When I picture characters in a "medieval" fantasy setting like Lord of the Rings or D&D, I tend to think of them looking kind of badass - lots of hooded cloaks, leather armour, and improbable swords. This sort of thing...

Aragorn, looking rad

Pathfinder characters, totally badass

But actually Medieval clothing looks... kind of silly.

Actual, kind of silly Medieval clothing

So, given that it's not a reflection of Medieval or, as far as I could figure, any historical clothing, where does the image of fantasy clothing come from?

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    Those are very different situations. The first photo is more likely to have been how everyman clothing looked like in the real world! The bottom picture is of higher class people, who probably never stepped a foot outside. – Mr Lister Dec 27 '15 at 8:44
  • @MrLister... but even peasants had silly hats. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a1/… – synesthesia Dec 27 '15 at 8:56
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    I have also just noticed that the guy in the jester hat looks just like Ted Cruz. – synesthesia Dec 27 '15 at 20:40

Silliness lies in the eye of the beholder.

In the early silent pictures, you can see a Harold Lloyd character being made fun of for wearing out of date clothes from a few decades back. In the 1960's, young whippersnappers had a whole different style and thought all the previous styles of non-groovy people were square. In the 1970's, mainstream clothes started looking radically different, and by the 1980's, people started thinking the 1970's clothes were ridiculous, and did SO much better with their cool sweatbands, shoulderpads, etc. Those clothes in turn were considered unwearable in the 1990's, and then clothes as seen in the 60's and 70's became retro-cool, etc etc etc.

1970s clothing to compete with your medieval clothing picture...

Your medieval clothing examples suffer a bit for the faces and the unfamiliar jester-like head-stocking and perhaps the choices of colors for the art. Meanwhile, while I personally think the Aragorn picture looks pretty cool (also not particularly ahistorical), I'm not much of a fan of your second example of super-hero-like costumes (they look like impractical modern fantasy costumes to me).

There was quite a range of actual medieval clothing, and I find some of it pretty attractive and would even wear it if it were socially acceptable. It's mainly a matter of what people were used to and knew how to make.

some not-unappealing medieval clothing and armor

I would have a hard time liking giant codpieces, or some of the more elaborate and uncomfortable-looking clothes, but that's just my own modern and personal tastes, and I don't much care for uncomfortable fancy modern clothes, either. I think high heels are ridiculous things for women to wear and suffer with. But that's fairly irrelevant, and all fashion opinion is subjective rather than fact, except perhaps for observations about practicality of construction and wear for certain occasions.

Medieval clothing for being bad-ass, that is, fighting attire, was mostly very practical, with the possible exceptions of codpiece armor (much of which was thrown away by collectors e.g. during the prudish Elizabethan era), and some of the amazing helmet ornaments used for tournaments.

I'd say a lot of actual medieval fighting clothing both looks as was pretty "bad-ass" (though language style has also changed - see Shakespeare or Homer for how much much cooler their language skills were, including swearing and put-downs).

candidates for historical "bad-ass" attire

I'd say another factor in the perception that actual medieval clothing was not bad-ass, also comes from how they had to make it by hand without any modern industrial techniques, and also how when we try to make their clothes, we lack the craft skills they had for making those types of clothes, and we don't spend the same amount of time and attention making them that they would have.

Furthermore, our art for bad-ass fantasy characters like freakin' Aragorn or super-heroes or D&D art, have ridiculously high standards and match modern ideals for personal beauty and excellence, while actual typical people don't look like that (and even many of our super-models don't look like we usually see them, when not helped by Photoshop, editing, teams of professional make-up artists, super-expensive brand new new clothes, etc).

So for a fairer superstar attractiveness comparison, compare Vigo Mortenson as Aragorn to something like this Scottish statue of William Wallace, maybe:

enter image description here

Certainly our real modern people mostly are not so impressive looking.

So "the accepted image of fantasy clothing" perhaps "come[s] from" a combination of cherry-picking historical examples that happen to match our current aesthetics, combined with cherry-picked beautiful people and art and compatible modern elements, to produce images that modern eyes tend to recognize as attractive, one way or another.

I see in comments you are wondering about the modern origin, which I would say you can see developing on sword & sorcery style pulp fiction book covers from the early 20th Century, particularly on Conan (when he wears clothes...) evolving in style:

early Conan later Conan

And of course there were bikinis for women, leading to chainmail bikini phenomenon seen on Red Sonja.

However I think those styles borrowed both from actual historical sources as well as earlier European romantic medieval fantasy art - what comes to mind in particular is from about 1900, and is for its own sake not for pulp fiction covers. I'd say it in turn was inspired by 19th Century romanticism, as seen in Wagnerian opera.

I'd say this 1910 Wagnerian Brunhilde by English illustrator Arthur Rackham would fit in quite well in most modern medieval/fantasy fashion line-ups I'd say this 1910 Wagnerian Brunhilde by English illustrator Arthur Rackham would fit in quite well in most modern medieval/fantasy fashion line-ups

And earlier - Europeans have been re-appreciating their medieval and ancient costumes and armor on and off since the Renaissance, re-imagining and combining clothing and armor styles for centuries. I assume these more artistic and historical sources provided inspiration for some of what made its way onto the modern pulp fiction covers, then later covers, then game books, films, etc.

There was also clearly input from all the ancient fantasy fiction and films.

And in the later 20th century, American fantasy armor seemed to get mixed up with American Football armor (huge shoulderpads).

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  • This doesn't really answer the question, though - regardless of whether you like any of the pictures, where does the non-medieval-non-modern-vaguely-superheroic-fantasy-clothing trope come from? – synesthesia Dec 27 '15 at 10:37
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    @synesthesia Ok, I guess I emphasized the objective taste point. See bolded sentence I added at the end. It's a combination of actual medieval stuff with modern things and superhero comic things, etc. The origins can also be seen on pulp fiction books in the fantasy genre from earlier in the 20th Century. I guess I should add a bit about that too... – Dronz Dec 27 '15 at 10:43
  • I think it's interesting that outside of laws regarding nudity, you can wear almost anything today without getting a reaction. – Joe L. Dec 27 '15 at 13:45
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    @JoeL.: as someone who has shown up at the local convenience store dressed in everything from early 12th century dress+veil to 18th century short gown+panniers, I can attest that, indeed, most people do their very best not to react. My brother-in-law tends to ignore the social cues and will tell all and sundry exactly why we're dressed as we are, but we don't actually get any questions unless my niece is with us - a cute child in strange clothes is apparently an exception to the "must not ask" rules. – Martha Dec 27 '15 at 17:38

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