Figure out what the outfit is doing
I've mentioned many times in A Mild-Mannered Reporter that I like coming up with new costumes. It leads to the unsurprising fact that my characters in City of Heroes have a variety of different costumes. But before I build each new costume, the question I ask myself first is what this new outfit adds to the existing lineup. Why would the character in question don a different set of clothing? Is this outfit supposed to be more defensive? More casual? More stealthy? Are we seeing a dress uniform of some kind or something intensely casual?
The reason for all this, of course, is that different answers to these questions result in different design elements. If I'm putting together a very casual costume, for instance, more street clothes are appropriate. Something more defensive is probably going to want big shoulderpads or at least ones that look reinforced. If I'm going for a more retro Silver Age sort of outfit, I should stick with leotard, jumpsuits, bright colors, and clean lines.
Obviously, most games don't give you this level of fine control. But you still have plenty of control over what your character will be wearing for a roleplaying outfit, and you need to exercise it. A more casual outfit will usually veer toward lighter armor, while something meant for cold-weather travel shouldn't be skimpy. Figure out your overall goals first, then look for elements that match those goals instead of just throwing several elements together and seeing what sticks.
Observe NPCs scrupulously
My character in Final Fantasy XIV has a loose velveteen shirt in her inventory. This isn't because she uses it for any of her classes but because it's apparently very fashionable in her home city. A trip through Ul'dah reveals a large number of NPCs wearing similar loose, open clothing. Walking around Gridania, meanwhile, shows a number of NPCs with leather armor and trailing robes.
NPC costuming has access to all of the game's resources as a general rule, meaning that the designers can create any sort of overall look they want. It's worth keeping an eye on those NPCs because for better or worse, players will associate those sorts of costumes with a specific sort of character. That means that you can shorthand your outfit a bit more. If you see a lot of sweaters and high boots in a given part of Guild Wars, a similar outfit for roleplaying will send the message that this is your native area. Examine color schemes in a given region and try to match appropriately if your game has a dye system. Carefully examine what the background dress code seems to be and mirror it.
Obviously, sometimes this isn't viable. World of Warcraft, for instance, has a particular love of making a region's dress code be something like "raiding Paladin gear." But you can often aim in the right general direction.
Look at vendors
In some games, looking at vendors is kind of a given. In other games (CoH again, for instance), vendors aren't going to give you much. But in others, there's a lot of little stuff hidden away on vendors that you'd never see over the course of normal gameplay because it's just not useful in statistical terms. Where it is often useful, however, is in creating a coherent yet different look for any given roleplaying outfit.
Vendors, of course, are just one possible source. Crafted equipment and trash equipment from drops will often have a unique look, and the thing is that most people never even see it because these things exist for the express purpose of being sold. Vendors are just the easiest of the above to search, and in some cases, you might find that they offer you a set of gear even more visually appealing than your normal setup (which works out well in games with appearance tabs a la Lord of the Rings Online).
Specific roleplaying outfits generally stand out better when they're unique. Few things are more unique than having a piece of equipment on that no one recognizes, especially if it's something anyone could buy for chump change. It highlights the attention that you're paying, and it gives you something to talk about both OOC and IC. If it's visually distinct enough, you can even make it a part of your visual signature to begin with, something that everyone just associates with your character.
Sure, none of this will help you capture a scene. But it'll make you catch attention right away, and that's a good thing.
As always, feedback can be left down in the comments below or mailed along to email@example.com. Next week, I'm going to look at what happens when the world moves on around you... or more specifically, when the people you play with move on and you're still left behind.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.