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Clothes In Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

Clothes are a wonderful feature to describe, for lots of reasons.  First of all, the appearance of them will tell us quite a lot about where we are, and in what period of time, possibly even the season and climate.  In more recent years with which we are familiar we can even pinpoint a decade.  At the very least we will register a difference from the present day and be prepared not to make assumptions.

They may also give us the occupation of the person and maybe the social rank, wealth or lack of it, and a good deal about character and personal taste.

We like decorations, insignia, uniforms, badges, marks of achievement and office.  We like to both belong and to be individual.  At a more sophisticated level we try to compensate with dress for what we think we lack by nature.  We would like to be a little taller, fatter, thinner, have curves in different places, or more of them, or less of them.  We want to be conspicuous, or inconspicuous.

Our function in life may need special clothing: armour, camouflage, protection against weather, uniform to show our office, fire helmets, miners’ lamps, fishermen’s waders, cowboys’ chaps etc.  These are all quite open.  Far more fun are the things that are unintentionally revealing, and what they may tell us, if we are observant.  For example: the shoes that are unevenly worn, those well-polished tops and frequently mended soles, the gloves that hide the hands, the trousers with baggy knees or a shiny seat.

Women’s clothes can be endlessly tell-tale: the choice of colour, discreet or loud, this year’s shade or last year’s?  It has been taken in – did it belong to someone else and is a hand-me-down, or even borrowed?  The dress that has been let out!  Is it also borrowed, or she has put on weight!

Choice of style can be everything: who you are, who you wish to be, what you think are your strengths and your weaknesses, and even how well you really know yourself.  It can be a statement or a mask.  There is so much you can say about a character in a single observation.

There is also, of course, how they feel.  I once had the privilege of wearing late Victorian clothes for a day, as a film extra.  Believe me, Victorian corsets are a killer! And not necessarily in the places you would expect.  No wonder some of them had ‘fits of the vapours’.  No nice, lightweight synthetic fabrics.  Then, those dresses with the long, full skirts weigh a ton!  And they are suffocating in the heat.  No sandals – boots please, all the time!  Getting in and out of the whole thing is a major undertaking.  Slacks or jeans have never looked so appealing!  Imagine walking with those skirts wet, slapping around your ankles, and probably freezing cold.

Women’s clothes very much reflect their place in society: Regency – like larger children; mid-Victorian – ever tried to move around in a hooped skirt?; 1920s flappers – all about freedom, and so on!

Of course, keeping them clean is a whole other world!  No wonder laundry took all week.  Some of them even had to be unpicked to be cleaned!  And then of course re-sewn up again.

Hail the washing machine and steam iron – not to mention the dry cleaner!  We have all the fun without the bother!


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We Shall Not SleepA Christmas HomecomingTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     BetrayalAll Together in One Place: A Novel of Kinship, Courage, and FaithClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

Writing Historical Novels


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