I spend a great deal of time on this blog talking about the origins of garments, and what they might symbolize to the character- but the truth is, many characters will not be consciously aware why they are wearing these things, no matter how much of a costuming nerd the player might be.
Unless, of course, your character is a member of a priesthood.
Religion, nearly by definition, involves the use of symbols. Who can use these symbols, and when, may be fast and loose or highly formalized; it depends, to some degree, on how formal the religion itself is.
For example, a priest of the Orthodox church has no fewer than thirteen components to their official robes, each with a specific origin and purpose. (To see them in action, click here.) Being aware of these symbols is a part of the role of the clergy; they could not teach the laypeople their importance if they did not know them themselves. If your character is a member of a religious order, it is highly likely that some or all of their garb will have specific religious meanings that the character should know. Whether they do, of course, is variable; there can be delinquent friars in any universe.
Note: When you’re buying garb for a religious costume, you might want to do some research before purchasing actual religious materials. There are some pretty (if quite expensive) things available online, but they may not be meant for secular use. I generally hold the rule that I don’t mind if I offend, but I do not want to hurt; if you are of a similar mind, then take the time to consult with an authority from the religion you’re appropriating to get a sense of what their opinion would be on their garb being re-purposed as your larping gear.
Image credit: By Laurits Tuxen (1853-1927) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
PS Orthodox Church garb featured by a special request from Fair Escape!
Gargoyles are a remarkably colorful quirk of architecture. Their architectural function is that of an ornate downspout that stretches far enough away from a masonry building that the water doesn’t run down the building and erode the mortar. They are often associated with Medieval European architecture, though decorating a downspout occurred to many fancy-building-makers in history.
Depending on who you ask, gargoyles were also meant to threaten or inspire the congregation, threaten or inspire the clergy, and/or threaten or inspire demons, monsters, ghosts, and lewd women. (Check out this, this, and this.)
This diversity of interpretation is, I believe, inherit in semi-permanent visual symbolism, especially in an age where illiteracy is wide-spread. Even if a book of gargoyle symbolism existed in the medieval era, it would not have mattered to the majority of people in that era who could not read it. They could, however, obviously read the expression of a bit of stone work. It was clearly threatening them. Or, it was clearly threatening others. Unless the priest told you otherwise; then it was clearly doing whatever the priest said. Unless you didn’t trust the priest, that is.
The point is, things get complicated when all you have to go on is symbols, and complicated can be fun. Think about developing a motif for your character, some kind of symbol they have on their clothes and gear. It could be as simple as a charcoal paw print; illiterate orcs need some way to tell one helmet from another, and they probably aren’t going to write their name on it. If you really want to get into it, consider whether your character has superstitions or conflicting interpretations of other character’s motifs- perhaps a nature spirit views an open-petaled flower is a symbol of sexual availability, leading to some serious confusion between said nature spirit and a serious-minded maid with a rose-print tea set!
If yesterday’s holiday has left a saccharine taste in your mouth, remember this: Aphrodite was born when the blood of Ouranos fell on the on the sea; the Erinyes were born when the same blood fell on the earth.
Symbols are slippery things.
There is nothing in the world like the smell of roses, or the feel of their petals across your lips, or the sting of their thorns as they prick you. Roses are unique. Peerless.
Roses are a symbol.
The Victorian art of floriography imbues every shade and species of rose with meaning: red meant true love; yellow meant infidelity, friendship, or betrayal; blue meant attaining the impossible; black meant death; white meant virtue, innocence, and secrecy; pink meant desire, passion, and life (source). Some of these meanings have endured. Watch this video, and ask yourself: is the rose she’s holding white, or pink? Did she, or didn’t she?
The funny thing about the symbolism of the rose is that there is no cultural authority running about, insisting that roses are important, and standardizing their meaning. And yet, somehow, a dozen roses in a vase send one clear message to most Westerners, and a dozen roses pinned the breasts of a steampunk pirate captain send a different, and yet equally clear, message. If you are making a world, you can do this too. The key is to have a delicate touch; be consistent in your use of symbol, but don’t insist (or even mention) that the item in question has a particular meaning. Let your players become invested, instead.
The most direct way, of course, is to build the symbol, in its literal form, into your game mechanic. If wearing a willow switch on your belt lends a bonus to intimidation, then it will have a direct association with intimidation for players. If the big bad boss’s lair is surrounded by possessed willow trees that snare and lash players as they pass, the threat of the willow rises. It only takes a few details like this before a healer offering your players willow-bark tea is met with suspician and fear. Symbolism: also a fun way to troll players!
PS Happy Valentine’s Eve, if you celebrate! Love is a lovely thing, in all its myriad flavors, and I wish you as much as you can wish for and no more than you can handle.
I remember learning, at some point in my pop culture education, that tartan patterns were hugely important and ancient symbols of clans and whatnot. Unfortunately, it turns out that belief was a result of a resurgence in interest in Scottish culture in the 1800s. People assumed tartans were a clan symbol, something to be proud of, and a way to show their general Scottish heritage as well as their specific clan heritage, and so, going forward, they started to have that meaning- but it was based on a belief in the historic use of the patterns that simply wasn’t true.
Symbols are funny that way. The Scots had trouble connecting with their heritage the usual way because, well, they had been subject to various attempts by the English to suppress and eliminate that heritage. Breaks in tradition often mean new traditions must be created.
How does this relate to larping?
Well, as a player, consider the idea that your character might think things about their own heritage that are factually incorrect.The easiest way to roleplay this would be if you picked something that the game lore establishes as a fact- like, say, the invasion of Elfland by the Thinly Disguised Japanese Analog culture. The elves, as the oppressed people, probably had some of their culture suppressed. When pressure from the TDJA lets up, and the elves are free to express themselves again, they may well have lost direct links to their heritage- documents burned, elders that have died, etc. They want to return to their roots, now that they have the freedom to, but those very roots are obscured.
What fills the gap?
Well, if the TDJA culture said elves were stupid, especially their stupid leaf pattern, then a reactionary movement might well elevate the leaf pattern to the height of fashion and cultural significance. Since they keenly feel the desire for a link to their past, it would be incredibly tempting to claim that the pattern has always been this important, even if, pre-invasion, the leaf pattern was just one of many.
The thoughts of the dominant culture about the oppressed culture can often affect how the oppressed see themselves long after the dominant/oppressed dynamic has officially ended. This is also an excellent source of conflict between players- imagine how an elf would feel if a TVJA historian claimed the leaf pattern wasn’t that important!
While you’re mulling this over, take a peek at this lovely kilt blowing video from Dragon Con 2010.