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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Putting it all on and taking it all off

Our guest blogger isn't able to make it today, so I'm stepping into her revered and knowledgeable shoes to share with you what I know of costume research.

arrasene ... balzarine ... bombazine ... cassimere ... dupion ... éolienne ... farandine ... linsey ... marquisette ... paduasoy ... sarsenet ... taffeta ... zibeline

Even the names are beautiful. They're the names of different sorts of fabric; what differentiates them is the way the raw materials--wool, cotton, linen, silk--are spun and woven. You can see a whole list of historical fabric names with short definitions here.

So how do you make sure your hero or heroine is dressed correctly and how do you know what these fabrics feel like, or sound like? Will her gown float gently to the floor whenit is removed, or will it slide with voluptuous grace? Will the fabric puddle in folds or settle into peaks like whipped egg whites? And what are the common errors that writers have innocently, or lazily, copied from each other?

I'm going to give you a few of my favorite resources online. One is to look at portraits--fortunately for us, the subjects of historical portraits liked to appear in their best clothing. For the Regency period, I like portraits by Ingres (like this one). There's a wonderful collection of portraits by Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun, whose subjects ranged from Marie Antoinette to Byron at For an overall source of paintings of all kinds and periods, visit Carol Gerten's site.

Here are some great costume sites--for a jumping-off place for all sorts of fashions and periods, try the Costumer's Manifesto and for the Regency, Cathy Decker's Regency Fashion Page. Visit museum sites such as the V&A Museum or the Kyoto Costume Institute.

And one of the best things you can do is search out a historical reenactor, or someone who sews historically correct clothes for a local museum and pick their brain. Ask to touch fabrics and see--or even take home--samples. Imagine how the fabric would look by candlelight or moonlight or lamplight.

Now, as for the common errors:

Getting naked. People didn't. Well, eventually they might, but if your characters are having a passionate, unplanned encounter, who is going to get her back into her stays????? I blogged about historical definitions of nakedness and states of undress at the Spiced Tea Party a couple of months ago.

Slowly he unfastened the tiny buttons down the back of her gown ... No he didn't. Until about 1820, when buttons took over, gowns had an open placket at the back that closed with two drawstring ties, one a few inches above the waistline and one at the neckline. All he'd have to do is untie them and her gown would fall off. When the placket acquired buttons, it would only be a few.

Drawers. Even if she had them, they'd be crotchless until about the first decade of the twentieth century, when they buttoned up. Essentially they were to decorate/cover the legs. Earlier, in Elizabethan times, they were worn only by prostitutes. They would not act as any sort of barrier.

Red silk nightgowns etc. Sorry, no sexy lingerie until much later than the Regency, because for a long time underwear and nightwear functioned purely to protect outer clothes and bedclothes.

Lord Wotsit gazed at her sexy bottom and legs that went on forever... well, I guess they might, but think about the cut and drape of historical gown, particularly Regency ones where the waist wasn't at its natural level and bottoms were obscured by folds of fabric. Lord Wotsit might well get all steamed up about her bare shoulders --think how the cut of Regency gowns drew attention to the shoulders and nape of the neck. And her ankles, of course.

She never wore stays ... oh yes she would (unless she was Lady Caroline Lamb). Because otherwise nothing would fit. Someone would have to get her in or out of them (see above) unless she wore side or frontlacing stays, which were fairly rare, or at least few have survived. And she would not be able to reach above her head or put a car into first gear.

Questions, comments?

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At 10:55 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Thanks for suggesting all those sites and giving examples of common mistakes. As a person who sews and chairs the costume committee for a non-profit ballet company, I'd love to tack another suggestion on to Janet's. Another good source for costuming research is your local sewing supply store--such as Jo-Ann's. They have authentic historical patterns down to the undergarments, men's, women's, and children's, so you can see how period pieces were sewn, whether the clothes had pockets, etc. The historical patterns will also suggest which modern fabrics to use for the gowns, etc. So you can then find the modern equivalent and touch it for yourself and see how it would drape, how heavy it is, how easy to wrinkle, etc.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Oh, I meant to add that I used an historical Regency pattern for a Halloween costume for my daughter one year--yes, I have spoiled her! I can attest to the lacing in the back behaving exactly as Janet mentions.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

I'd like to point out that even in contemporaries, it's necessary to get it right. If you're writing a younger character than yourself, you might need to research what the current fashion styles are and the common names by which they are called. You don't want to call wide leg pants "bell bottoms".

And even if your character is about your same age or older, unless you're a fashion diva yourself, it may be necessary to check on current designers and terminology.

Thanks to everyone for your advice re: naming places. I'm pretty unfamiliar with places in FL so it was freaking me out a bit, especially when I started checking city names from other states. FL has a lot of little towns that I'm unfamiliar with!

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Good job, Janet!

The moral of the story is to not make any assumptions in doing your research.

I probably fudge on the stays. I don't think I've always had someone else help my ladies back in them!

I often go back to the fashion prints of the month and year of my books when I have to describe the ladies dresses and I've saved lots of the prints for my own use as I come across them.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Great suggestions, Maureen!
Also check ebay for vintage patterns, antique fashion prints and antique or vintage clothes.
Also there's an ebay store called Heritage Trading that sells lengths of fabric printed with 19th-century block prints in India--you can't get much more authentic than that!

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

All very interesting, Janet! Thanks for filling in today, too! It's getting warm where I live and I can't imagine wearing all those clothes and doing all that work just to get dressed! ughhh!

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Janet, this is fabulous!

I have to dash back to work, but I saw your "buttons" explanation. May I ask if traveling gowns were the same?

And a riding habit--I've seen pictures of it all put together, but could you explain what's under the jacket?


At 3:32 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Fascinating, Janet! I can think of bunches of Regency romances that throw historical accuracy right out the winder. I confess to not caring that much, which seems unfair, considering how much authors like you work on getting it right. HOWEVER -- factual details like these definitely add to my enjoyment of the story, so it's probably worth it on your part.

Can anyone tell me where the term "nightrail" originated? What rail? Where?

At 9:26 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Great post Janet and chock full of information. Thank you! I have just finished my first Regency romance and have started on my second, but I am smart enough to know I have not begun to scratch the surface when it comes to research. Any research books you consider "must haves" ?

At 6:39 AM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Gillian, as I understand it women wore a shirt or a shirt-like garment under their riding habit, but I have to confess to complete ignorance on traveling gowns!

At 2:57 AM, Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Inaccuracies in fashion is my particular bête noire. As someone very interested not just in the beauty of clothing, but in the meaning and gesture behind them, I always read descriptions of costumes in a historical novel with a critical eye. Costume is very important to characterization--Scarlett O'Hara's green dress isn't iconic for nothing!

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Actually I think it would be a little more accurate to say dresses that opened in the back used a placket with ties. Not all dresses were back-opening. Some were a wrap style, especially in very early 19th Century. Some others involved an over dress that fastened in the front,revealing the under dress that probably was rear-fastening. I have several fashion plate images that show the backs of dresses that cannot possibly have rear plackets, but they definitely look like over dress and under dress. All that more challenging for our intrepid Regency heroes!

At 9:08 PM, Anonymous aregard said...

Oh yes, those mistakes. In the interest of a belly laugh, let me tell on my DH, who once, many years ago, wrote a young adult novel for a line a friend of his had. In it, he had the heroine wearing her hair in a cumberbund.

Yah know, it sounded right to him at the time. I, his mean old wife, got out my red pen...


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