History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 July 2011

Clasps and Buckles and Buttons, Oh My!

For those who haven't seen it yet, our very own Hoyden, Isobel Carr, was interviewed last week by the Wall Street Journal-- in order to mention unmentionables. (Yay, Isobel!)

In short, historical undergarments.

It may sound like a laughable topic, but it's no joke to historical novelists, in the attempt to recreate the minutiae of every day life. I remember laughing over the scene in Elizabeth Peter's The Love Talker in which two characters come up with a mock bibliography of historical undergarments, including Edward Hightower-Smythe's Clasps, Buttons, Buckles and Other Methods of Joining Together Garments During the Period Between 1415 and 1418 and that respected, learned journal, the Zeitschrift fur Studien der Untergarmenten. It was incredibly amusing-- until I found myself searching for the equivalent, and not in jest.

It's not just about accuracy for accuracy's sake. I had a drama teacher back in the day who used to have us wear long skirts to rehearsal long before we made it to costume point, because, she said, you move differently in a skirt. If you're on stage in sweatpants, you can't be an eighteenth century poetess or Lady Macbeth. You're not going to move the right way.

Similar principles apply to writing historical fiction, although it has more to do with imagination. (Honestly, I don't write in a corset. Trust me, you don't want to know what my writing outfit looks like.) What the hero and heroine are wearing will impact the way they move, what they can do, how they interact with the world around them. The lovely Karen White recently sent me a Gothic novel she wrote many years ago, set in 1860s Louisiana. What struck me was the description of the heroine's failed attempt to rescue her son from drowning. She jumped into the water, but her skirts were too heavy; they dragged her down. In that case, clothing isn't just a matter of scholarly interest; it's a plot point.

Clothing is a versatile tool. It can be used as a shorthand for character (how many heroes have we met who scorn brightly colored waistcoats?) and an indicator of national origin. My upcoming book, The Garden Intrigue, is set in France in 1804, where the dresses were much skimpier than their English counterparts and my Parisienne heroine scandalizes her American cousin by wearing open sandals with diamond rings on her toes.

You can see the contrast between French and English fashion even more clearly in a cartoon that the artist Joanne Renaud drew for me a couple of years ago, based on a scene from my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

You can guess who the English are.



Readers, do you notice clothing descriptions in novels? And writers, do you have any interesting costume stories to share?

9 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm one of those people who do notice clothing in historical novels. For me that's part of the reason why I read them. Even in contemporary novels, I want to know what the characters are wearing, it helps me visualize them.

I've never worn a corset to write, but I have worn them on stage and they do make you move and breath differently and they are not comfortable!

2:34 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

It's funny; I've started noticing costume more and more in contemporaries, especially books I read when I was younger. At the time, I hardly noticed the descriptions, since the clothes were all au courant. These days, I'm amused by the blast from the past in my old 80's and 90's books.

2:39 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I enjoy reading costume descriptions in books. I still remember how Mary Stewart summed up one girl with low morals by describing her bullet bra. I was not surprised when she met an untimely end. LOL

As a writer, I always try to understand my characters' clothing. I love the details, especially how the clothing works. And I'm very glad I don't have to wear homespun wool...

5:50 PM  
Blogger The Professor said...

I notice them particularly in medievals, because that's my area of expertise and I _know_ that people didn't change clothes all the time or bathe frequently (notice that Christine de Pizan is almost always illustrated wearing the same blue dress). And if you have looked at older houses, you know they didn't have deep closets, because they only had a few garments to hang on pegs; so sometimes, yes, it does bug me when a novelist gets it wrong. But there's a lovely passage one of Laurie King's Mary Russell novels where the character is musing about how WWI had simplified how many garments a woman was expected to bring to a house party--down to only a dozen or so for a weekend. It's a lovely observation.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love clothes--in life and in books :-). I've worn rehearsal skirts too--they totally make a difference, as do corsets. I have an evening skirt with a train that I've worn to a few events--not for research purposes, but it was educational. It takes an effort not to get tangled up, and there's the constant risk of tripping. Ditto dealing with gloves and food. I love it when clothes in a book can delineate character. It's particularly fun, as you did, to play with the differences in English and French dress or that of other countries. My Malcolm & Suzanne WIP, opens with them in disguise, which means Malcolm is wearing a very unherolike striped crimson waistcoat and a spotted handkerchief instead of a cravat and Suzanne has a red wig on (which I constantly had to remember when writing the scene).

9:25 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

One of the main times I really notice clothing often has nothing to do with actual descriptions (though when they’re howlingly wrong, that does catch my attention), but when the character does something that I know from personal experience can't be done in the kind of clothing they're wearing: like anything where you have to bend from the waist. I'm not sure a lot of writers *GET* this. It's nearly impossible to even buckle your shoes in a corset/stays. It’s going to be just as hard to do anything where you need free use of your arms/shoulders (like climb a tree). I also get stuck when people describe problems that didn’t exist (like not being able to get through a doorway in pannier/hoops (clearly the writer doesn’t know that they’re collapsible and all you do is lift and tuck them under your arms, then drop them when you’re on the other side).

8:32 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think the idea that women couldn't get through doors with a hoopskirt or panniers comes from movies, and writers pick it up from there and then use it. Although Scarlett O'Hara certainly never had that problem.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I once heard an author answer a fan’s question about how she’s researched managing Georgian hoops with "I just imagined what it would be like". It was all I could do not to growl at her. I know for a fact she thinks they're rigid since her book has a “comical” doorway scene. And now that reader does too and will likely think I’m the one that’s wrong.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

She'd. Why is there no edit button?

9:42 AM  

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