"Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening."
It's no big secret that fads and fashions take up a big part of our modern life. Something that was considered weird, out of place or just plain old ugly a year ago could easily become the next big thing today, and visa versa. This aspect of our existence as human being may seem, at a first glance, insignificant, trivial, not interesting enough to justify the fuss about it, let alone introduce it to your campaign setting. It's not that I'm a big fashion fan or expert, as the loads of criticism my wardrobe receives from virtually every double X chromosome friend I have, but I claim that changing fashions, not only in their clothing aspect, are part of a living, breathing, campaign setting, that don't always receive the place they might deserve.
Many people think that fashion is a product of modern technology, where mass production can turn an idea into a widely available product easily and effortlessly, and the mass media that has turned the world into a small global village can announce its existence to every household. The truth, according to historians like James Laver and Fernand Braudel, is quite different, and they trace its roots back to the fourteenth century, at least amongst the European aristocracy.
In a world where the word "media" means traveling minstrels' tales at best and a drunken bar song at worst, trends may not spread with lightening speed like they do nowadays, but they can easily be born just as quickly, according to the whims of the local nobles and rich members of society.
On the other hand, the relative value of brand names increases ten-fold in a world where the concept of mass-production sounds as ridiculous as huge, firebreathing lizards sound in our world. If in our modern world the only thing you'll need to cover yourself in brand names from head to toe is an especially deep wallet, in a fantasy campaign setting the world renowned cloak-maker Pean Jaul Taulgier would be a very busy man, who wouldn't waste his time on every self-important adventurer who just finished plundering the local dragon's lair. The quest loving GM would probably send the party out on some heroic mission to change Taulgier's opinion, but if that's the only impact fashion has on your campaign setting, my job here is yet to be done.
So, besides the banal bring-object-A-to-person-B quests, how can fashion be a part of your campaign setting?
Beyond the display of wealth or status symbols, fashion is first and foremost a display of belonging to a certain group or subculture. In many cases, the fashion that seems obvious at first glance can hide within itself layers upon layers of hidden meanings and messages which are understandable only by those belonging to the right group. For instance, everyone may know that wizards wear capes, but only those who have lived amongst them for years can distinguish between the new generation of wizards who take pride in their craft and embroider magic runes on the brims of their capes and the older wizards who view such conduct as a vulgar display of bad taste.
The obvious use of such subcultures and symbols of belonging is to confront the characters with them head-on. In the simplest level, characters who'd try the old disguise and spy trick will find that their covers are can be blown quickly if they don't devote the necessary attention to fine details, which would usually flush hours of scheming and planning down the drain and twist the plot in a new direction, which would only rarely be in the characters' favor. In campaigns that have run for long enough, where the players feel comfortable enough with the world and its finer details, the tables can be turned, and count DeBurk's unbuttons cufflinks can tip the players off that something isn't right, and the count is not who he claims to be.
In campaigns the tend towards diplomacy and intrigue, one of the most interesting usages for the technique described in the previous paragraph is to allow the characters some degree of acceptance in some society or subculture, and slowly allow them to understand how far away they are from the core of events and how firm the invisible wall that separates them from the "real" members of that society is - not everyone who grows long hair and preaches world peace is a Hippie, and not everyone that can roll a polyhedronic die is a roleplayer.
Despite what the previous paragraph claims, wearing a baseball cap in this direction instead of that direction is not what will prevent the characters from discovering the secrets of any subculture. Fashion is much more than a superficial concept that sums up in dressing the right way or liking the right football team. Faiths and beliefs are bound to fashion changes no less than any other field. How popular was recycling twenty years ago? And how popular is it now? How popular was alternative medicine twenty years ago, and how popular is it now?
Using the dimension of time grants the GM endless opportunities to create conflicts and interesting situations to play, especially for parties who have a home base of sorts, which they leave when they head out for adventure and hopefully, return victorious when they're done. In the simplest implementation of this notion, it's always interesting to discover how the local culture and politics have changed since the group's last visit. In more extreme implementations, the characters might face enormous disappointment when they learn that the recent discovery of a gold mine next to the city has caused a sharp decline in its value, all but nullifying their achievement of pillaging the gold of the lost city of the ancient empire of the lizardmen. If we take this notion a step even further, the dissonance between the champion's glory the party expected to find after returning from a successful crusade against the heretic sun-worshipers of the East and the public denunciation they have received ever since the death of the former king and the crowning of Richard the Peace Bringer, can be used as a fertile ground to several new adventures.
In conclusion, the key word is proportionality. If every description of every NPC will take a minute longer because the GM takes the time to mention the designer logo on his shirt and what kind of sneakers he's wearing, you're doing something wrong. However, you must remember that a campaign settings that remains static and unchanging will soon loose its credibility, and damage the players' suspense of disbelief. Our world is a dynamic place which changes constantly. Why should your campaign world be any different?
This article first appeared in issue #44 of The Orc.