Pixelthreads: Dragon Age: Inquisition and the Politics of Dress
Ew, those beige pajamas.
As much as it’s a game about ancient evils and holes in the sky and saving the world, Dragon Age: Inquisition is about politics. All of the Dragon Age games are: Origins within the country of Ferelden, and II within the city of Kirkwall; but Inquisition takes it to a whole new level by having your actions impact pretty much all of the world of Thedas to some degree or another. The Inquisitor is essentially a new ruler on the scene: with an army and followers and the need to make new alliances. And in the game of politics, what you wear and when is as important as with whom you choose to ally yourself. Dragon Age: Inquisition occasionally seems to understand this: there’s at least one dialogue with Vivienne where you discuss as much. But the game never really seems to understand how to implement it into an integral part of the gameplay.
I am kind of a weirdo about dressing up in RPGs. I am that person who will wear a piece of armour for longer than is appropriate because I think it suits my character. I am that person who likes to change outfits depending on the situation. If I’m playing Mass Effect 3, you better believe that Shep is going full Casual Shep when I’m hanging out on the Citadel, and if she’s going on a date with her sweetie. I even put her in her dress uniform for those parts when she’s going to be on TV. In Dragon Age: Origins, I like to have Alistair dressed in Cailan’s armour, because I like the symbolic significance: here is the rightful heir to the Theirin throne. The more clothing options a character has, the happier I am. It really goes a long way towards creating player ownership of the character and even just in expressing your character in a way that makes sense for them. But in Dragon Age: Inquisition, clothing becomes important. What the Inquisitor wears is not just a reflection of that character, but of the power and influence of the Inquisition. For the most part, I think the game fails in this respect. The Inquisitor’s outfits at best are kind of ugly, and at worst make absolutely no sense for the political role that the Inquisitor is playing.
Let’s start out with the infamous Beige Pyjamas. More than one person playing Inquisition literally thought their Inquisitor was naked, and really, they’re not that wrong. The beige pyjamas are literally the underclothing that the Inquisitor wears under their armour, because otherwise that stuff would chafe. (You can tell because sometimes you can see it peeking out under the Inquisitor’s coat on some armour sets, and you can see it all the time if you’re playing as a mage.)
It’s a functional garment, essentially. It’s perfectly serviceable for running around and sweating in, but less so for say, passing judgements in the throne room. No medieval-esque ruler in their right mind would wear this. OK, that’s not strictly true; I think there are some Inquisitors who would, depending on how the character is played. If they don’t really care about how they or the Inquisition are perceived, then it makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense that the Inquisitor’s advisors would let them. A ruler passing judgements would never allow themselves to be attired this way.
When a medieval ruler passed judgements, it was usually a public occasion: you’d sit on the throne, people would bring their grievances, and you’d pass judgement on it. It was an opportunity for everyone to both see and witness your power, and clothing was a major element. It was so important that Elizabeth I passed sumptuary laws dictating what fabrics and colours different classes were allowed to wear, reserving royal blue for, well, royalty only. That’s because in this context, you literally were how you dressed, and a person could tell everything about you from how you attired yourself.
Not only that, but the body of a ruler was considered part of the propaganda of power. How a ruler dressed was essential. So important that historians are speculating that Richard III used clothing purposely to disguise his scoliosis, so no one would know that his body was anything less than perfect. This is a concept that spans centuries and cultures, from the highly ceremonial garb of the Pharoahs to the toga trabea. The Inquisitor is a ruler here, albeit a new and untested one. They have an army, a stronghold, and Inquisition is basically about the formation of a new world power, as well as a religious figure. They should be wearing clothing that acknowledges and reinforces this status (if that’s how a player chooses to play it).
The beige pyjamas don’t really tell you anything about the wearer; they don’t even have the mark of the Inquisition on them. There’s nothing about them that really exudes status or power, either; most people would probably have no idea the actual Inquisitor was standing in front of them, and most likely assume they were a common soldier. I know people hated Hawke’s mansion pyjamas, but at least those had the Hawke family crest on them. (Also colour. Even a little bit of flair with the tiered scalloped hem on the tunic.)
There’s really a huge missed opportunity here. If you’re playing a pro-Circle mage, why can’t you wear ornate Enchanter’s robes to symbolize your solidarity with the Circles? If you’re playing Qunari, do you want to downplay or up play your heritage by wearing native dress? (The same can be said for dwarves or Dalish as well.) If your character is very religious, why can’t you wear an outfit that shows that? If you’re playing a more martial Inquisitor, why can’t you wear full plate? The game does let you do this to a degree by decorating Skyhold, but the decoration of the physical hall is really only half the picture. It’s also why the Inquisitor looks really silly any time they’re sitting on the throne; the public image isn’t complete. They just look completely underdressed. The entire point of a throne is to project the power of the person sitting on it, so of course an individual wearing their under clothing is going to look out of place. It kind of does a disservice to the people who worked so hard on creating all of the different thrones and decorations for Skyhold making them distinct and beautiful and imposing.
Now, let’s talk about the ball outfit. The ball outfit makes me very, very, sad. Finally, we get to go to Orlais, this place we’ve been hearing about since Origins, and how fashion is a Very Big Deal there, and we get invited to a ball (AKA my favourite thing in all games pretty much all the time) and then we get there and… womp womp. The Inquisitor gets to dress like The Nutcracker in a very uninspired production. (Special thanks to friend and fellow Mary Sue contrib Jenn Culp for pointing that out, I can never unsee it now.) Everyone else gets to dress up like fancy flowers, so in comparison the military uniform is extremely disappointing. On Vivienne it just looks wrong, like you plucked the feathers off of a Bird of Paradise.
The ball outfit commits a lot of the same Costuming Crimes that the beige pyjamas do. It screams “Free Marcher” but that may not be how your Inquisitor would choose to identify themselves. There’s nothing on it that marks it as a uniform of the Inquisition other than everyone in the Inquisition is wearing it. I think the worst thing about it, though, is how the Inquisitor wears the exact same one as everyone else. There’s nothing about it that says “This is our leader.” The likelihood again is that most of the people at that ball would have no idea the person they were talking to is the Inquisitor. I don’t think the game is intentionally trying to make a statement about the Inquisition having egalitarian sensibilities, because it doesn’t. At the very least, if you’re going to have a group of people wearing the same uniform, give the Inquisitor a different coloured sash or a big medal or something to make it apparent who is the leader of the group.
But I think the ball outfit’s worst sin is that it makes the Inquisitor look too much like an outsider. I mentioned before that the uniform seems to be in more of a Free Marcher style, something that Orlesians have made fun of in much the same way they have made fun of Ferelden. And let’s not forget that half of your purpose in Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts is to curry favour with the Orlesian court, and gain an alliance with whoever you choose to be Emperor or Empress. Using clothing for diplomacy is a tactic that has been used by politicians and royalty for centuries. The easiest way to do it is to dress in a similar style to what everyone else is wearing, or wear designers from that country. Politicians do it even today – Michelle Obama usually wears American designers for domestic events (like how she wore Jason Wu at the Inauguration), but when dignitaries from other countries come to the White House, she’ll often wear a designer from that country.
Queen Victoria had a similar policy; she made sure all of her clothing was British made, to show her solidarity with British manufacturing. (The British Royal Family continues this tradition today, although they too will also wear designers from countries they are visiting when they’re there, like Kate Middleton did with Canadian designer Smythe during a North American tour.) Inka kings would wear the native dress of their conquered nations in order to better appease the populace, and to make them forget that they were any different from them. The Nutcracker/military-esque uniform portrays a very specific purpose, by making the Inquisitor stand out from the rest of the court as an obvious outsider (not usually the effect one wants), and also portraying the Inquisition as distinctly martial (which may not be how the player is choosing to play the game). The game is quasi-aware of this; if you accidentally trash your fancy dress between illicit explorations of the palace, then it will switch to the beige pyjamas, and you get slightly less court approval during your dance with Duchess Florianne.
But in general, while at points the game does seem to be aware of the political importance of what the Inquisitor is wearing, it doesn’t implement it in any real sense in the gameplay. Even the Inquisitor’s armour choices don’t reflect their position in any noticeable way. I mean, after you’re made Inquisitor, logically you would get some kind of new armour with sigils all over it so people know who you are, just like every other character who is associated with an institution (like Cassandra). But instead you just get the same three outfits, just with slightly better stats, for the most part. The only things you can customize are the colours. It’s possible to get Inquisition armour at Skyhold, but the stats aren’t very good, and there doesn’t appear to be a schematic for it (at least not one I’ve found in any of my six playthroughs.)
So, why did BioWare choose to make the costuming choices they did? It goes right back to the beginning: you’re playing as different genders, different races, and the clothing has to be as inoffensive as possible in order to appeal to everyone – the beige pyjamas are a perfect example of this – but the end result is that the clothing for the Inquisitor lacks any personality. Given that the game has crafting, however, I don’t think that should have been an excuse. Skyhold is fully customizable; your armour is kind of customizable; why shouldn’t you be able to customize the Inquisitor’s clothing as well? There are two closets in the Inquisitor’s quarters that serve zero purpose. It’s not like there aren’t opportunities. For example, why not have an optional sidequest to have a different or upgraded ball outfit by going on a hunt for the most stylish materials? It would certainly make that hunting sidequest in the Hissing Wastes make more sense, the one where the huntress literally tells you her job is to hunt down materials for truly style conscious in the capital. Give the player the power to give the clothing of their character more personality through customization, especially in a game where that sort of thing should actually matter a lot.
Megan Patterson is a freelance writer and the science and tech editor of Paper Droids, a feminist geek culture site. When she’s not writing, you can find her on Twitter, talking about how cute she is or crying over something ridiculous (usually videogames).
(screenshots by Jenn Culp)
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