When I was on tour in England, I got to mix with seamstresses and historical costume enthusiasts, visit and analyze breathtaking garments that were created centuries ago, and learn a lot about what dressing was like for people of the past. It was marvelous! My fellow tour members themselves made exquisite things; I learned much from them, even as we oohed and aahed over the 200-year-old gowns meticulously preserved by the museums.
There was something about seeing handmade garments that old in person. It brought the past to the present; you could easily imagine the women who sewed or wore them, especially when you spied clumsy hemming stitches, noticed the unbelievably tiny waist, or laughed over the combination of colors. You also could imagine the people, perhaps family members, who saved them for generations until the clothes arrived at today. Sometimes they would use these dresses for “fancy dress,” or what we call costumes, probably like how I once wore a 1970s bridesmaid dress of my mom’s for a masquerade. Other times they were given to servants after they went out of style. I’m not sure what would happen to them afterward; perhaps they were kept and well cared for because the servant class tried hard to preserve nice things like that. And I’m sure others were kept and treasured by the family because they recognized skilled workmanship and wanted to honor a forebear.
One specific discovery that struck some of us was just how brightly colored some of the Regency dresses were—as bright as anything you’d see today. Raspberry, mustard, brown, hot pink, rainbow-colored embroidery … fashionable ladies didn’t limit themselves to whites and pastels, as is popularly assumed. As a Regency fashion follower, I was particularly interested by that detail—even relieved, because a limited palette isn’t as much fun when imagining my Regency characters.
Which leads me to my next thought: clothing in literature. I love it when clothing is described within a story, more descriptively than “she wore a red dress.” In a classic novel, the author might describe an outfit that he or she would have seen in their present day, and that provides a fascinating snapshot into our past. When you read, you see and experience what is written on the pages—and so, if properly and artfully described, you feel as though you saw, touched, or even wore a historical gown. Sometimes words are even better than a picture, in that regard, because you can know and feel what it was like to wear it. Do you know what I mean? And it’s even better when emotions are attached to the outfit. The writer doesn’t have to use very many words to create this effect; just the right ones.
Here are some nice examples that I’ve read recently from Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. The characters are at a ball:
“Rose had no new gown to wear on this festive occasion, and gave one little sigh of regret as she put on the pale blue silk refreshed with clouds of gaze de Chambery. But a smile followed, very bright and sweet, as she added the clusters of forget-me-nots which Charlie had conjured up …”
“So Aunt Jessie was chaperon, to Rose’s great satisfaction, and looked as ‘pretty as a pink,’ Archie thought, in her matronly pearl-colored gown with a dainty trifle of rich lace on her still abundant hair. He was very proud of his little mama …”
“Sister Jane …graced the frivolous scene in a serious black gown with a diadem of purple asters nodding above her severe brow …”
“‘The cadets,’ as Will and Geordie called themselves, were there as gorgeous as you please, and the agonies they suffered that night with tight boots and stiff collars no pen can fitly tell. But only to one another did they confide these sufferings and the rare moments of repose when they could stand on one aching foot with hands comfortably sunken inside the excruciating collars, which rasped their ears and made the lobes thereof a pleasing scarlet. Brief were these moments, however, and the Spartan boys danced on with smiling faces, undaunted by the hidden anguish which preyed upon them ‘fore and aft,’ as Will expressed it.”
And here are some scrumptious dresses from Little House in the Big Woods:
“Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.
“Aunt Ruby’s dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a fine feathery pattern in light wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it….
“Ma was beautiful, too, in her dark green delaine, with little leaves that looked like strawberries scattered over it. Beautiful dark red buttons buttoned the basque up the front. The skirt was ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon, and nestling at her throat was a gold pin …. Ma looked so rich and fine that Laura was afraid to touch her.”
Do you like to describe clothing in your writing, or read about it in other novels? Which of these descriptions was your favorite?