The Heroes, Warriors and Rulers - Symbolism in Costume Design

The Heroes, Warriors and Rulers - Symbolism in Costume Design

From animated features like Pocahontas, Mulan, Moana, Prince of Egypt, Road to El Dorado to video games like Far Cry 4 and Overwatch we see different cultures or nations being represented through heroes and the costume they wear, which is one of the reasons I love these stories so much. 

Images: Far Cry 4 (Ubisoft) Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks), Far Cry Primal (Ubisoft), Moana (Disney)

I'm sure in all of these projects there was heavy research behind the design of character, their ethnicity and costume so it is all are consistent with their world and role, otherwise they wouldn't have been a success.

You can see Powhatan wears a feather headdress which represents his role as the chief/leader of his tribe. Pocahontas and her father Powhatan. Disney, 1995.

You can see Powhatan wears a feather headdress which represents his role as the chief/leader of his tribe. Pocahontas and her father Powhatan. Disney, 1995.

Imagine there's new game coming out. It is set in one of the many native american cultures. It has a hero, villain and many warriors. Everybody in their society dress in a certain way with a purpose behind it. It includes lots of symbolism as to set apart each member of their society. 

If you had to design the warriors of a tribe, including the chief, the hero or villain, you'd have to do the cultural research so each character is dressed according to their role. How could you show who's the strongest warrior? What sets apart the leader from his subjects. What jewelry or garment would you create to show someone is from nobility? 

Cultures through the American Continents

Throughout North, Central, and South America, in the Native Nations the common symbolic representation of a leader and warrior's power and importance is the feather headdress. 

Like a crown, the feather headdress is worn only by the leader of a society along with members of the nobility and notable warriors. 

In South America the headdress is a noble symbol for the native Americans, beyond aesthetic limits they print in their feathers and seeds the ordination of the village, the meaning of life, the importance of being. 

Chief War Bonnet - Front | Plains Indians, USA Eagle feathers, horsehair, beads, quill, fabric, fur. Circa 1920-1930

Chief War Bonnet - Front | Plains Indians, USA Eagle feathers, horsehair, beads, quill, fabric, fur. Circa 1920-1930

In North America the headdress also has a symbolic purpose. It was reserved for the most powerful and influential among the tribe as well as warriors who were the bravest. The most prized of all feathers to receive for an Indian headdress was the Golden Eagle feather. Because the Indians saw the eagle as a messenger of God, this feather could only be earned through hardship, loyalty, and strength.

When creating a the costume for a warrior/hero/soldier character you can put this knowledge to use. You can design headpieces or head ornaments according to how powerful the warrior is and the hierarchy of power within the group.


Many deeds have I done and for each I have earned a feather from the eagle, Great Spirit. I have hunted and counted coup on many enemies and have proved myself to be worthy of this crown. My teepee, my home and the circle of life are represented here along with the blessings of the elk and deer. The ermine of richness hangs from each side and I have done well. I am Chief and I am proud. (Found on

Bringing symbolism to Costume Design

Images: Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks)

The sequence above is a great example of symbolism through costume. The wig symbolizes him being Egyptian and from nobility, and so is the ring. Moses removing his wig symbolizes him leaving that "identity" behind and now with his normal hair he's a Jew (or someone of a different culture other than Egyptian). In case you're wondering, shaving the hair was only allowed in the nobility, so having the character keep his hair short shows an even stronger representation of who he was under the identity of a prince. 

This is only a short example of how much symbolism is used in costumes. The custom of using an ornament piece on the head to represent power, leadership or connection to nobility is found all around the world. It is also a straightforward adornment: You see it on the head, you immediately co-relate it to power or at least role of importance. 

When creating costume designs focused on a role, is important to understand that looking at humanity's multiple cultural and ethic groups for reference can be of immeasurable value. If you want reference and inspiration to creating a king or a leader, go research the different kings that have lived not only throughout history, but throughout the planet. See how different cultures created different kinds of crowns, each with a meaning, history, and a purpose.

Understand why different cultures and rulers dressed themselves a particular way to show power or status in society. You will never run out of inspiration and reference if you do that and even more importantly, your designs won't all look random and generic. Start with a culture and build your headpiece/garment design from there.

Figures of power were never random when showing their dominance through their outfit, especially in public appearances. Therefore neither should be your design choices. Your designs will benefit so much from using simple and effective symbolism. Rarely you will find outfits that don't have a cultural, religious or national source, even in the western world and urban areas.  Doing the important cultural research is the backbone of a costume design imbued with meaning and will help you create the perfect representation of the character's role in the narrative. 

Now is your turn! Do you have a favorite symbolic garment you like adding to your costume designs, or is there a favorite one you've seen in animations and games? 

Have you considered adding symbolism to your costumes designs before? If yes share with us in the comments! I would love to hear from you! 

Process Post - How I Style My Characters

Process Post - How I Style My Characters

The Story We Wear

The Story We Wear