Underwear in video games quite often confuses and baffles me, when they bother to acknowledge that women wear it at all. Not because it’s only ever women that you see in them, even in male/female sex scenes a good portion of the time. That is, undeniably a problem. But this piece isn’t about whether or not it’s sexist to only show women characters in games in their underwear (because I hope the answer is obvious). It’s not about slut shaming the characters who do appear in their skivvies (because that’s gross, and I don’t believe in questioning anyone’s clothing choices based on that metric.) This piece is about how a male dominated industry often doesn’t understand how underwear works.
Underclothing is actually a pretty important component of any outfit, particularly if the game is pulling clothing inspiration from pretty much any time period prior to 1970. But there’s often a huge disconnect between what a character wears on the outside of their clothing, and what goes underneath, and it mostly just leaves me very confused.
A note: for the purpose of this piece, I’ll mostly be talking about Western or Westernized clothing, because with very few exceptions this is what game clothing is based off of.
Ah, the Golden Cat “bath house” from Dishonored. Possibly the most people in their skivvies at once in a video game. I have a lot of problems with these; the most obvious and glaring are those underpants. There are a couple of different styles that the women wear, actually. You can see the woman closer to us in this screenshot is wearing something like a skimpier pair of bloomers — two layers of frills, fairly high cut. But the woman in the background is wearing more ’20s style step-ins and a brassiere.
Now, I have no problem with them mixing periods and styles here — Dunwall is, after all, not the same as this world. But there’s a huge problem with them choosing these styles, and the key is to remember what women in Dunwall wear on top of these clothes. The Dunwall look for ladies is a close fitting waistcoat and trousers. Now, bloomers are from the late 19th century and the other is from the ’20s. Women did not very often wear pants in the 19th, and while women in the ’20s did, the cut is very different from the ones in this game. Basically, they’re wide legged, very voluminous, and able to accommodate underwear like this (the rufflier ones probably wouldn’t work under anything but skirts).
So essentially, this underwear doesn’t match the clothing that’s meant to go over it. It would bunch, and look terrible, and not be very comfortable. It is highly unlikely that this is what underwear in Dunwall would look like based on their outer clothing. I have no problem with a game subverting fashion styles; but it’s important to understand what exactly you’re subverting, and it’s pretty clear that they didn’t here. What would make more sense is probably something more like a girdle, with close fitting underwear to match.
Another issue I have is with the colour. Why is it the colour of dirty old dishcloths? Isn’t this supposed to be an expensive place? The colour really underscores that by being the exact opposite of glamourous. But the more I thought about it, I realized the reason for this colour choice: it’s so the décor stands out more. They don’t want the women to draw attention away from how opulent and grand the location is. The building is more important than they are.
Now, I doubt this is meant as any kind of grand statement about women’s disposability (especially sex worker’s disposability); it’s just a design choice made so that players pay more attention to their surroundings than the people. However, they don’t really do this with the male characters in the brothel (who pretty much all aren’t even unclothed, because of course they aren’t), which is where this starts to make me pretty uncomfortable. The symbolism behind this design choice means a lot to me, a female player, and it probably was made without even really thinking about it.
It is really hard to get a shot of this one, Merrill’s underwear look in Dragon Age 2. This is a pretty good example of how context with clothing, even underwear, is important. This is a very expensive looking garment – there’s ribbons, gold thread, the whole nine yards. But this exact pair of underwear is seen on every undressed elven woman you come across – Dalish or servant, brothel worker or not. It makes sense on the women in the brothel – they can likely afford it.
But Merrill LITERALLY LIVES IN A SLUM. I mean I guess you could argue that she lives in a slum because she spent all of her money on fancy underwear (been there), but this garment seems rather at odds with Merrill’s tastes and lifestyle. She grew up in the woods, and most of these materials probably would have to come from a city. And it just seems so fussy, so at odds with her personality. I mean, Merrill is clearly a freeboob or a bandeau girl, like these women on this Ancient Roman mural in the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily. (Although technically these are called a strophium.) Frilly, impractical lace corset girl is Isabela. In contrast, Hawke’s probably isn’t fancy enough given her station, but given she grew up on a farm it’s probably not unrealistic that she hasn’t upgraded.
This is also another example of the undergarment not making sense for the outfit that it’s supposed to go under – the front flap is visually interesting, but doesn’t really work when you consider that Merrill wears chainmail leggings. (Please keep in mind that another layer of leggings would have to go on under the chainmail.) And where does the tassel go? And why does the tassel go? (No seriously, the tassel is weird.)
Hoo boy, CORSETS. Corsets in games are… weird. Most of the time they’re not even really corsets; they’re waist cinchers, which are another thing entirely. Let’s look at Elizabeth’s here in Bioshock Infinite. This is supposed to be a corset from the 1890s, so it’s a bit different from the corsets most women would be wearing in 1912. In 1912, the S-shape corset was in fashion, which promoted a much more natural shape than those in the 19th century, and they usually did not come up over the bust.
Corsets from the 1890s encouraged a pretty extreme hourglass shape; this one kind of does that, but the shape isn’t quite as exaggerated as it should be. There also isn’t nearly enough boning in this piece (corsets from this period usually had up to 30 pieces of boning in them, and this one only looks like it has two). It looks much more like spandex than the rigid garment it should be. Not to mention the fact that she’s not wearing any clothing either underneath or on top of it. (Corsets during this period were always worn on top of cotton chemises, because otherwise such a rigid garment would chafe the wearer.) And the skirt should go over the corset, not under.
It should also be noted that this outfit is not remotely like something a woman would have worn in the 1890s – for one thing, the sleeves aren’t big enough. The prevailing silhouette of the 1890s was a cinched waist with huuuuuuge leg of mutton sleeves, sometimes even boned and definitely stuffed to give them their shape. This is very much a modern person’s idea of what a Victorian corset is like. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it’s not like this game got it all wrong — Rosalind Lutece’s looks exactly how it’s supposed to, because her character designer did her research.
But a major problem I have with clothing in games, and most particularly women’s clothing, is that’s there’s too much of a modern sensibility brought into clothing choices, even when that wouldn’t necessary be appropriate. Women’s clothing in games more often looks painted onto the body, for max lady sexyness. That’s fine (and kinda gross), but that’s not really how clothes work, and certainly not how clothes worked in time periods before this one. It wasn’t until the late ‘60s/’70s that the idea of dressing that we have now, that the body should be made to fit the fashionable silhouette, really became part of our culture in the West.
Before that, foundational garments, like the corset, the girdle, panniers, petticoats, bum rolls, bustles, pretty much every undergarment that women wore, were used to create a desired silhouette. And women weren’t above going as far as padding themselves to make sure that clothes would work, because clothes were made with these foundation garments in mind. So instead of having that boob-saran-wrap look that many games have (because heaven FORBID we forget that the person in question has boobs for a single second), clothes sat more on top of the foundation garments than the body itself. Even pre-corsets, the bodices of dresses would be stiffened in order to help the wearer achieve the desired shape.
And this idea prevailed well into the 20th century, with corselettes in 1920s to help women achieve the boyish figure required to wear all of those drop waist dresses, onto girdles and bullet bras in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Clothing was meant to conform to the foundation garments and not the body itself, and not enough outfits in games seem to recognize this.
Outfits should be designed from the inside-out, layer by layer, in order to get the right silhouette, but also to avoid mistakes like the Dishonored example, where it’s not possible that the undergarment would even fit under the clothing in the game. It also means that game clothing doesn’t really play with shapes and proportions, because designers are too married to this idea that clothing should be shrink-wrapped to the wearer’s body, and this makes most designs really boring. No one does any really cool, exaggerated shoulders, or plays with things like busks and panniers, because they’re working too much from a modern perception of what clothing should look like on the body. There’s a disconnect in games of knowledge about clothing and its history, and I think that makes for some very, very boring video game outfits.
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).
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