Just a few weeks ago, I went out with a friend. We stopped at a department store, perused the racks of hanging clothes, found a shirt in a flattering color (with a nice neckline, too), paid the clerk, and left.
Not too long ago, if I wanted a shirt, I’d have to raise a sheep and keep it healthy. Drive it to pasture, check over its hooves, watch for illness, make sure it gets water—probably by walking the sheep to some river or stream somewhere. I’d have to guard it from wolves/coyotes/cougars/dogs/sheep-thieves, whatever.
When that sheep got old enough (or something enough), I’d have to round it up and shear it. Then I’d have to wash and card and spin all that wool to thread. (And I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to know spinning is seriously time-consuming work.)
Then, I’d have to put all that thread on a loom and weave it into a sheet of cloth.
And THEN I’d have to cut the pieces and sew up all those cut pieces into a shirt. (I may even have to trade for or borrow the scissors and needles and thimbles and patterns.)
Only then would I have a shirt. And it’d be a boring shirt. If I wanted a fancier shirt, I’d have to figure out when to dye that wool/thread/cloth; buy, trade, or make some fancy buttons; maybe do a little embroidery work on the collar and cuffs.
It’d take a long time to get a shirt if I had to do all that. I mean, it took five paragraphs just to WRITE about getting a shirt.
But this isn’t a post about being grateful for having things a little easier than our forefathers (and our foremothers) did. Rather, it’s a post about how even the littlest things, like wearing a shirt, can show up in our worldbuilding.
If you’re writing a story, it’s likely you’ll show us how your characters are dressed. And how your characters are dressed directly relates to the world you create and how your characters interact with that world. A contemporary novel won’t need to explain a character driving to Target to buy a shirt, but a contemporary novel will want to show why that character is choosing Target. Is she broke and shopping on a budget? Is she wealthy and making a point about consumerism? Your character’s choice of store tells us something about her life.
If you’re writing a fantasy, scifi, or historical fiction story, your readers will learn more about your world based on how your characters are dressed. Does your science fiction world have machines (much like at the airport) that can scan your character’s body and just create clothes that perfectly fit?
Does your fantasy world have a level of technology similar to what I described above? Then how does your character get a shirt? Does he make it himself? Marry a nice farmer girl and divvy up the chores: he raises and shears the sheep while she turns it into cloth and a shirt? Does he barter for it?
Or does your fantasy world use magic to create clothes? What magical price must be paid for to get that shirt?
Shirts, food, transportation. If you’ve got the money, these things are relatively easy to get in our world. Other worlds, other means. Take a few minutes to look around you. What are you wearing and how did you get those clothes? What are you sitting on as you read this? A cushy upholstered sofa? (I am.) A straight-backed chair with lathe-turned legs? Are you in a coffee shop? At work? How did you get there? Are you reading this on your computer/laptop/phone? Printed out on paper?
Now figure out what your characters would sit on in their world. Lathe-turned legs imply a certain level of technology; upturned logs require less. How do your characters get their information? Where do they get it from? What are your characters wearing and how did they get those clothes? What do your characters chairs, shops, information, and clothes say about the level of technology in your world? The level of transportation? The economy and government?
Then figure out how to incorporate those things into your stories and show us, your readers, how your world works.
And if you want, you can always write a song about your shirt.