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I am working on developing a character who is a martial artist with background in ballet and gymnastics. Most of her fighting would be street-level, against gangs and stuff. But she’s also very feminine and I’m kind of thinking dresses like a hipster. I know lots of films and comics portray female fighters in very impractical clothing. But what kind of feminine clothes could someone actually get away with wearing in a fight? Would a short skirt and leggings work? What about shoes and tops?

Well, here we go again.

Let’s start with the clothes because that’s the question we get less
frequently. Most media presents women in combat as a sex object, and not in
practical gear. That, includes your suggestion above. You’re still talking
about, “how can I make my character look good?” The best thing for your
character would be the kind of clothing you’d wear while working in an
industrial environment, or something patterned off combat fatigues.

Heavy fabric that will take some scrapes and save you from a few cuts is
worth far more than looking cute. You can save looking cute for a time when
people aren’t trying to turn you into people-paste.

Work boots or sneakers. Something that can get a firm grip on the ground.
Work boots will provide a little more protection, so that’s a bonus. Steel
toed boots will protect against someone from stomping on her foot.

Long pants. Either jeans or work khakis are the best options. When it’s the
difference between bruising a knee and scraping it open in dirty water that
some drunk was just puking into and fighting off a nasty infection, fashion
loses out.

A work shirt or a leather jacket. Again, it won’t protect against the blows
she’s taking, but it will provide a little protection. An insulated
jacket will make parrying unarmed strikes a little less unpleasant. Without
one, you can easily end up with bruises along the leading edge of the arm, against the bone. A
winter coat will provide enough padding to save you from that. It’s not armor,
but it does help.

Anything that dangles or flows, and won’t pull free if tugged, is a
liability, and should be avoided. I don’t care how awesome your leather trench
coat looks, if someone gets their hands on it you’re screwed. This includes skirts
(both on long coats, dresses, and as an independent article) and ties. Police
wear clip-ons for this specific reason. Giving your character a scarf because
it looks cool is a terrible idea for a fighter.

Makeup is out. The last thing you need in a fight is one more thing to get
in your eyes. Fighting, or any physical exertion, will make you sweat. Sweating
will get your makeup running and into your eyes, blinding you.

Piercings and jewelry are another bad idea. Most piercings become potential
handles for an opponent to latch onto and pull. Most of the time, these are buried
in soft, nerve-rich tissue, which will hurt like hell and bleed when torn.

Necklaces are another convenient handle, with a very inconvenient little
question. Will the necklace fail before your trachea? If the answer is yes,
than it has the potential of being a distracting interlude while you struggle
for breath, and your attacker recovers theirs. If the answer is no, you just wrapped
an improvised garrote around your neck.

Now, if a situation comes up, your character is wearing whatever they were
wearing. But if they’re going out deliberately provoking a situation, then they
need to be treating it seriously, and dress appropriately.

Also, fights will wreck your clothes. Most clothes, especially women’s
fashion, aren’t designed to be durable. Thin fabric will snag and tear easily.
So, if you’re putting your character in a skirt and leggings, expect those to
be in tatters after any serious abuse. Anyone who’s getting into combat
regularly, especially if they dress frivolously, will find their wardrobe
getting strained very quickly.

Which brings up a really serious question: if your character is going into a
dangerous situation where people will be trying to trying to seriously harm, or
kill, her; why the hell would she care how sexy she looks?

No, seriously.

How botched are her priorities?

Looking cute is more important that living? What!?

Your character needs to prioritize her survival over the ego boost from
looking good.

If you’ve never taken a psychology course, this will seem like a weird non-sequitur,
but let’s talk about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for a moment. This will help
you set your character’s priorities.

There are five tiers of needs. Each one must to be provided for before you
can consider the one above it. You can’t skip one, and rush down the list to
where you want to be. If one of these fails, everything above it drops off
until you can deal with it.

The lowest tier is Survival: food, water, sleep, things you cannot do
without or you will die.

The second tier is Security: safety from imminent harm, not being
murdered by crazed cultists, thugs, or in a writer’s arbitrary fit of pique.

The middle tier is Belonging: This can be summed up as: not being
alone in the world. Finding support from family, friends, or loved ones.

The fourth tier is Esteem: This is about finding acceptance in a
group beyond your immediate family, and having a place in the world. Finding
value in yourself and from others.

The fifth, and highest, tier is Self-Actualization: this is the need
for intellectual or creative endeavors. I’d be doing it a disservice to call it
hobbies, but to some extent, that’s the idea.

Here’s the thing. Dressing to look good, and feel good about yourself is Esteem.
On its own, that’s fine. But, dealing with people who are trying to kill you is
a Security issue. If your Security is threatened, it doesn’t
matter if you have family, self-esteem or a creative outlet. You will
die, if you don’t deal with that problem immediately.

There’s a legitimate possibility that can have a character whose priorities
are completely scrambled. People like that exist. But, in
trying to present a competent combatant, you need to set aside the idea that
your character is dressing to feel good about themselves. They need to dress
for the job at hand. Or, as a writer, acknowledge that this is a character
flaw, and probably should be addressed in the text.

And, yes, being perceived as feminine is an esteem tier need. I’ll be back
to this in a minute.

Ballet and Gymnastics will not make you a better fighter.

No. They won’t.

Either one can help with physical conditioning. And, as anyone who’s taken
ballet can tell you, it is a fantastic workout. But, it’s not going to
help you fight.

They can help you become a better entertainer. So, if your character is a
TV/Film stunt actor, cross training in either isn’t out of the question. But,
as I just said, looking good is far less important than surviving a fight.

There’s an edge case, if your character is a prize fighter, then they are an entertainer. So training in
either could be helpful, because they will be evaluated on how good they look
in the ring in addition to their ability to fight.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is a good example of this. He’s a fantastic martial
artist, and an entertainer. His ballet training helps make his techniques look
amazing, but it doesn’t make them more effective.

We’ve actually talked about this a lot, and
nothing has really changed.

But, that’s not why you picked ballet and gymnastics. You chose them because
you wanted to affirm your character’s femininity. Why gymnastics is considered
feminine is a mystery for another day. But, the idea is flawed; your character
is not automatically less feminine if she practices eskrima and parkour. In that case, she’d be far better prepared to deal with, and escape attackers.

You don’t need to remind us that your character is feminine constantly. No, seriously,
don’t. It’s demeaning to say a character stops being feminine because she
treats as a combat serious threat. Women can fight. They just need to approach
it seriously, just like everyone else.

Train to deal with people that mean you harm, or you mean to harm. Be prepared
to kill them, or not, depending on your morals and ethics, not your gender.

When facing the risk of combat, dress for it. No, not a cute outfit (or a suit
and tie, for that matter). Dress like you would if you were going to work in a
combat zone or in an industrial facility. Clothing that won’t kill you if it
gets caught in heavy machinery, and that won’t break the bank if it’s
destroyed. Clothes that will protect you from minor cuts and scrapes, because
you will be getting those without it.

It doesn’t make you less feminine. It just means you’re approaching a
situation from the perspective of someone who can accurately assess the dangers
around them, and is prepared to deal with them. You know; competently.

Finally, and I really need to stress this, your femininity is less important
than survival. You can clean up, look cute, and present yourself however you
want when you’re not facing physical threats.