From Physics-Defying Fashion to Real-World Couture… and Back Again

The relationship between fashion and gaming is an infinite loop, or perhaps a tangled Möbius strip. Game designers have borrowed fashion from the real world to create more realistic games; fashion designers have borrowed from less realistic games in service to evolving fashion trends. The end result is that the two worlds are integrating like never before.

And so begins my examination of the link between the world of fashion and the world of gaming. How did it start? Why are fashion brands increasingly marketing to gamers, and in video games themselves? Where will things go from here?

For the sake of clarity, I should mention that I am no expert in fashion – one look at my closet will tell you that. I am, however, a terminally addicted gamer, and one of my hobbies is following the game industry and seeing how it changes and evolves. I’ve spent years watching other industries dip their toes into gaming, collaborate with game studios, and look for new ways to market their products.

The fashion industry is a special case, though. Indeed, you could argue that fashion is an indispensable facet of game design, and that this has been the case almost since the beginning.

A Brief History of Fashion in Video Games

The Very Beginning

Video games are older than you think. Specifically, they’re as old as bored programmers left alone with early computers. In 1958, William Higinbotham, a physicist, made a simple tennis game (the precursor to Pong). Soon after came titles like Spacewar!, a precursor to Asteroids.

This is why I say that the link between video games and fashion has been around since almost the beginning. These titles hardly needed the services of European designers, simple as they were. Things started to change rapidly with the advent of human and humanoid characters in games.

The most famous example, of course, is Super Mario.

Super Mario
An all-time fashion icon. | Image courtesy of Nintendo

Of course, in 1981, he wasn’t known as Super Mario. He was Jumpman, hero of the classic arcade title Donkey Kong. This was DK’s first self-titled game, and he was the bad guy in it, weirdly enough. His job was throwing barrels down an elaborately constructed vertical maze to keep control of a princess he’d kidnapped, while Jumpman tried to stop him. Video game logic is a wonderful thing.

Jumpman’s outfit, despite its generally plain nature, is a testament to the creativity of early game designers. The whole character had to be designed and drawn within a 16×16 pixel grid, which didn’t leave a lot of room for detail. Thus, the mouth became a mustache.

They didn’t want to animate his hair, and static hair was unacceptable, so they gave him his trademark hat. The overalls weren’t just for that sweet plumber aesthetic, either: they helped give the impression that the character’s arms were moving over three (count’em, three!) whole frames of animation. Then, in the US, Nintendo of America decided to name him Mario after their landlord, and the rest is history.

In the early days, a lot of in-game fashion choices were made this way, with technical limitations imposing trends that made life easier for artists and programmers. Over time, technology advanced, and so did the outfits.

Early 2D games were the pioneers of this trend, with illustrations providing a handy, and classic, medium for portraying characters. In these games, fashion was used as part of the actual storytelling, much as it is in movies and TV. Bad guys dressed like bad guys. Heroes had armor or, in the case of Barbarian-types, not much clothing at all. The rich had finery, the poor had rags… you know, the usual visual shorthand.

Impractical Fashion

Once we could slap more than a dozen polygons together and use rasterized images as textures, video game fashion took on a life of its own. Outfits got more elaborate and complex. They got wild, too.

You see, digital fashion designers took full advantage of the fact that they were designing for a world where they got to control an unrelenting natural force: physics. In the world of games, clothes mostly stay where you put them. It’s very convenient.

Of course, this allowed 3D artists more ways to use fashion for storytelling, just like their 2D counterparts.

The inevitable result of this was twofold. First, a bunch of game designers who were definitely nerds first and fashionistas second created outfits that I can only describe as “anatomically improbable.” They created the kind of impossibly tight, skimpy designs that require double sided tape, a vacuum sealer, and a frankly unsustainable amount of bravery to pull off – the kind of outfits that definitely wouldn’t stay on in a fight. 

A lot of game designers went in the other direction. They decided that more is more, and if your hero is going to be impossibly strong, why shouldn’t their clothing or armor also be impossibly cool? And why can’t it use materials that, in our world at least, would be a terrible idea?

That’s how we ended up with things like the armor designs from World of Warcraft. Those things on their shoulders are called pauldrons, and people did really use them in real life. They were never that big, though.

A screenshot of of a WoW character with oversized pauldrons
Yeah, my shoulders hurt just thinking about it. | Image courtesy of Wowhead

Then we have things like Skyrim’s glass armor. Remember, it’s fantasy glass, so it will actually protect you (as opposed to, you know, being more dangerous to you than enemy weapons). Also, it’s classified as “light armor” for some reason.

And then we have, like, every armor ever created for Diablo.

more oversized armor... and pauldrons, but from Diablo this time.
Yeah, no one is moving in that. | Image courtesy of Gamers Decide

I could go on, but you, dear reader, most likely don’t have all day.

What Video Game Fashion Looks Like Now

More recently, we’ve seen a shift towards more normal, practical-looking outfits, especially in Western game development. This is due, in part, to more and more games being set in our world, or one that’s adjacent in terms of fashion. To be clear, game designers have been making characters with “normal” clothes since the first game set on Earth, but we’re seeing more practical fashions take center stage along with the decidedly impractical ones.

A fashion collab with GTAV
Some normal-ish outfits in GTAV | Image courtesy of… Vogue? Wow.

Even in more fantastical settings, we’re seeing a trend towards fashions that mirror our own, but with a futuristic or fantasy twist. In Mass Effect, the space suits double as armor, but have somehow managed to avoid the problem of bulky oxygen tanks.

Armor sets from Mass Effect: Andromeda
“Realistic” space suits | Image courtesy of Gosu Noob

In Forspoken most of the characters dress in generally practical ways, inspired by fashions from our own past. The main character, being from our world, combines her regular clothes with fancy magical cloaks. Look, it’s a deeply flawed game, but the cloaks were great (the cloaks and the cats).

One thing that has remained consistent is the idea that a character’s clothing should tell a story about who they are, their social class, their history, their attitudes. Even in games where you can customize the character’s clothing, your choices are often locked or “soft locked” in the sense that all choices will fit the pre-made character’s history at least somewhat.

In games where you can create your own character, your fashion is often defined by your role in the game (especially for MMOs and RPGs). Do you cast spells? You’ll probably be wearing robes. Are you sneaky? You’ll be in some variant of leather armor, etc.

Of course, there are exceptions. In games that make use of fashion in their business model (i.e. they sell cosmetic items in a cash shop), there are usually fewer restrictions. Some games, like Destiny 2, will restrict cosmetics to the character’s class or role, but here’s where we come to Fortnite and other games like it:

Dragonball Z skins in Fortnite
You’re not dealing with an ordinary Saiyan… | Image courtesy of Sportskeeda

In Fortnite, you can be anything – or just about anyone – you want. Other online games, even some MMOs, will sometimes allow you to use cosmetic items that have nothing to do with your character class. If it looks fun, equip it! Be the legendary mage in heavy armor you were born to be.

Or be Nicki Minaj in Call of Duty. Heck, I don’t even play COD, and I kind of want that skin.

Cosmetic items in games are a truly huge business, raking in millions upon millions of dollars a year across multiple franchises. There are even exclusive skins that you can get for buying a game on a particular console, for participating in real-world events, or in certain countries.

If that last one interests you, a VPN for PS5, Xbox, or PC can help you access skins and fashion options from other regions of the world.

The Fashion Industry Is Just Following the Money

Revenue in 2022 by industry

Gaming: 183 billion USD
Global box office: 26 billion USD
Streaming: 80+ billion USD
Just think. Video games make more money than Marvel movies.

Given all the money that’s flying around for virtual clothing, which requires no inventory and costs very little to ship, it’s no wonder that the fashion industry has taken a keen interest in the virtual world. Of course, they had a little help from the gaming community in the form of our very own fashion experts: the cosplayers.

The Real World Effects of Video Game Cosplay

Cosplay didn’t start with video games, or even modern nerd culture. It started with costume parties, also known as fancy dress parties. These are rooted in the masked balls of the 19th century, and I’d go so far as to guess that humans have always liked dressing up as other things, and other people.

But cosplay as we know it began when two people, Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas, decided to wear “futuristicostumes” to the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939. People randomly wearing sci-fi costumes quickly evolved from there, as fans of various sci-fi and fantasy properties wanted to look like their favorite characters.

Forrest J Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas, in their "futuristicostumes"
Thank you Wikipedia. Here’s a tiny, TINY image of the first cosplayers as we know them.

Come the advent of video games, and video game conventions, the cosplayers weren’t far behind. Truth be told, they never are, bless their crafty hearts. The presence of cosplayers is one of the most reliable indicators that an intellectual property or franchise is going to take off.

This is a truth so universally acknowledged, to paraphrase Jane Austen, that game publishers will now pay people to cosplay characters from their games. The hope is that the cosplayers will stimulate interest in the IP, bringing more fans in. And you know what? Sometimes it actually works. 

The really interesting thing is that cosplayers often manage to make the most impractical costumes work in real life. Sure, they use enough double sided tape to put the mainstream fashion industry to shame. Sure, their oversized pauldrons and armor are usually made from styrofoam or an equivalent. And sure, there are people who go to cons loaded down with cosplay repair kits…

Cosplayer Sheperdofmen in WoW armor.
Cosplayer: Sheperdofmen. This image still makes my shoulders hurt. | Image courtesy of Comiga!

(No, seriously, they roam the halls with glue guns and thread in hand, ready to get cosplayers back up and posing… and they usually do this for free.)

… but, cosplayers have been so successful at replicating these glorious, ridiculous outfits that fashion companies have started to take notice.

A very accurate cosplay of Tali from Mass Effect
Cosplay by Danosuke, worn by his wife. | Image courtesy of Danosuke

After all, if a bunch of nerds in their bedrooms with a home sewing machine, some styrofoam, and enough duct tape to keep Mexico City’s plumbing intact can do it, why can’t they? Why can’t fashion companies bring video-game-inspired fashion to the real world, and put their clothes in the most popular games?

Well, as we’ve seen, they can and do.

Video Game-Inspired Casual Wear

Many would disagree, but I think graphic tees inspired by video games count as fashion. Fortunately for everyone who spat out their coffee while reading that, this section isn’t about t-shirts. I will say, however, the effect that branded t-shirts have had on the financial success of some game studios is not to be underestimated.

But game-inspired fashion goes a lot further than that. Did you know there are hoodies that loosely imitate the armor and outfits you can wear in Assassin’s Creed? Well, there are a lot of them. (And honestly, I’d like one or two.)

ten Assassin's Creed hoodies, all on Amazon, and there are a lot more than ten on the site.
These are just the first 10 options on Amazon.

Want to dress up like an NPC from Cyberpunk 2077? There’s a whole Reddit thread with links to clothing lines that match the various styles in the game. Mind you, many of these brands were around before the game, as the various Cyberpunk aesthetics are based on real world fashion trends, but remember how I said that fashion and games feed into each other? This is a great example.

rugged, Nomad style clothing from Demobaza
Want to dress like a Nomad? (Image courtesy of) Demobaza has you covered.

This is to say nothing of the cottage industry of Etsy creators designing… I hesitate to say “branded” but certainly game-inspired clothing. Here’s a dress inspired by Genshin Impact:

the dress in question
Image courtesy of Etsy.

And a sort of blanket-cloak based on the same game as the dress:

the blanket-cloak in question
Image courtesy of Etsy.

The High Fashion Inspired by Video Games

But it’s not just casual wear and sort-of-branded merchandise from Etsy. The world of high fashion has definitely gotten in on the game, even if they don’t always link their creations to specific game developers or video game franchises.

For example, renowned designer Claudia Wang’s S/S34 collection of 31 looks was designed to “to highlight the importance of video games to enhance our conception of the physical world.”

Selections from Claudia Wang's collection. There's a lot of pink.
Image courtesy of

In a more direct homage to video games, Loewe has launched a line of decidedly not cheap pixelated clothing. At prices of $1,000–2,000 (USD), I certainly wouldn’t use this as every day wear:

Loewe's "pixelated" clothing designs
Image courtesy of Loewe

Japanese designer Takashi Nishiyama did go straight for the branded option with this line of clothing inspired by the Monster Hunter series. Having played a bit of Monster Hunter, I have to say he nailed it.

the most fashionable faux fur ensemble I've ever seen
Image courtesy of

Even Project Runway got in on the action back in 2019, challenging their contestants to create looks inspired by video games.

A screenshot of the Project Runway episode on video game fashion
Image courtesy of

I expect this trend to continue. As new generations of designers emerge, more and more of them will have played video games to some extent, on one platform or another. Personally, I can’t wait for our collective clothing options to get very cool.

The Integration of Fashion Brands into Video Games

Bringing things back to the digital world, let’s talk about how real life fashion is coming to games. It’s actually happening a lot.

Brand Deals

This is an interesting space to watch, for sure. Individual games are becoming massive platforms unto themselves. This presents fashion brands with the opportunity to showcase their work to an audience that might not pay much attention to fashion blogs or TV shows.

One of the biggest examples is Julien Fournié’s collaboration with PUBG MOBILE, which introduced in-game outfits to coincide with Paris Haute Couture Week.

A possibly too-colorful preview of the Julien Fournié/PUBG collab
Image courtesy of PUBG MOBILE

Another collaboration that got a lot of press attention was when Balenciaga designed outfits to be used as skins within Fortnite.

With normal TV, a fashion brand might be able to reach a few million people in, say, the US, and maybe a billion or so if they go through the trouble to negotiate with TV networks all over the world. Individual publishers and games, however? Those can reach billions of players, and all it takes is one or two deals.

And that’s not counting the time a digital version of a Gucci bag sold for over $4,000 in Roblox that one time. ‘Cause yeah, some people will pay that much for in-game cosmetics.

Fortnite, Crossfire, and Pokemon Go alone have potentially exposed a billion people (each) to the brands with which they collaborate
A billion people is… and I’m trying not to undersell this… a lot.

Dedicated Fashion Games

That’s right. Fashion. Games.

A promotional image for Fashion Shot: Makeup, Dress Up
Fashion Show: Makeup, Dress Up | image courtesy of Google Play

Fashion games have taken off as a way for people to put together outfits with both generic garments and branded pieces alike. They’re mostly popular on mobile, with Android’s leading download, Fashion Show: Makeup, Dress Up, netting over 100 million installs. Few games on any mobile platform have more than that.

For comparison, EA SPORTS FC™ Mobile Soccer has over 100 million itself, and worldwide phenomenon Minecraft has a little over 50 million. The only games that have definitely been downloaded more are the likes of Subway Surfers, Clash of Clans, Fruit Ninja, and Roblox… which has had its own fashion brand deals now and again.

Multiple celebrities have their own dress up games as well. One notable example is Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, which boasts a “modest” 10+ million downloads.

A promotional image of Kim Kardashian's game
Image courtesy of Google Play

Influencer Deals

Gaming influencers are not to be underestimated. Though their numbers usually land in the millions (as opposed to the billions offered by game publishers), their audiences are often passionate, and will sometimes buy products just to support their favorite creators.

YouTubers and streamers alike have been staying afloat with the help of sponsors for quite some time, and that’s not going to change. A fashion brand might not necessarily have to make a deal with an actual game publisher if they sponsor the top creators for the game in question. It’s a roundabout way of marketing your product, but also a common way of doing it.

The fashion brands I’ve personally found to have influencer sponsorships aren’t usually high fashion brands, but brands that aim to offer high-quality, practical clothing (think Vessi and their waterproof shoes). As creator audiences grow, so too will fashion brand deals.

JuegaGerman is the most popular gaming YouTuber with 48 million subscribers

Ninja is still the most popular Twitch streamer with 18 million subscribers
The gaming influencers with the widest audiences to date.

Conclusion: The Future of Fashion and Games

Future collaborations and brand deals are inevitable. As we increasingly interact more online and less in person, the more important our digital fashion becomes – not to mention the fact that a digital skin is usually cheaper than a physical garment from a top designer.

As someone whose income could best be described as, “I’m a writer with ADHD and some very long-suffering editors,” I really hope digital high fashion stays cheaper than the real life stuff, for the most part.

As for marketing: just as online influencers peddle real world products, they’ll also be increasingly used to promote in-game fashion. That’s inevitable. It’s also inevitable that game publishers will be happy to make deals with fashion companies as time goes on. It just makes sense.

Some people even look to games as the future of sustainable, humane fashion. After all, digital outfits don’t take up much in the way of physical resources, and you don’t have to worry about sweatshops in the supply chain.

And that certainly is a benefit. However, regardless of the many difficulties we might face beyond the walls of our homes, people will still certainly go outside – and even people who don’t might like to dress up now and then, whether for themselves, for business calls, or for their selfie cameras. Human nature simply won’t allow us to stop craving nice things in the real world, but there’s no reason those nice things can’t be influenced by games.

Long story short: real life fashion is never going away. However, I expect to see the lines between in-game and outdoor fashion keep blurring, as they already do. I don’t mind. I like making my characters look good. Just keep it affordable, and I’m in.

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