Costume Design Storytelling for Science Fiction

World Building questions for Costume Designers to ask

Reading time
4 min
Published on

December 21, 2023

Blauw Films

Costume Design is an essential tool that materialises a made-up world.

Costumes visualise a characters' archetype, motivation and can even foreshadow hidden quirks.  
With so many things to consider, how do we even begin to design characters for words with extensive world-building?

A still from Blade Runner 1982.  Acress Sean Young as Rachael, in costume design by Micheal Kaplan.
Sean Young as Rachel in Blade Runner (1982)

Ask the Director

When you ask questions it helps to pick apart the Director's brain.

Their answers are the building blocks for your design decisions.
Ask questions about world building, themes and characters, such as: 

  • What is the climate of this world like?
  • Is there a central culture or religion? 
  • Are different cultures or religions mixing together?
  • How does religion and politics relate to each other?
  • Are there distinct ranks between people?
  • Are there laws in place that dictate what to wear? 
  • Who enforces these laws?
  • How are these ranks determined, or how did they form?
  • How is access to resources distributed between people?
  • What is the government like, if there is any at all?
  • How does Character A relate to this environment? 
  • What are their personal and emotional relationships with the environment?

Relate the answers to these questions to the tone of the movie, the visual language and decide what emotion or association the costumes should evoke.
What shapes, textures or colors represent the worlds and their people?

Roland ToporLot 670: Roland TOPOR 1938-1997 LA PLANETE SAUVAGE
Rolan Topor art for La Planète Sauvage (1973)

Pick apart the World Building

The director's answers usually result in a series of more specific questions you can ask yourself.  Such as costume-relevant questions about the culture, production and distribution of clothes.

  • How expensive is it to produce certain garments? Which type is the cheapest, and which is the most expensive?
  • Are certain materials or dyes rare, making them expensive or reserved for higher ranks?
  • Where can one buy garments or raw materials?
  • Are the raw materials imported, grown or lab-grown?
  • What is the level of innovation this society has?
  • Are weapons standard part of dress? 
  • What other gadgets / tools could be a standard part of dress?
  • What is considered appropriate or inappropriate dress? 
  • What fashionable things are idealized in this world?
  • Is a fashionable lifestyle achievable for every rank?
  • Does fashion have ties to our reality or is it something completely new?
  • Does this society value fashion, or is functionality more important?
  • What other types of ‘fashionable’ items exist in this world? (furniture, architecture)
  • What colors are considered to look good together?
  • Which types of accessories are common?
  • Do colors or patterns have symbolic meanings? 
  • How is religion tied to dress?

This list of questions can literally be as long as you see fit for your world building.
You’ll find that some questions and answers act only as invisible backstory, and others will actually help you to make design decisions.

costume design characters by designer John Mollo, for Star Wars 1977. costume design for darth vader, princcess leia, han solo and chewbacca.
Costume design by John Mollo for Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)


World-building questions will help you to understand in which world the character and clothes live.
Just like in real life, we can learn a great deal about a person’s culture or self-image from the way they present themselves.

When writing a story, you are effectively reverse engineering this culture.

Furthermore, it’s fun to gather the team and develop world building stories.
A coherent, vast world manifests itself in thoughtful details, which brings visual depth to your characters and their environment.

Character and costume concept art by Moebius for Andre Jodorowsky's Dune.
Character Concepts by Moebius for Jodorowsky's Dune

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