Sew what? History of fashion in the historical novel

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The role of fashion history in historical romance is an ongoing topic of conversation. Every stitch has a story, especially before the electric sewing machine or ready-to-wear became widespread. Production was slow, custom, and expensive. So it’s no surprise that story-based fashion has become an important part of historical romance novels. The history of fashion is broadly defined as the study of objects of clothing and its evolution over time and across regions. Historians use existing clothing, sewing guides, textiles, and patterns to understand clothing design. Additionally, researchers also examine paintings, photographs, literature, and news articles for additional information.

I believe that the historical elements of historical romance will always be exciting. However, we should not forget the discussion around proof of accuracy via the author’s note in Vanessa Riley’s recent article. Extensive debates over historically accurate versus historically grounded writing in historical novels are not a new discussion. A history doesn’t have to be based on history for me to enjoy reading it. Does using fashion history in clothing descriptions bring me joy? Yes. Can we generously have specific conversations about the role of fashion history in historical romance? I also think the answer is yes. In historical romances, each layer of clothing can play an important role in character building and setting development. So why not have fun with fashion history?

Every stitch has a story

Fiction writers successfully manipulate story-based fashion. I loved the bustle of Amelia Smith’s bamboo cage with an indoor fan in The devil comes to court by Courtney Milan. The failure of the device makes it an adorable meet-cute, and the invention quickly establishes its character. Because Milan understands the fashion history of the 1870s, she can create a garment that might have existed back then.

Often historical novel writers with an expert understanding of clothing use details of clothing to build their character. In Indigo by Beverly Jenkins, Hester Wyatt escaped slavery and is now part of the 1858 Underground Railroad. She is also part of the Free Produce Movement. Hester’s clothing reflects the fact that she boycotts the products of slave labor. His love, Galen Vachon, shows he cares by making sure the finest clothes in his new wardrobe keep up with the Free Produce Movement. Of course, Beverly Jenkins is known for bringing a realistic portrayal of African-American history to life in romance. Her use of fashion history is just one part of a bigger picture.

Because clothing can communicate position, writers also use fashion to disguise characters. I would like to highlight the depiction of Tang Dynasty clothing and disguises in butterfly swords by Jeannie Lin. Ai Li wears a red silk wedding dress appropriate for the 758 CE setting in China with heavy jewelry and a hundred li of embroidery floss. Escaping from her marriage, she leaves these clothes behind and puts on a new set of gray men’s clothes. The continued division between Western and Eastern clothing alters her interaction with the characters in the book. For some further reading, Style empire: silk and fashion in Tang China by Buyun Chen highlights the materials and patterns depicted in the novel.

A new wave of fashion historians

By the way, NotYourMommasHistory has also done an awesome job with historical African American dress on YouTube. Online designers who seek to make fashion history accessible like Bernadette Banner show fashion history. Online resources like An Historian About Town and The Fashion History Dictionary also have publicly available online exhibits. That is to say, the public availability of fashion history has expanded writers’ ability to understand clothing by period, region, and personal choice.

Previously, in-person museum exhibits like The Met’s The Costume Institute, The V&A, The Fashion Museum Bath, The Kyoto Costume Institute, and The Fashion History Museum were wonderful in-person examples of fashion history; however, they remained limited in scope. Although some exhibits and museums are free to the public, they still require patrons to physically visit their locations. Story-based clothing has always been a part of historical romance, however, a writer’s ability to access information at any time for low cost has not.

The history of fashion in the historical novel: a focus on Europe

Bisclavret by KL Noone Book cover

When it comes to details specific to specific time periods, historical novelists love Eurocentric stories. From Medieval to Regency to Victorian clothing, writers have locked down fashion history. While many writers start out loving a time and place, Eurocentric historical novels are hugely popular among readers. It also means that the books could sell better to publishers who are willing to invest more in the development and production of these books. While some great lists explore other historical novels, I will now turn to the use of fashion history in a period of Eurocentric stories.

We can look at the clothes detailed in the medieval novels (about the 5and at 15and centuries). KL Noone’s Bisclavret is a queer reimagining of the Breton Lai of the same name by Marie De France. Either way, Bisclavret is a werewolf whose clothes allow him to become a man again. His wife steals his clothes and he is stuck like a wolf at the king’s side until they are returned to him. Linen, silk and leather clothing define him as a Breton knight of the time. Due to the medieval reuse of fabrics from old clothing, much of the history of Western medieval fashion comes from a combination of stories like Bisclavret and paintings. A cultural history of clothing and fashion in medieval times by Sarah-Grace Heller further explores the history of fabrics and medieval fashion.

Increase your height, we’re talking Regency fashion

We come to a much larger piece of the proverbial pie, the English Regency (1795 to 1837). I’m just gonna wear regency menswear Kit Webb’s Queer Principles by Cat Sebastian. Percy uses class-based regency men’s clothing to disguise his travels through London as Kit Webb’s Queer Principles. From head to toe, Percy generally presents himself as a young aristocrat with hair, makeup (complete with a heart-shaped beauty patch), and shoes befitting his position as a young lord. So when he walks into Kit’s cafe in working-class clothes, he’s unrecognizable. Even getting dressed with or without the aid of a servant is presented as a potential problem throughout the romance.

The visual presentation of wealth through clothing also creates businesses around demand. Olivia Waite explores trade debates of the Regency period in Hellion’s Waltz. Maddie is a talented silk weaver whose work has been stolen. The scam at the center of the story revolves around his obvious talent, design theft, and a union of weavers seeking to create a fairer labor market. Along with the fashion history that focuses on how people wear clothes is an equally important production history. Historical romances, in any era, continue to explore the making of clothes and the people behind flawless fashion.

Dressing for success, but the Victorian way

Book cover of The Mermaid of Sussex by Mimi Matthews

Now for a wonderfully in-depth exploration of historical Victorian fashion (1837 to 1901). The Sussex Mermaid by Mimi Matthews is set in 1862, and it’s a masterclass in using fashion history to build character. Ahmad Malik is a half-Indian tailor from Victorian London looking to break into women’s fashion and open his own millinery. His designs are wonderfully practical, innovative and flattering, but when he adds pockets to his new muse’s dress, she bursts into tears. She didn’t even have to ask for pockets, he just knew she would like them.

Personally, I will always appreciate pocket detail in historical romance. The beautifully detailed book by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660–1900 developed from the careful study of pocket use and creation. Due to the book’s immense detail, there are so many fun and exciting chapters that explore how women have created private spaces about themselves through pockets over time.

Connecting it all: the story of fashion in a historical romance

Now, there could be an exhaustive list of historical romances and their excellent use of fashion history, however, I was just aiming to continue the discussion. Ultimately, the work done in fashion history continues to be a rich resource for romantic story writers looking to add a bit of historical clothing to their character’s wardrobe. If a character is involved in fabric or fashion production or simply dressed appropriately in a historical romance; Fashion history plays a role in character development.

I don’t need a unique recreation of historical clothing, or the frankly mythical concept of historical accuracy. Instead, I love the process of picking up pieces of fashion history in my reading life. I like learning more about the characters because of that. There will always be something about clothes in books that catches my eye, and I’ll happily follow the thread of fashion history writers stitched into their historical romance novels.

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