When asked to do a blog on the importance of historical dress in writing, I grabbed my sister – fellow author and seamstress – to seam together a few tips that other authors should consider during the writing process.
I know it's an author's Kryptonite. “Just let us write!” you scream. But the saying is true: If you don’t do the research, your reader will. Are we telling you to take our word as Scriptural Truth? No. There will always be another historian who has done more research. Whether you write historical or non-historical fiction, your research is vital for a well written novel. No matter the genre, as the author you are responsible for selecting and sticking to the parameters you set. For those of you writing historical fiction, keep in mind that an inspired novel is very different from a historically based one; just like a historical costume is very different from garb.
As a seamstress I come across many patterns that are promoted as historical. Now if I choose to make a historical outfit using fabric and trim that I fancy instead of similar fabric that was around during that time period, I've just made a costume merely inspired by history. However, if I took that same pattern, researched the fabric and methods used during that time period then constructed it using similar means, I would have then made garb (or historically accurate clothing meant to mirror the past).
It's a similar concept within writing. As an author, you get to choose how far you dive into historical research and how much of it you wish to incorporate. Some genres use historical elements as inspiration for alternate styles in a new universe. An example of this is Steampunk – a sub genre of Science Fiction that typically incorporates components of the styles and mechanical concepts of the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods. Gail Carriger who wrote the Parasol Protectorate series is a well known Steampunk author. In contrast, Mischelle Creager who wrote the MacPherson Brides series does a fantastic job of depicting historically accurate clothing.
Often times, character clothing tends to be one of those details authors will fine-tune in the latter stages of the writing process – like a garnish on a steak dinner. More often than not, fashion details are neglected in favor of emotional ones. When an author describes the heroine meeting the love of her life or the hero falling from an 8 story building, it seems common sense that what the character is thinking or feeling at that moment should take precedence over what they're wearing. However, clothing is just as important as a character's internal monologue. An author is responsible for every aspect of their living textual world and clothing is no exception. Time period, region, economic status, propriety, and mobility affect the world they live in and are just as important as what a character says or does. Our first and most important suggestion is know your time period.
Fashion remains in a constant state of flux and quite often borrows elements from other countries, cultures and time periods to make different silhouettes and styles. For historical fiction writers, it can be a tedious and often tiring process to pinpoint the typical silhouette of a specific place and time. But it's all for the sake of accuracy and consistency. A historical author would not dress their heroine in the short lived 1910’s Hobble skirt while placing her in the mercantile of 1870’s Dodge City, Kansas; nor dress their hero in a cravat while he traverses 1940's London. These type of inaccuracies would be a red flag to even the least historically inclined readers. But there is good news. Historical authors typically have some wiggle room when dressing a fictional character – in our opinion, 1-5 years give or take. For example, if your novel is set in 1923 Chicago, you don't want to dress your character in clothing from 1932 or 1914. The silhouette has already changed too drastically even in just 8 years that your character wouldn't match the period you chose.
In addition to knowing your time period, Nearly as important is regional placement. It could be the same year in history, but styles all over the world and even in neighboring regions would differ because of varied climates, available materials, and cultural influences. For example, the Latin-American culture distinctly influenced South-Western fashions more so than fashion in the Mid-West. It is also seen in the fashion trends of Europe. Every passing year brought about a new “ideal image of beauty” and a different body part to extenuate. The latest silhouette would spread in popularity across neighboring Western countries with only minor changes despite regional differences. Individuals would use the most common fabrics and materials of the area to achieve the ideal look. Those with greater income were able to order the more luxurious styles and fabrics rare to their location. It is also important to examine the climate and seasons of your region. Consider how weather will affect the clothing choices for your character (This one is mostly common sense). You would not expect to see a character in a desert climate wearing a heavy parka.
As vaguely eluded to earlier, it is also important to consider your character's income and social status. Ask, “How much money does my character have and how do they come by it?” A character's income will affect where they live, with whom they typically socialize, their personal perception of money, what kind of supplies are acquirable, and of course, what style of clothing they wear on a daily basis. An author wouldn't typically dress their penniless country hero in a gentleman’s hat and waistcoat unless someone else's money had paid for it, i.e. “Great Expectations”. It should come as no surprise that a character's income also affects their social status. Flaunting your rank and income was just as much of a fashion statement as the styles themselves. Individuals typically did this by incorporating more fabric in to the outfit, using more high price materials, and/or utilizing various accessories to extenuate the popular body part of the time. It's also worthy to note that there were certain cases of servants being provided with more expensive clothing as a reflection on the family they served.
Moreover, it would be wise to examine propriety and period legality. Ask yourself, “Will this outfit potentially get my character beaten up, killed or thrown in jail?” Even today some local, regional, state, and cultural laws prohibit people from being able to “dress outside their status” with threat of consequence. In Medieval times, minor nobility would be subject to stiff recrimination for having the same fashion as higher nobility. King Henry VIII prohibited anyone from wearing the color red while in court, and his Daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, prevented anyone from wearing any type of white makeup while in her company. If you stumble on research like the instances listed above, take note. Sometimes proclamations from history can provide the author with a conflict scene based entirely off the character’s wardrobe.
Also, an author needs to consider clothing mobility. Ask, “How will this – insert clothing item – aid or restrict my character at this moment?” An author wouldn't typically send the heroine to the lake to catch bull frogs while wearing a corset and evening gown. An author needs to research clothing styles as it pertains to functionality and mobility. For example, how would wearing an 1860's crinoline affect your character as they climb out a window to safety? Always consider how the character's clothing may prevent them from completing a task efficiently or perhaps enable them to overcome an obstacle. For instance, your hero doctor may resort to using his sock garter as a tourniquet.
Lastly, don’t overwhelm your story with research details. Even if they are not in the story itself, it is important to have them in mind while you write. Your research will seep in to your story with little effort. This level of attention will help in the overall consistency of your novel. You want to prove to your readers that you did your due diligence with your research and provide a seamless story that won't unravel at the end.
Alanna Radle Rodriguez and Courtney Sale have a combined total of 52 years of experience in the seamstress arena. Both starting at a young age, they learned the enjoyment of sewing from their grandmothers.
Courtney's interest in historical costume came from watching Rodgers & Hammerstein films as a child. She fanned that flame by joining the seamstress team at the University of Central Oklahoma Costume Shop. Likewise, Alanna’s interest began when she joined a Medieval and Old West reenactment group.
Their paths collided in Fall 2015 and they immediately bonded as chosen sisters. They have recently started a God-centered business named The Crooked Needle to produce quality costumes, historical garb and accessories. They desire to expand and provide services to historical authors who long for accurately dressed book covers.
You can connect with them at: The Crooked Needle Facebook.com/kinkneedle; Facebook.com/AlannaRadleRodriguez; Facebook.com/CourtneyDSale; www.hhhistory.com