but you can go quite in depth by just looking at what you have in front of you.
Now, let’s apply this to a game. This is Shadowhand by Grey Alien Games, an as yet unreleased RPG that is conveniently set during the same time period as the dress we just did a quick analysis of. First let’s take a look at the character on the right.
She’s wearing a dress similar to the blue one we just looked at, and it hits a lot of the right beats that it needs to. The bodice is an inverted triangle shape, which is great, although it does conform to her body instead of being ridged. The neckline is square, which is perfect, and it’s kind of hard to tell but it looks like she has shorter sleeves. The sleeves of this era sometimes had giant frills on the end of them and it’s kind of hard to see what’s happening here so I’ll give it a pass.
Perhaps the most important part of this silhouette though is the wide hips, which are shown perfectly here. This isn’t something we covered before, but her hair is also in a style that’s pretty close to the period. All together it’s a great effort that really evokes the time period.
If we look at the character on the left however…
This is something I like to call leading lady syndrome. You see it a lot in film – the main character gets dressed in a completely inaccurate outfit and is made conventionally sexy and pretty in a modern way, while all the background characters get more accurate outfits that are considered frumpy.
The main issue here is that her corset is almost 100 years out of date, the style she’s wearing, which is what most people think of when you say ‘corset’ wouldn’t have been worn until the latter half of the next century. Also, her hair is down, I still can’t figure out what her sleeves are attached to, and those pants looks a bit too well fitted to be accurate, considering they’re meant to be men’s breeches.
They gave the character design a good shot here, and some parts are refreshingly well done, but some are less successful. It does go to show how a good understanding of the silhouettes and basic shapes of the era can be a starting block from which to build from.
After silhouette we move onto colour and pattern. This is what you should be adding once you have the silhouette locked down, to add visual texture and interest to the look.
Nowadays you can get clothes made in almost any colour imaginable in any pattern imaginable, but that hasn’t always been the case. Dye colours, patterns, designs and types of fabric have been discovered and invented as technology marches onward.
Now, unless you’re making a particularly historically accurate game, you’re not going to have to worry about the exact fiber content of your character’s clothes. But being aware of the larger trends and developments in colour and patterns can give your game the help it needs to really nail the look you’re aiming for.
Aniline is an organic compound that was used to create the first synthetic dye in 1856. The screamingly bright purples, pinks, greens and reds of the late Victorian period owe their existence to this discovery. Although bold colours existed before the 1850’s, they were nowhere near as reliable, bright or commonplace, and tended to be the easier to achieve colours like yellow. If your game is set in or taking inspiration from before the 1850’s, it might be a good idea to look at what colours were even achievable.
Patterns are another aspect that’s often overlooked. Popular patterns have to come from somewhere, and before globalization and the mass markets of the last 100 years, patterns were determined by trade routes and fashion. What we now call paisley originated in Persia, wasn’t introduced in the West until the 17th century by traders from India, and reached the peak of its popularity in the 19th century. Floral fabrics have been worn for centuries. They probably originated from 12th century East Asia, and traveled to the West through Ottoman and Italian trade routes in the 17th century. Something like Polka dots? They’re a very modern pattern; early examples only appear as far back as the mid 1800’s. Its common knowledge that tartan patterns represent ancient Scottish families, expect for the part where they don’t. Assigning tartan patterns to clans is a very Victorian invention, and what we would consider tartan wasn’t even around until the 1600’s.
Colour and pattern are a powerful way of anchoring your characters to a particular place and time. Even if you’re not doing history by the book, there is a wealth of symbolism, framework and existing attributions around colour and patterns that can be taken apart and reassembled in new, interesting ways.
I’m sure you all know, at least in passing, of the different associations colours can have. Red for danger, blue is calming, green for nature etc. etc. You don’t have to stick to these at all, and indeed, you shouldn’t – but they’re good to keep in the back of your mind all the same.
And now we move on to style and taste. This is something I very quickly want to touch on. We’ve gone through how to build up a costume from the basics, which I hope is simple enough to understand. Style and taste is sort of how you add the character to your character.
Something like style is kind of seen as a nebulous thing but I think it can be defined pretty easily as a preference for certain colours, silhouettes, fabrics and the like. Style doesn’t have to mean that it looks good, or that it’s tasteful, it’s simply the elements that a certain character might gravitate towards.
Does your character love to wear blue, or all black outfits? Do they like loose, drapy clothes or tight, constricting ones? All of these answers go towards creating a character with personality and style.
And finally, a brief note on corsets.
They’re often wrongly used more than any other item of clothing. Firstly, corsets do not hurt by default. If they are hurting you then there is something wrong. If I hear one more quip from a Strong Independent Female Character about how her corset is too tight and how much corsets suck, I will scream.
Corsets are there to support the dress and create the silhouette of the time period. All of those massive skirts, they’re heavy. You need proper support to take the weight off your shoulders and lower back, or you’re going to have a bad time. Most women’s clothes pre-20th century don’t work without a corset, they were as part of the dress as a zipper or buttons. It’s not what we’re used to now, but that’s why you research primary sources.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a generic corset, just as there is no such thing as a generic gun. While guns models get proper research and love poured into them, most corsets though, they’re generic leather Renaissance fair bodices or a very modern interpretation of a Victorian corset.
The world of corsets is as complex as the world of guns. Since coming into vogue in the early 16th century, there have been many different types of corsets. In fact, the word “corset” only refers to versions from the 1830’s onward. Before that, the word ‘stays’ was used.
Each change shown here was to support the changing silhouette of women’s clothes and to use new technology and sewing techniques. When most people think of corsets they think hourglass shaped…they think of steel bones that hold it in shape. But that was a very small period in the long and storied history of the corset.
If your game is set before the 1920’s, you’re going to need to research what was around during your chosen time period and how that influenced the silhouette. And if you’re creating a fantasy world or mixing and matching eras, there are so many interesting looks to choose from. Don’t settle on a Generic Corset, your game deserves better.
And now for what I know some of you were expecting and/or hoping this talk to include.
The Quickfire round of awful costume things that I keep seeing in games and please stop doing these.
Renaissance fair corsets, again. I really cannot stress this enough, give your corsets a purpose. Don’t just put them there to look medieval, or to cover up a female character’s midriff because you don’t know how clothes work. Your corsets are shitty, do better.
Boob armour. It hurts, it looks stupid and it will kill you. I’m sure this should be common knowledge by now, but any sort of blow to the chest while wearing this will crush your sternum. Not to mention armour shaped like that would take way more time to make and be much harder to do with medieval tools.
Heels are not part of a woman’s anatomy. Believe it or not, we are capable of walking with flat feet. It’s rare, but it does happen. If all your women are in impractical high heels, maybe reconsider your approach. If all your women are hovering on proto-ballerina toes, definitely reconsider your approach.
Midriffs! They keep coming up! Especially in military situations. I’m not sure why? It’s not the 90’s anymore, there is clothing that covers your mid section, it’s out there.
Boob socks! If your characters boobs are separately encased in specially made pockets I implore you to take a few minutes to go and look at pictures of real boobs, and how they look under clothes. It’ll be fun and worth your while, I promise.
Sad hair! Women wearing their hair long and down is a very modern thing, in the grand scheme of things. Not only is it much more accurate, it’s also much easier to give your characters updos or hats or some sort of head covering. Think about it, no messing around with hair physics! Why does a rich lady have a sad side ponytail, who knows!? Can she not afford a maid?
Disparate Stylization! Because men are allowed to have interesting, exaggerated body shapes, but women must fit the mould of being pretty and thin. If you’re going to pick a more extreme look for your characters, be consistent with it across genders.
Cleavage windows! They look stupid. Also I imagine your boobs would get cold easily. Also they look stupid.
Back lacing. It’s more than likely that the historical dresses you’re taking inspiration from were done up from the front. There are many interesting reasons for this that I won’t go into here, but I will say that back lacing is the visible panty line of historical clothing.
If you’re going to put makeup on your female characters, learn what makeup is. Even going on Youtube and watching a few tutorials will help so, so much, Eyeliner should not make you look like a racoon and learn where to put blush, oh my god.
Ok, I get it, boots are much sexier than slippers, but for most of history men wore shoes not boots. They only really wore boots when they went hunting. Boots go well with leather pants, but maybe you should try and mix it up a bit.
If your character looks like they’ve raided Lady Gaga’s closet, and they aren’t actually Lady Gaga, please reconsider your choices. It’s really jarring to see stuff like this.
If any part of your design belongs on this bingo card, please reconsider. This bingo card is from the wonderful website Bikini Armour Battle Damage that I highly recommend you checking out. It applies more to armour than anything but its still fun.
If your game is set in a cold environment, please dress everyone appropriately. And no, a bikini with a fur trim doesn’t count.
And finally, tactical buttcheecks! They have been in the gaming news a lot recently it seems, yet developers keep making models with impossibly deep asses. Go and look at how Lycra or neoprene actually looks on a human body, it usually stretches OVER everything.
Real life male special forces, they have some tight pants, and they wear lots of harnesses. So, in the name of realism, we should maybe be reconsidering how we approach our male characters in game. If you’re going to give your lady characters tactical butcheecks, then I propose that we have
TACTICAL BUTCHEECKS FOR ALL.
So, to conclude, there are a lot of awful character designs and costumes out there, and there are a lot of tropes to avoid.
Remember to think about the points we covered today when you’re making costumes, I hope they were insightful and proved useful to you all. I’ll probably put these slides up somewhere, if not this talk is being recorded.
This has been my talk Burn The Bikini Armour – Actionable Tips For Better Character Design. You can find me on Twitter at The Lady Victoria, come and talk to me about video games and costumes and corsets and stuff, it’ll be great.
It’s been a pleasure being here, don’t forget to like comment and subscribe, and thank you very much for being a wonderful audience.