Social Signaling: Historical Tips for Worldbuilding Realistic Symbolism

Note: This was originally published in Worldbuilding Magazine. Check out the rest of the articles by downloading the complete volume 5, issue 4: Social Etiquette & Expectations on their website.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a common platitude with a long history, but personally, I prefer to live by the maxim if someone tells you who they are, believe them.

The idea behind not judging a book by its cover is basically that stereotyping is bad and people can surprise you. Books serve as a useful metaphor for reminding us that just because people look different than expected doesn’t mean they can’t be smart or strong or nerdy. An old, ratty book with broken binding can be a gem—but I would argue it’s more likely to be well-written and engaging, since it was well-loved enough to break.

There are dangers in judging people by how they look, of course. There is a horrible history of white supremacy and pseudoscience used to judge the intelligence and ethos of entire groups of people based on the color of their skin or the shape of their head. Yet on the flip side of that, people have been using their appearance to deliberately signal social allegiance for thousands of years.

For the most part, even in schools and workplace with uniform policies and selection processes that privilege uniformity and “culture fit,” the average person can tell a peer’s social class and political allegiance based on what they wear and how they style themselves; in my area, the jocks wear long socks up to their knees, the nerds wear witty t-shirts, and the kids who hate school wear their hoodies up.

This is not a new phenomenon, and in some ways I would argue it’s a deliberate choice on the part of the teens involved.

Clothing choices are a shorthand method of communication, and storytellers in particular can take advantage of these sorts of visual signals, even in text. Jim Butcher, bestselling author of The Dresden Files, consciously assigns recurring tags to characters in order to help readers understand and remember them better. He wrote:

For example; Thomas Raith’s tag words are pale, beautiful, dark hair, grey eyes. I use them when I introduce him for the first time in each book, and then whenever he shows up on stage again, I remind the reader of who he is by using one or more of those words.

TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.

From just those few items, it’s easy to get a sense of Harry as a wizard, perhaps a bit of a “modern cowboy” a la the Matrix, and given the variety of weapons, probably somebody who sees a fair amount of action. Clothes, jewelry, and weapons can tell people a lot about a character — or another person.

Subversion

Society loves an “ugly duckling” story, but “a beautiful woman’s beauty is hidden behind a complete lack of awareness of how to fit into mainstream culture” is effective precisely because society places value on fitting in. Similarly, storytellers often subvert tropes to surprise or delight a reader—but after a while, readers start to expect the subversion. Consider the “gentle giant,” for example, or the brilliant and beautiful scientist. But by and large, these subversions are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Worldbuilders of complex societies in particular should be wary of leaning too hard on subversion, because it makes it hard to communicate with the audience—who might not have enough context to know what’s being subverted.

Symbols of Allegiance

Appearance varies across cultures. Clothes, jewelry, weapons and other accouterments are a powerful way to symbolize belonging to a group.

During the Peloponnesian Wars and the Greco-Punic Wars, many battles and wars took place on the island of Sicily. But even aside from the obvious value that uniforms and standardized weaponry could offer an army in terms of making sure that members of one side of a large battle didn’t kill people on the other side, the Greeks were able to use clothing choices to make determinations about people’s political allegiances.

At this time, long hair was associated with the aristocracy; according to Tyrants of Syracuse by Jeff Champion, “many of the anti-democratic rich in Athens emulated the Spartans by growing their hair and/or beards long, and wearing their short, red military cloaks.” So when the Spartan general Gylippus showed up to the city of Syracuse with long hair and a red cloak, the Athenians and Sicilians mocked him roundly for it. At this time in Greek history, long hair was associated with conservatism and aristocracy — a far cry from 1960s America, when it was linked to liberalism and communism and the various anti-war movements associated with hippies.

Specifically, long hair among the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War era was associated with the Spartans, who tended to be less democratic and more conservative than their counterparts in Athens, which led to many of the anti-democratic rich in Athens emulating the Spartans by growing their hair and/or beards long, and wearing short, red military-style cloaks.

These kinds of simple symbols can go a long way in fiction to letting audiences know which side a character is on, the same way that old Westerns used black and white cowboy hats to tell viewers whom to root for; sure, you can lose a bit of complexity that way, but sometimes complexity just bogs down the story.

And at other times, clothing is what hints at the complexity of thorough worldbuilding.

The Chichimecas were roughly eight nations who inhabited large swaths of the American Southwest and the Valley of Mexico circa the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries CE. Part of the reason that the people who lived to the north of the Valley of Mexico lived nomadic lifestyles is because the land wasn’t conducive to farming; this was reflected in their clothes and weapons. Noted for their bow-and-arrow skills, Chichimecs learned archery young. Their obsidian arrows, fired by 60-70 cm long bows, had amazing penetrative power.

Aztecs didn’t view Chichimecs pejoratively; they were seen more as “noble savages” with different skills. They were, nonetheless, known to be different. In Aztec paintings, Chichimecs were shown wearing simple animal-skin clothes, while the Aztec predecessor civilization known as the Toltecs were adorned with elaborate headdresses and bodysuits sewn from cotton—which is to say, the products of farming, inherently implying a settled, agricultural society. Over time, both traditional ways of life—and their traditional clothing styles—were swept away. Europeans like Hernán Cortés conquered the region, and people adopted a more European style of dress to reflect the balance of power.

Probably because they had less power and imperialist thought their opinions mattered less, Mexican women experienced less pressure to change clothing styles during assimilation, and so their traditional fashions survived better.

If the goal is to provide depth to worldbuilding, considering this sort of sociopolitical background and nuance for character clothes is an effective way to go about it. It’s easy to have an oppressive regime ban traditional clothes and have characters act in reaction to that, but a more complex option might be to see people deliberately choosing to wear clothes that might curry favor with those in power, or only members of a particular gender or class making that choice, and the difficulty of navigating the resultant backlash be part of the story.

Sometimes, this kind of change in attire is more abrupt and explicit. There’s even opportunity for comedy, if that’s your preference.

During the Crusades, Eastern Christians and Muslims were known for long beards, while Latin crusaders from the west were known for being clean-shaven or, at most, having short, groomed beards. When Richard the Lionheart (mostly by accident) conquered Cyprus, the citizens of the capital city of Nicosia signaled the change in leadership by shaving their beards.

It’s almost like something out of a Monty Python sketch, but the imagery of a bunch of people shaving their beards or cutting their hair or removing their signature head coverings is a vivid way to illustrate capitulation or allegiance to a new leader at the end of a climactic conflict. It’s also an opportunity for characters to reflect on the frankly startling — and sometimes surreal — difference that major appearance changes can have, without leaning too hard on the ugly duckling trope. Speculative fiction allows this to even be taken another step farther: the hue of a dragon’s hide changing to match the eye color of a bonded partner, a species of sentient shapechangers all adopting the visage of their leader, or the outcome of silent elections being determined by the particular colors of participant auras.

Symbols of Identity

Sociopolitical allegiance is only one part of identity, though, and many people alter their appearance to better declare who they are to the world.

The whole point of laws like Elizabethan England’s sumptuary laws, in which only the upper classes could wear satin, silk, and velvet, was to legislate clothing’s role as a way to distinguish between social classes. In Rome, only citizens could wear togas and only the emperor could wear Tyrian purple. During Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392- 1897), royal women wore colors to indicate their particular relationship to the king.

From changes as easy and mutable as clothing or hair dye to facial ritual scarification, people who change their appearance from “baseline human” are often making changes that represent their identity more truly than any modern resume or identification card.

Thracians used tattoos as a symbol of social status: the more elaborate the tattoo, the more important the person. Before the Spanish came, the indigenous peoples of the Philippines tattooed themselves with geometric designs and omen animals after successfully killing an enemy in a raid. Men and women of the Xingu from central Brazil get tattooed to demonstrate their respect for a departed chief.

By contrast, Persians in the 6th century BCE tattooed criminals, vanquished enemies, and slaves who tried to escape. The Chinese, like the Persians and Greeks, generally considered tattooing a form of punishment, whereas the Xiongnu considered people without any tattoos to be lacking an identity. These kinds of different approaches to body markings are a great opportunity for conflict: Xiongnu nomadic tribes on the western frontiers of China demanded that Chinese envoys be tattooed before meeting with their “Greatest” (chieftain), which made things a bit difficult for the envoys required to serve in Xiongnu lands.

Tattoos are a great way to share information about a character. In the Kushiel’s Legacy series, the completion of Phèdre’s tattoo — known as a “marque” — marked the fact that she had completed her period of indentured servitude as a holy prostitute by paying back the debts owed via a tipping system known as a patron gift. The completed rose tattoo, proudly displayed in a gown with a plunging back, told anyone looking at it that she was a free agent and also a holy prostitute available for assignations. It made her social class immediately identifiable to anyone who looked at her, and had great personal meaning to her as well, as a symbol of freedom and independence.

But tattoos aren’t the only way to gauge culture and class. They aren’t even the only permanent body modification that does the trick.

The idiom “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” exist precisely how useful it is to judge the health and quality of a horse based on the quality of its teeth. In America, teeth are often more of a class marker than clothes or even accent; crooked or missing teeth is typically associated with poverty and lack of access to dental care. Jaw size and gum health can be a clue about diet; ancient populations experienced less tooth decay than the modern world because they chewed more and had less access to sugar. Certain kinds of drug use (particularly methamphetamine) cause distinctive types of damage to teeth and gums — to the point where specialists can identify a meth user from their teeth alone.

Teeth can tell a story even beyond natural occurrences related to health and diet.

Archaeologists can identify members of the early Sudanic civilization because people from that culture extracted the two lower incisor teeth from adolescents. Tooth extraction is common among indigenous African tribes, but it is most common in Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan. In one sense, it is considered a beauty enhancement à la foot-binding among the Han Chinese or Victorian waist training. Tooth extraction can also be used to symbolize tribal identity and has practical impacts. For example, the removal of the lower incisors allows specific sounds to be made, expanding the linguistic repertoire of the speakers.

In fiction, teeth modifications like filing teeth to sharper points — to seem more dangerous or make them more effective weapons when biting are often used to indicate savage, brutal warriors. The Reavers from the television series Firefly and subsequent media are instantly recognizable because they appear covered in blood, with red stripes and corpse “trophies” adorning their ships — the way they file their rotting teeth to sharp points is totally on brand. A character’s sharp, piercing canines are often the easiest way to identify vampires and werewolves in the urban fantasy and horror genres, and they are by definition (exceptions that prove the rule aside) predatory and dangerous.

Symbols of Power

If sharpened canines represent a weapon of last resort and a symbol of a willingness for violence, they are not unique. Fighters often rely on symbols of power to help them avoid fights—even though wielding them indicates confidence in winning.

Some of the earliest evidence anthropologists and archaeologists have of social stratification comes from large feasts and icons of power like maces. Maces, unlike the axes, knives, and arrows that preceded them, are pure weapons of war; they have no purpose except for cracking heads. When they became popular on the Eurasian Steppe, they immediately signified that their owner was a fighter, a warrior wielding a symbol of power. It’s for this reason that maces as a symbol of power evolved into the better-known scepter—which even now allows people to identify royalty at a glance or, in fiction, because they saw a word like “scepter” in the same sentence as the ruler. If a reader sees a reference to a scepter, they think royalty. Wands signify magic, whether a witch or a wizard or some other form of mage.

Often it’s possible to take one look at what someone is wearing—or what they’re wielding—and know their social status. The examples where these guesses turn out to be wrong are typically the result of deliberate deceit, like when Zeus hid himself in the guise of an old man. For most inhabitants of a world, fantastic or otherwise, it may make sense to hedge one’s bets by being polite to everyone, but it’s a lot harder to treat everyone like they might literally be a king or a god in disguise. Yet when a stranger appears in front of someone wearing all the accouterments of wealth and power, only a fool would treat them with only the politeness owed a neighbor.

Around 3700-3500 BCE, the people of the Northern Caucasus Mountains went from being relatively egalitarian small-scale farmers to having chiefs. Leading anthropologist David Anthony described them as “spectacularly ostentatious.” They had gold-covered clothes, gold and silver staffs, and bronze weapons imported from the newly formed Mesopotamian cities far across the mountains.

The chiefs in the Bronze Age Maykop culture (of the western Caucasus region) gained power partially because of their visible status icons. The “aura of extraordinary” that accompanied the exotic objects they acquired through trade allowed them to demonstrate their personal connection to foreign powers—which is to say, the mysterious unknown. What’s particularly interesting about this culture is that the chiefs and other high-status individuals were buried with most of their treasures, instead of passing them down to the next generation—the Maykop people tended to bury their dead with far more valuables than their neighbors.

 

These visible valuables were effective signifiers of power and wealth because they were exclusive — the same way that modern teenagers signal status through possession of expensive or limited edition shoes, or Phèdre’s sangoire cloak in the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Like the Imperial purple of Rome, the dyes used to make Phèdre’s cloak are legally restricted: only she, as an anguissette, one of the angel Kushiel’s chosen, can wear that color, which makes her status immediately identifiable.

In Sum

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and history can serve as a useful jumping-off point with worldbuilding. From extraordinary trade goods and exclusive access to rarities that symbolize the elite power of connections, to the supply lines involved in common clothes, the things and stylings people use to cover their bodies are often highly indicative of their core identities. The reason it’s effective for a character to don a servant’s uniform to sneak into a lord’s castle is that, the vast majority of the time, clothing does a lot of heavy work in signaling social cues.

But there are other methods available to worldbuilders. Weapons, effective or symbolic, represent such a method. Another method is body modification such as scarification, dental alterations, or restricted body parts. Hair growth or dilapidation is also another method. Similarly, storytellers can use particular colors in places unexpected … and expected, because whatever idioms we learn as children, it’s a useful skill to be able to judge a book by its cover, at a glance, and get a sense of whether it’s worth picking up.

How else can we gauge whether a book might have a blurb worth checking out?

If you got something useful out of this article, make sure to check out my free weekly newsletter, where I share overviews of my research into topics like inheritance systems and tattoo symbology from around the world.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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