I’m a big fan of smartly-dressed heroines. Of these, there are far too few in fantasy-adventure stories. Like the unfortunate elf maiden above, there are far too many women characters in fantasy stories who wear armor and apparel that would get them killed under most combat circumstances. Too many Amazon warriors in chain-mail bikinis and elf sorceresses in lingerie-ish robes of +3 sexiness. Video and computer game makers are especially guilty of this, choosing to market their product to the pocket-mining demographic so common among gamers. And it’s hard to fault their marketing overmuch—boobs make money. But, realistically, armor that covers as much as the average bikini won’t keep the busty Amazon’s insides inside, nor will the sorceress’s frilly robes hold up for the average forest trek or dungeon crawl. And, believe it or not, there are some of us who prefer realism in our fantasy.
This isn’t to say that the armor and apparel has to be historically accurate. Just because a story is a “medieval fantasy” doesn’t place it under any obligation to be historically faithful to the Middle Ages. If it’s a period piece, that’s different: I hope the writers, filmmakers, game makers, etc do what they can to make the piece as historically accurate as they know how. But a medieval fantasy story should be able to include whatever adventuring apparel it wants so long as its (a) thematically appropriate for the genre, (b) protects what needs protecting, and (c) suits the character’s quest/mission/role.
Do I have criteria for what is acceptable versus unacceptable? Not really. Every adventuress’s situation is different depending on her mission, environment, fantasy world, type of enemy, and fantasy genre. The lady knight is going to choose a different armor depending on if she’s leading men-at-arms or scouting for brigands. The steampunk sniper will want different camouflage whether she’s hiding in the city, desert, forest, or mountains. And the intergalactic huntress will need a different type of armor for combating rail-gun-toting battle droids than she will for giant beetles that bleed acid. I rather doubt that any of these ladies will journey out clad in beachwear or formal, evening attire.
Here are examples of fantasy adventuring apparel that I find very effective:
One of the big shout outs I’ll give to Lord of the Rings Online is that it does a very good job of keeping the Heroes and Heroines of Eriador well protected. The costuming is more customizable than any action RPG I’ve encountered, but other than the occasional noble’s dress or elvish gown, all of the attire is appropriate for the standard adventuress in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The dwarven plate mail is somewhat bulky (Champion) and the elf armor in general borders on overly ornate (Burglar), but I feel like in both cases the armor is protective as well as practical for any character who expects to be in the thick of the action.
I see this as a direct contrast to games like World of Warcraft where high-level shoulder armor is the size of Volkswagens, or Rift where the fronts of some of the armor are open almost to the poor girl’s bush. Whether it’s ridiculously massive or ridiculously sexualized armor, I tend to be leery of games, comics, etc that typically feature women warriors in impractical armor. Sadly, as medieval fantasy-adventure goes, few games are consistent as far as protectiveness in women’s armor. Dragon Age and Neverwinter Nights are generally okay, outfit-wise, but ones like the Guild Wars and Elder Scrolls games are fairly hit-and-miss.
Another form of impractical armor that is being smacked down more and more often of late is boob-plate. And with good reason. Sculpted cleavage essentially functions as a wedge positioned next to the warrior’s sternum, and thus receives most of the force of any blow she takes to the chest. It wasn’t something that I paid close attention to until recently, but after reading a couple articles on the structural problems with sculpted women’s breastplates, it’s hard for me to not take this into consideration.
Of course, not all adventuring apparel is armor. (I mean, if you think about it, the only use for armor is protection from physical attacks. It doesn’t protect from the heat or the cold, it’s often heavy and cumbersome, and typically a bitch to try to sleep in.) Adventuresses such as pirates, sorceresses, scouts, and rogues often adventure without armor and manage to get the job done. The important part is that these outfits fit the character’s particular role.
And none of this is to say that women characters can’t end up in a fight wearing less-than-practical attire. Sometimes adventure catches heroines unprepared and they have to save the world in their street clothes, evening gown, or bathrobe. Sometimes enemy insurgents start a riot during a parade and the Lady General must help quell it in her officer’s cuirass with the sculpted breastplate. Or the healer gets abducted in her sleep and has to break out of the enemy dungeon in her nighty. Or orcs attack the town while the Paladin is in her bath and she’s forced to battle the unwashed hordes wearing a towel. I mean, armor and many other types of adventuring apparel take time to don and sometimes even the most prepared heroines don’t get the chance to prep their battledress, so I don’t think this is impossible to realistically portray in a story. But I feel like in most scenarios when a competent woman fighter is prepping for the coming adventure, her clothing and travel attire will be the first thing she considers before stepping out her door. To assume otherwise is kind of insulting to competent heroines everywhere.
I’ll leave off with one of my favorite cartoons on the topic:
Quick examples of smartly-dressed heroines in webcomics (in my opinion, anyway):
- Amya Chonicles, Silenna and Kaden
- Girl Genius, Agatha Heterodyne
- Gaia, Lilith and Alissa
- Wayfarer’s Moon, Iri and Lilly
Also, here’s a quick list great articles, image galleries, and blog posts I found on the topic: