hello! i wanted to say you guys are doing some really great, fascinating work and i respect it a lot. my question: I'm currently working on designing an alien race+planet. They're based on a ton of research I've done on various euryhaline amphibious organisms (mainly frogs and salamanders/newts) and the group I'm focused on live in brackish water areas of mangrove swamps. I've been putting work into designing clothing for them - I personally love lots of jewelry and ornamentation (with some Galadriel otherworldliness thrown in) and the planet they live on is very hot (plus amphibious creatures breathe thru their skin) so the clothes are rather...revealing, i guess, but not really sexualized. I really want to avoid the weird, fetish-y ~indigenous alien~ stuff like the Avatar movie, as well as taking from non-white cultures to make an alien race seem more "exotic" - both awful tropes I've seen in a lot of sci-fi, I was wondering what sort of advice you have for a situation like this? I'm concerned because I'd love them to be as far removed from any human association as is possible, but some clothing design elements intersect with tamil/south indian traditional dress as it's a hot climate, and there's lots of jewelry/drapery. thank you so much for your time! love this blog sm! ❤️❤️❤️
Alien amphibious race, possibly Tamil-coded, revealing clothing
There’s a huge range of clothing that falls under what you described, and most of it isn’t inherently sexualized. As long as you’re careful in your designs, I think you should be fine. Also, I’m sure you know that if they’re humanoid but not mammalian, they will not have the secondary sex characteristics that are generally considered sexual, so you can work around it easily.
For the clothing design elements, I would focus on the usage of scarves and draping styles for longer lengths of fabric. Three reasons: 1) because you can come up with your own styles and do some research into traditional saree and dhoti draping, 2) because it’s one of the easiest ways to use fabric, as you don’t have to actually shape it much off of the loom, and potentially not even have to sew it together, and 3) because when you’re layering fabric for draping, keeping it breathable enough for a hot climate usually makes for easier draping. Sewn garments, in this context, will typically function as underlayers--Sarees will have specific blouses and petticoats that the saree is then tied and pinned to. While sarees can be form-fitting, they will not necessarily be skin-tight, because the drape allows for cooling when it can move, whereas tighter garments trap heat in.
Dupatta can be both utilitarian and decorative; they can be easily wrapped into a blouse in a variety of ways, they can be embroidered on for decoration on top of a wrapped or sewn garment, and much more. The same goes for saree and dhoti; they can be used simply for coverage, but also have beautiful styling elements that can be showcased. Given enough length, you could drape a saree like a western garment, assuming the saree will take well to that type of pleating and tying.
Lehengas have a variety of styles, but the commonality is in the presence of a blouse or choli, the lehenga skirt and its variations, including half-saree lehenga or palazzo pants, and a dupatta tied over the garment as a whole. They usually have ornate embroidery and function as special occasion garments because of a long association with royal clothing and the incredible decoration that is typical on lehengas. You could discuss embroidery elements that are unique to this society and the motifs that typically occur in fibreworks.
Both saree and lehenga, as clothing styles, would function well for a species that breathes through the skin. If you want clothing separated by gender, dhoti and kurta (loose shirt garment with slits up the sides to the hips and varying degrees of decoration) are great for menswear. It depends on what you want to do with it.
Simply put, you can use this style of clothing without sexualizing the users because there’s a variety of ways of doing it. The key factor for making it believable would be knowing the source of the fabric and how it’s made so you could use the designs you want to create.
Mod Abhaya’s answer is very detailed and comprehensive, covering the bit about the designs and possible motifs you can use. I’d like to offer my views regarding your fears about the hypothetical sexualisation of this alien race, using examples in popular fantasy media.
For starters, here is the design for Princess Jasmine from Aladdin:
I’m sure literally no one doubts the fact that Jasmine’s design plays well into the Exotic Brown Woman trope. Her appearance and her storyline in the film are all in-keeping with Orientalist stereotypes perpetuated in the West: complete with dark skinned villains, women forced into marriages and a confused blend of South Asian and SWANA aesthetics. Besides, she is unique in her role as a Disney princess whose sexual appeal is used as an actual plot device (note: the other example of a seductive Disney heroine, Esmeralda, also incidentally happens to be dark skinned.)
Now take another example, this time of Princess Mermista from the Netflix reboot of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power:
You can see the definite resemblances between the two characters: both are brown princesses, both have a similar colour scheme and both of their outfits are based on a roughly South Asian/ SWANA-inspired clothing concept- a fitted blouse and pants that leave the waist bare. But is Mermista sexualised? Unlike Jasmine, her body proportions are realistic and not exaggerated, her clothes are not designed to be skin-tight or falling off her shoulders. More importantly, Mermista, while always being written as an attractive and dryly witty princess (not unlike Jasmine in this regard) does not fall into Orientalist stereotypes despite the fact that she has the magical ability to morph into a “mermaid” (thus invoking the Non-Human Brown Woman trope). This is because Mermista’s magic is treated as a casual byproduct of the sci-fi world of She-Ra, thus ensuring she isn’t singled out as an Exotic South Asian Alien. Furthermore, Mermista’s kingdom isn’t viewed through the exclusively Western lens of Aladdin, or like you mentioned, Avatar. Salineas, Mermista’s home, is a hub of technological progress and harmony. Thus, when her kingdom falls and she needs help, it doesn’t come across as a white saviour narrative at all. Hers is a culture just like any others on the planet of Etheria and it is treated as incidentally as a kingdom led by a white princess.
To sum up
Indian clothing (and for that matter, any clothing really) isn’t sexual until the creator’s gaze makes it so. The creator’s gaze can dramatically alter a character, and as such, designing clothes based on Tamilian fashion shouldn’t inherently come with a fear of sexualising.
Check your concept ideas. As Abhaya has rightly pointed out, designing clothes becomes easier once you’re confident about their usage, not just for aesthetics but utility too. Mermista’s clothes are a tribute both to her mermaid ancestry and to her role as a warrior princess. If you’re doubtful that you might be unintentionally sexualising your outfit designs, check if your planned designs are purely visually striking or if they have any narrative significance/logical benefit such as climate/social ranking etcetera.
Are these aliens the only known non-human race in the story? Likely not, as you mentioned they are one of many such groups. In that case, you need to worry about the “indigenous alien” loophole as you have already balanced out your worldbuilding to prevent dehumanisation of certain cultures.
Abhaya noted that non-mammalian origins would mean no secondary sexual traits. So if you are aiming for an amphibious species, I wouldn’t necessarily call it sexual unless you single out the group as a uniquely promiscuous culture, like certain oversexualised depictions. of POC-coded fantasy races (look to the Ilyrians in SJMaas’s ACOTAR series and Dorne in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire as cautionary guides).
Would love to see your designs once you’re done! South-Asian inspired fantasy is always something I cherish.
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Published Nov 2021