Part of our world building is building the characters that inhabit the world. Their attitudes, social system, fashions, and so on. A big part of this is the fashions of a world, these can reveal a lot about the attitudes and social hierarchy of a world. For instance, a common example in western culture is the more sexually repressed women are expected to be the longer their skirts. In Victorian Britain revealing a hint of ankle was considered salacious and there were rules about the correct height to lift a skirt to step off a kerb or step. Does this mean that in private women were always repressed? No, but there’s a public expectation that reveals itself in the fashions.
The same is true of social hierarchy. The further up the social spectrum people were in Victorian Britain the better quality their clothes were, finer fabrics, brighter colours, different styles. The clothes of the upper classes were statements whereas the clothes of workers were practical to a point. People without money often couldn’t, and can’t, afford clothes to keep them warm or in good repair. Part of building our world is considering what people wear and why they wear it, no only in relation to the world but also in relation their character.
This doesn’t mean the social context of our clothes has to reflect the logic of the real world, even the real world isn’t always logical. An example would be when torn jeans are fashionable. Logically jeans should be torn from wear and a person’s inability to replace them, not brought with holes in. However, this changes when torn jeans become fashionable and having jeans with holes in is no longer an indicator of not being able to buy new jeans. It could even get to the point that people who are wealthier are more likely to have torn jeans because they don’t have to buy jeans to last and so on.
This raises the question: Do we need to explain this? Some of it might need to be, for instance if clothing is a uniform. A uniform is an important marker and a lot of people are going to wear it, if we establish what a uniform looks like we don’t have to keep describing it, unless there is some sort of difference. It also allows violations of the uniform rule, such as having a character walk in wearing a uniform they shouldn’t be or a character who previously wasn’t wearing a uniform suddenly is, this might be used to reveal/show when characters are undercover.
We can also use clothes to show changing fortunes as someone goes up or down the social ranks. If we’ve established that one group of people wear one kind of fashion and another group wears another then we can describe a character in different clothes to reveal their place in the hierarchy without having to explain their fortunes have changed. This can be helpful if part of the story is their changing fortunes because it can help us show the change in increments, whether it’s them buying clothes, people reacting to their change of clothes, or simply walking into a room and looking/not looking different to the other people in the room and so on.
Clothes can be used in a variety of ways to show different aspects of the characters and societies from deliberate to accidental violations, changing attitudes, or even a change in the weather. We don’t have to fit all over this in but it’s worth considering because it can sometimes give a world extra depth without appearing to do much work to reveal it.