Take egg, insert onto face
One of the biggest blunders of the "I can't dress myself" type had to have been The Matrix Online. Take The Matrix franchise -- a world that is washed in a deep cyberpunk atmosphere and slick, luxurious styles. Morpheus's purple vest and yellow tie, Trinity's catsuits, Neo's coat -- all of these defined the culture that was, undoubtedly, The Matrix. How you dressed was as much of the game as the game itself.
Then, the game rolled out, people jumped in, and everyone was excited over all of the options. They had trenchcoats, dresses, boots, vests, shirts, jumpsuits, hats, gloves, corsets, you name it. Clothing vendors had a very serious appeal upon launch as everyone ran around, getting dressed exactly how they wanted to look. Finally, the world looked right.
"The combinations of clothing that worked diminished until everyone looked like they had fallen into a display of paint cans at the local hardware store."
Let the creativity fall to the player
It's easy to say something like, "Well, just take the stats off of the clothing," but the fact is that our culture is now attuned to having equipment that boosts stats. When they don't have that, they get a little antsy because they may not "feel" the progression of the game.
Take City of Heroes, for example. A game where you could wear basically anything from level 1, and look exactly the way you wanted to. What happened down the road? They added items that had stats because players wanted them. On a creative level, I disagree with that decision, but on a design level I can fully support it. You want to give the players the comfort they want.
But, I don't think the idea of separating stats from appearance is dead. If more developers would find ways to embrace that system, more people are going to find it an easy system to navigate. This way people get to wear what they want without having the game force them into outfits they may not like to see. If you want a few games for examples, City of Heroes and Phantasy Star Online are two that come to mind.
And if you're worried about still having players armor look better and better as the game progresses, then that's still very doable. Clothing items can still be rare drops -- perhaps as a token that everyone can loot and turn in for a piece of the outfit. Clothing items could still be level restricted as well, so a level 1 can't be dressed up in the max level look. Progression is left intact while still giving players enough freedom to not look like rodeo clowns.
Just, simply, let the stats come from somewhere else.
Colin Brennan is the weekly writer of Anti-Aliased who wants his fashion to look cohesive for once. When he's not writing here for Massively, he's rambling on his personal blog, The Experience Curve. If you want to message him, send him an e-mail at colin.brennan AT weblogsinc DOT com. You can also follow him on Twitter through Massively, or through his personal feed.