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Realism through Identity: Clothing in The Last of Us

If you have played The Last of Us on Playstation 3 it has likely ruined video gaming for you. The world created is so vivid and believable that every game afterward just feels dated and empty.

Throughout, The Last of Us is unwaveringly real, full of seemingly inconsequential details such as every weapon or object you carry being attached or able to fit into your character’s backpack. Contrast this with Grand Theft Auto V where a rocket launcher appears out of your trouser pocket and it’s clear that if game developers really want to create a living, breathing parallel to reality they need to treat it as reality – no short cuts.

The Last of Us_Troy Baker suit_Joel

Actor Troy Baker who motion-capped and provided the voice for The Last of Us’ main protagonist Joel.

We would not recommend reading this article until you have played the game from beginning to end, so there is perhaps little need to reiterate its plot. But just for the record: The Last of Us is primarily set 20 years after a viral outbreak based on the Cordyceps fungus has turned humanity into a sparsely populated wasteland made up of quarantine areas under martial law and uncharted territory where the zombie-like infected roam. The story’s main protagonist is bereaved father Joel (voiced and mo-capped by Troy Baker). In his late forties for the bulk of the story, Joel is tired and emotionally detached yet resourceful and not beyond atonement for his recent crimes as a violent smuggler. When tasked with escorting an apparently immune 14 year old girl, Ellie (Ashley Johnson), to a safe zone, his life is unexpectedly given purpose.

Clothing is vital in making The Last of Us come alive. This may seem like a paradox, physical clothing being rendered as graphics to make something seem more ‘alive’, and indeed it is. Yet one that makes sense due to the way we enjoy modern video games. Those games intended as realistic in a theoretical sense – reflecting our world as one based on matter and physics – are fashioned in reverse. Real life must be created in a studio and ‘faked’ via actors and motion-capture technology. It is only when life exists on screen does it seem realistic. Clothing, in this context costume, helps tell the story of The Last of Us. We can comprehend the existence these people endure/have endured. Furthermore gender issues are addressed; specifically the question of whether or not such an idea even exists within the post-apocalyptic breakdown of society, and to what end.

The Last of Us_Ashley Johnson mid_Ellie

Ashley Johnson motion-capped and provided the voice for Ellie.

The reading of clothing as identity in The Last of Us can be charted via the story’s two main leads as they advance through the game timeline:



As the second character introduced in The Last of Us, following a glimpse of his young teenage daughter Sarah (Hannah Hayes), Joel is instantly prescribed an everyman look we can relate to. He arrives home late from work in a grey t-shirt and jeans; likely workwear as the proceeding dialogue implies his job is ‘on site’. He is a committed single father who attempts to spend time with his well adjusted daughter, also a practical man – someone who works with his hands. The dark colours on Joel make him deliberately difficult to read. They do not attribute an iconography which would (under the circumstances inexplicably) need to be maintained 20 years on. Similarly Joel’s typical game costume, a check shirt, might hint at a capable regular guy now, but this is more important to imply later as we need to bond with him in an unfamiliar setting. And it is not as though Joel would seek out an identical look after the world as he knows it has ended; why would he care? Realism is paramount. We need to recognise Joel in a heartbeat without him being painted as a one-dimensional hero.

After Sarah awakes in bed, we take control of her character and explore the deserted house searching for Joel while an unidentified commotion occurs outside. Sarah wears pink check pajama bottoms with a light grey fictional ‘Halican Drops’12’ band t-shirt and dark grey long sleeve undershirt. Venturing into Joel’s bedroom we can see it is strewn with plain t-shirts and jeans. The implication here, if we have not already picked up on the fact, is that Joel is single, or at least lives alone with Sarah.

The Last of Us_Joel, Sarah pj_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment-002

Younger Joel and his daughter Sarah together in the prologue.

Suddenly Joel bursts into the house covered in blood. He battles with a Cordyceps infected neighbour before attempting to leave with Sarah. Joel’s brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce) arrives dressed in a pink-orange casual shirt and jeans. The brothers are close, early dialogue it is implied they actually work together. We have a first hint of Joel’s moral compass as Tommy comments, “You’ve got blood on you”. “It ain’t mine” replies Joel unsympathetically. Again, we can infer here that Joel is physically capable, but is he already acting out of character? He would do anything to protect Sarah, though there is insinuation here of the beast within waiting to be unleashed. Soon afterward Joel, Sarah and Tommy flee in his car. Joel ignores a desperate family at the side of the road, possibly because he is afraid for Sarah’s safety, possibly because he has an ingrained knack for self-preservation. Sarah calls him on his decision, however, “We should have helped them”. She is Joel’s moral centre and without her he soon becomes lost.

When Sarah is subsequently shot and killed by the military as she and Joel try to escape the city, another important line of dialogue is muttered – “Please don’t”. Joel begs for a soldier to spare his and Sarah’s life with exactly the same words as Marlene, leader of the revolutionary ‘Fireflies’ group, will do at the end of the story. Although Joel could not protect his actual daughter, he can protect his surrogate daughter Ellie. Marlene’s pleading eventually falls on deaf ears, just as Joel’s did.

The Last of Us_Joel shirt crop_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

The first costume we see Joel wearing post prologue.

20 Years Later – Summer:

This is aftermath of the outbreak. Garments are shabby and soiled, worn far beyond their natural life. People literally exist with the clothes on their back. Joel is seen first, now in his signature look of fitted western style check shirt with patch pockets, shoulder yoke and popper buttons. It is a typical Wrangler or Levi shirt in all but name. These garments originated as a form of workwear worn by cowboys and ranch hands before the turn of the last century and were only later adopted as fashion. This is a new world very much akin to the lawless Old West. Tellingly, there is a costume similarity between Joel and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in zombie themed television series The Walking Dead (2010-, costume designer Eulyn Hufkie-Womble); they even sport similar beards.

Joel’s primary colour is green with brown check, though stains on his shirt’s fabric provide a muddy camouflage. It is worn untucked with dirty blue jeans and Timberland-esque work boots, not trainers because they would suggest youth; the one thing we must instantly clock about Joel is that he’s old. Shirt sleeves are rolled up to the elbows revealing his commanding form. His backpack is leather and canvas, i.e. the most masculine of all backpacks, not childish nylon as we later see with Ellie. Joel’s pack is about purpose, yet for our eyes an aesthetically pleasing purpose. We could argue that a nylon backpack is actually more practical for Joel; it would be water resistant and lighter, but even in a post apocalyptic setting we still expect our heroes to wear some version of what we covet now.

The Walking Dead_Chandler Riggs, Andrew Lincoln_Joel_Image credit Fox

Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, who in later seasons shares a comparable costume identity with Joel.

Note that whenever Joel is injured he wraps a bandage around his arm. Nothing happens without consequences in The Last of Us; abridged consequences, of course, but impactful enough to register. The moment that Joel comes into contact with spores secreted from the fungus and dead infected, he wears a gas mark stored within his backpack. The gas mask is a functional detail while also serving to create tension within the game. We know something bad is going to happen when the mask goes on.

Fall and winter:

The fall season sees Joel in a red check shirt with black long sleeve t-shirt underneath. Obviously there is a need to show the changing climate (also reflected in the surrounding environment), yet fall is that tricky bridge between summer and winter. True outerwear now would leave Joel with nowhere to go, but a plain t-shirt adds an extra layer of warmth without distracting from his established iconography. As such a coat later on can help imply the passage of time.

The Last of Us_Ellie windcheater, Joel shirt_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Joel’s slightly more insulated fall ensemble.

Beyond scenes at a deserted ranch, Joel has changed into a flannel blue check shirt and brown medium weight coat with leather collar, so we understand the story to have moved on weeks as opposed to days, from fall into winter. The style of Joel’s coat is serviceable, with only a leather collar adding interest and the faint suggestion of rebellious masculinity.

Further to the detail of Joel applying a bandage when injured, at a pivotal moment in the story when badly wounded, blood actually transfers from his clothes to Ellie’s as she helps him. This is not a cinematic cut-scene but a playable moment within the game. We can actually see Joel is seriously hurt and feel his anguish. Furthermore this provides an extra layer of depth to the “It’s not mine” line Joel utters during the prologue. Joel is on a journey to feel again. On this occasion the blood does belong to him and he is in no position to do anything about it.

The Last of Us_Ellie, Joel fabric_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment-001

Ellie and Joel together in the fall section. This is Joel’s second western style check shirt.


The fall/winter portion of The Last of Us is eventful, much happens to advance the plot. When spring arrives Joel not only cares deeply for Ellie, he loves her like a daughter. His arc is almost complete, apart from one final, devastating test.

The weather is now brighter, though presumably not particularly warm. Joel wears an untucked grey shirt with copper buttons and jeans. Like all of Joel’s shirts the cut is fitted to indicate form. He is something of a wandering cowboy (even riding a horse at one point), or more accurately an outlaw. Again this model recalls protagonist Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead.

Apart from the prologue and then during winter (when change was necessitated by the cold climate), this outfit is Joel’s only differentiation from his ‘everyman’ check shirt. This comes at a careful juncture in the story, just before his iconography becomes too self-aware. As the narrative draws to a close we need to engage fully with the intensity of Joel’s choice: tell Ellie the truth that her death could have saved humanity, or lie and say the Fireflies’ tests were a failure? Now more than ever Joel must be a believable, and above all empathetic, character.

The Last of Us_Ellie ending top_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Ellie in the story’s final scene, unsure as to Joel’s honesty.

Your watch is broken

Joel’s wristwatch comes to be the most significant material object in the whole game; it is symbolic of a father’s love for his daughter, first Sarah and then Ellie. Sarah gives Joel the new watch as a birthday present in the prologue. He jokes with her that it’s broken, which it isn’t but the exchange between them affords his character a rare opportunity to reveal a sense of humour. There is a cruel irony that twenty years later the watch has actually stopped functioning and Ellie notices. Ellie is like Sarah, she is perceptive in a way that only those unclouded by years of habitual repression can be. While the watch is blatantly symbolic of Joel’s love for Sarah, it is also representative of her awful death and his inability to let go.

The style of the watch is metallic and chunky with a large face, exactly the sort of thing a young daughter would choose for her strong father. It implies unabashed manliness yet also fulfils a practical purpose of being easy to register on screen. We understand the watch means something because it is impossible to miss. Joel’s watch signifies his guilt at not being able to protect Sarah and the physical manifestation of why he wants to save Ellie. It is as though Sarah is guiding him along a path to redemption.

The Last of Us_Joel rain, Ellie tee_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Ellie in a faded sunset and palm trees t-shirt, her most commonly seen garment in the game.



Evidently Ellie is not seen during the prologue as she was not even born. It takes several scenes for her to arrive in the story, which is a rather insincere introduction as an archetypal petulant and sweary teen. Thankfully this is all a well rehearsed act for strangers. Ellie is certainly tough, but not petulant; she is almost steadfastly optimistic.

Ellie is instantly identifiable as a creative and self-consciously offhand 14 year old, soaking up the world around her like a sponge. She wears a black long sleeved t-shirt beneath a red faded palm trees and sunset print short sleeve t-shirt; grubby low slung skinny jeans and black Converse trainers, properly laced. The sunset print is subtly indicative of Ellie’s future on the horizon, while the long sleeve tee has a direct narrative importance – it covers up the bite on her arm.

The Last of Us_Ellie pack rear_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Various badges and keyrings adorn Ellie’s backpack.

Ellie’s backpack is blue and green nylon covered in badges and knick-knacks. Joel’s pack is rugged and dependable; Ellie’s is bright and inventive, mirroring their personalities. Ellie may have grown up in a world of little or no media stimulation, but do remember she was bitten at a mall…

The appetite and pursuit of materialistic goods is in Ellie’s genes. Moreover her backstory confirms a wider gender stereotype: teenage girls go to the mall, even in a post-apocalyptic wilderness. We could claim this label makes Ellie frivolous somehow, yet the very notion of consumerism is rooted within those weaned on a diet of Americana. An ophan, Ellie’s look is appropriated via discarded books, posters and magazines from our age (note her excitement at seeing vinyl record sleeves in the music store). She is punky and eclectic, confused by the past and uncertain of the future.

The Last of Us_Ellie bow winter top_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment-002

Ellie in winter with peppered tears in her coat and sweater fabric.


When heading toward the Wyoming dam, Ellie is dressed in a purple, white and black striped windcheater. Characteristic of developer Naughty Dog’s attention to detail are the drawstring toggles that sway softly in the breeze. The particulars of Ellie’s backpack are easier to identify in this portion of the game, chiefly a USA badge and eagle wings, a purple cyclops toy keyring and a nuclear disarmament badge – clear-cut examples of allegiance, childishness and gentle activism.

There is a wonderfully revealing scene that occurs as Ellie, Joel and his brother Tommy are searching through the abandoned ranch. Ellie remarks, “Is this really all we had to worry about, deciding which shirt goes with which skirt?” Now she sees firsthand the frivolousness of life before the outbreak. Ellie has probably never even worn a skirt, why would she? In context, clothes are no longer indicative of the person, not in the traditional sense of gender identity, because people are no longer read this way.

The Last of Us_Ellie winter mid_Image credit Sony

Ellie’s winter coat. Not exactly cosy, and with no tricky-to-render fur, but layering would keep her warm.


Initially we control Ellie’s actions during this season, taking on her monumental shift in responsibilities from guarded to guardian. Stalking a deer in the woods, Ellie wears an olive green coat as her main outerwear layer. The colour is a nod to the army, which neatly fits the actions of new ‘guardian Ellie’ the hunter gatherer, also a sly nod to her background in a military academy. Lest we forget she is trained to survive. Look carefully at Ellie later in this section of the game and you can make out snow residue on her clothes as she rolls around fighting in it.

The Last of Us cares about meaning and realism with clothes more than some movies. There is no star wattage with mo-cap either. Joel, Ellie and everyone else wear only what is right for their character, not whatever brand such-and-such with his/her name above the title is hoping to get freebies from. Narcissism is non-existent; as we are sure anyone who has seen a mo-cap suit close up will testify. All that matters is making the end result as good as it can possibly be.

The Last of Us_Ellie Joel walk_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Ellie and Joel exploring the environment in an early portion of the game.

Ellie is a refreshing female protagonist because she is not augmented or sexualised in any way (as one would hope considering her age). She looks like a scruffier version of any slightly militant teenager now, and yet is believable in a game environment that we can only interpret based on story premise and setting. We assume fashion would stand still, maybe even cease to exist as a concept because it is based on creative expression rather than necessity. Nonetheless, Ellie’s sneering observation that all people had to worry about before the outbreak was coordinating clothes probably conceals her own regret that she cannot do the same.


Milder temperatures bring about Ellie’s more comfortable and laid-back ensemble of light green combat trousers and grey long sleeved t-shirt. Ellie brings a degree of hope after the darkest part of the game so far. Everything is fresh and brighter; such is the way with spring. The old is dead and the new is just beginning.

The Last of Us_Ellie, Joel final scene cap_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Ellie’s final outfit, a zip front check hooded jacket with grey lining.

During the closing act of The Last of Us, Ellie receives two further outfit changes – a surgical gown worn when she is prepped for surgery by the Fireflies, and then finally a red and black check hooded jacket with jeans as she and Joel journey to the promise of a new day. Now their roles are switched, permanently; Ellie has become the primary protagonist.

Joel is unusually positive at this point while Ellie is perhaps permanently broken. She feels guilty at not being able to save others with her immunity to the virus, but more importantly she struggles with a sense that the one person she trusts above all others may have lied to her. Whether Ellie chooses to accept this lie or not is the story’s open ending presented to us.

The Last of Us_Bell concept_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Bill, who despite having a fortified base all to himself, seems to carry a complete survival kit at all times.


Clothing worn by certain supporting characters in The Last of Us provides worthwhile insight into their personality. Bill (W. Earl Brown), a hot-tempered outbreak survivor who owes Joel a favour, wears cargo pants, medium weight coat, Shemagh scarf, backpack and utility vest. He carries everything he needs on his person – a one man urban survival machine. Bill cares only for function, which he confirms upon discovering his former partner hanging dead on a noose, “He’s the only idiot I know that would wear a shirt like that”. Loud shirts belong on someone with their head in the clouds. You want to stay alive; you forget vanity.

The Last of Us_Joel, Tess shirt mid_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Tess wearing her short sleeve western shirt and swirly print headscarf.

Incidentally the way Bill continually refers to his ‘partner’ echoes that of a lover. The homosexual pornographic magazine Ellie finds among his stockpile would seem to back up, or at least heavily imply this theory. Yet sexual identity is no more consequential than gender identity in a world gone to hell. Ultimately it means nothing.

Tess (Annie Wersching) is hinted at being Joel’s former girlfriend subsequent to the outbreak, and at the start of the story they still run together as smugglers. She is first seen in a sleeveless pink denim shirt with popper buttons (denim is something this game recreates very well, identifiable by its diagonal twill), dirty white t-shirt and jeans. Superficially Tess is like a female version of Joel in her cowboy influenced western wear. They are certainly aligned together as a team. Later Tess adds a 1960s inspired swirly pattern scarf to her hair. So would this be classed as fashion? Perhaps Tess picked out the scarf because on a subconscious level she wanted to look pretty? Or perhaps it was the nearest one she could find while scavenging? Either way it was a deliberate choice by the developer, because nothing in The Last of Us is there by chance.

The Last of Us_Marlene vests cap portait_Image credit Sony-003

Fireflies leader Marlene in layered vests.

Little seen but impactful in the narrative, Marlene (Merle Dandridge) is head of the Fireflies militia group who initially care for Ellie and then want to slice her open for the good of humanity. Marlene does not dress like a leader; she has no uniform to speak of. Initially she wears a purple hooded top, green t-shirt, grey reefer coat and khaki jeans, and then later layered strappy vests. This layering style, while not seen especially often in real life, is becoming costume shorthand for projecting a ‘tough girl’ image. There is a correlation between later Marlene and Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012, costume designer Trish Summerville). Layering provides a symbolic protective layer while retaining form. It is a contradiction for a woman that the more flesh she covers the more vulnerable she appears. Yet revealing form – especially for those with a lean silhouette – confronts the perceived inadequacy of female physical strength by refusing to hide it. Notice however that, like Tess, Marlene keeps her hair long. Maybe she too refuses to let go entirely of previously prescribed masculine/feminine identity because on a rudimentary level she wants to be attractive? Presumably love, or more fundamentally sex, still exists within the contaminated world? It may be the end of civilisation as we know it but people still want to attract partners.

Copious extras – troops, refugees and the infected – are likewise realistically portrayed. The refuges are a mobile mass of hoodies, t-shirts, and bright yellow boiler suits worn by clean-up crews. For the infected, care has been taken to show just how long it’s been since he or she ‘turned’. Their clothes are at varying degrees of deterioration, sometimes barely attached at all. In the case of swelled up ‘bloaters’, garments have been split from the body entirely by fungal deformation. Members of the civil forces and army seem to be based on own riot police, with enhanced levels of protection depending upon where they appear in the narrative. In other words the further into the game you play, the tougher they are to kill because of their increased body armour. Soldiers in the militia group dress in a comparable way (it is likely their uniform would be adapted from military supplies), but also bear a Fireflies armband motif. “Look at his sleeve” notes Tess when they find an infected body, “Firefly”. Symbolism is of immense importance to the Fireflies. They are soldiers, and soldiers must have an identity to be recognised and/or feared.

The Last of Us_Infected, Joel_Image credit Sony Computer Entertainment

Joel fighting a group of infected. Before they become ‘clickers’ or ‘bloaters’ their clothing looks similar to the survivors.

There is no credited costume designer for The Last of Us, though Tony Alverez is listed as ‘costumer’, who presumably worked under supervision of directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley. Whoever is ultimately responsible, whether it be individual or dedicated team, they have made an industry defining job of creating believable characters that exist within a believable world. The Last of Us represents a significant and hopefully irrevocable shift in creating meaning through costume for video games.

The Last of Us is available exclusively on Playstation 3.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • Frida

    Super well written I totally agree with everything said, and thank you for such an awesome read. I love this game so much and this article 🙂

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