Why Depression-Era Clothes Became Xbox 360 Fashions

Xbox gamers can dress as a BioShock Big Daddy or a Halo trooper if they sample the new virtual world fashions launching today. Or they could dress like they're from the Great Depression. The line's designer explains why.

We dress in mere costumes when we control characters in our Xbox 360s. Michael Connell believes it's time for us to wear fashion — some of which came from poorer times.

Connell is the Microsoft-contracted designer behind two original fashion lines, offered, for pay, as part of the new Xbox 360 system update that goes live today. The freelance creative director whose professional experience includes modeling, designing Barbie-branded fashion and a stint as the design director of the Cranium line of games, has crafted clothing for the bodies of virtual men and women, to be worn by Xbox 360 Avatars.

Through Connell and Microsoft, gamers can today buy 1930s-era cuffed trousers ($1) or a pair of Steampunk metal goggles ($1) to adorn the virtual person who represents them on their Xbox 360 — and who appears on their Xbox Live friends lists.

The fashion offering might vex those gamers who don't see the sense of spending a dollar on a virtual pair of pants but Connell sees the introduction of the new lines as a promotion for what he fundamentally values about fashion: a way for us to say something about ourselves.

"The fashions [in video games] have mostly been driven by context," he told Kotaku in a phone interview to discuss the lines. "The context for this game is a war or a sci-fi war or what have you, so let's build fantasy characters. In other games it's based on World War II. So these are a set of characters and they're thought of as movie characters. It's more costume-based. But when you really start thinking about fashion ... my personal feeling about fashion is that it's always about expression."

It's self-expression that Connell hopes his work can further enable for Xbox gamers. "Once you see enough avatars, they kind of start to feel the same," he said, recalling the initial wave of Xbox Avatar fashion that has been available for the past nine months, while he's been designing the new lines. "The generic collection that we have out there currently doesn't really offer any individuality. Certainly it's a basics collection. but it's generic in the worst sense."

Today launches Connell's wearable antidote. In the new Avatar store on online-connected 360s, buried behind banners advertising BioShock and Halo fashions for Avatars and tucked behind new pages that sell Adidas and Quiksilver Avatar clothes, are the first of Connell's brand-free lines: Steampunk and the Depression-inspired Recessionista.

Why Depression-Era Clothes Became Xbox 360 Fashions

Steampunk was a no-brainer, part of an attempt to offer some clothes to the folks Connell described as "thought leaders." It's a big trend, with people melding styles from the 1800s with a fanciful addition of future technology. "We felt the community was so active that paying homage to this trend was pretty much a natural," Connell said.

Recessionista was a bigger leap, one that had to clear more skepticism in Microsoft before getting full support. That line from Connell is based on working-class clothing from the United States' worst economic slump in its history. It is a relevant inspiration, of course, because of the world's current economic woes. It may also be one of the first acknowledgments in video games of the biggest real-world news story of the past two years in video games, arriving only now in August 2009.

"I was thinking about making a statement, if you will, that even though this time of global recession, everything isn't bad." Connell said. "And in the 30s, in a time that was really bad, much worse than it is today, it wasn't all bad. There was fashion that was quite interesting. And this fashion wasn't the couture that was happening at the time. It was — what I'm trying to do — is more of a work fashion. [I hope] to kind of show that there are good things and we've been there and we'll get out. Clearly these are subliminal messages, but this is what I was inspired by. If you design a collection I think the most important thing is there needs to be heart and soul and direction."

On the Xbox 360, fashions are divided for male avatars and female avatars. The system doesn't allow for cross-dressing of gendered items. Other restrictions of color palette and memory limitations curtail the wildest fashions Connell could conceive. He can't adjust for fit, eliminating the ability to distinguish between, say, baggy pants and tight jeans. But within these strictures that Connell still sees opportunity: "I'm trying to do is encourage people to take risks and play with expressions. And play with where their boundaries are with fashion. Because right now the real expression that we have in this ecosystem is visual."

Connell doesn't set prices. But he's hopeful that people will find worth in dressing in some of the clothes he has crafted. The fact that he helped stitch some of the first paid hats and shirts on the Xbox 360 motivated him, he said, to make things that were top-flight, an aesthetic goal, not a commercial one. "Nobody has been playing with the idea that this is world domination through avatar apparel and making huge money," he said. "If we don't charge and it's free, how can we re-invest? There's significant time and money and capital that's being spent to actually bring these to market "

More fashion lines from Connell are coming. And he's paying attention to the response. "We're hoping we're going to get feedback and that's going to help us course-correct, improve and push the envelope on what it means to give expression through avatars."

Who thinks about what their characters wear when they play or browse an Xbox 360 dashboard? Wear what you will. Connell hopes it will mean something.