I’m back. Why? Because we’ve seen a resurgence of people talking about corsets and whether they were the death traps some would like you to believe (they weren’t and we’re not here to discuss that but I beg you to do some research), people not knowing that there is a vibrant and active historical fashion community who either engage in history bounding (dressing up in period accurate clothing) or add elements of it to their daily lives, and just as always people not knowing the difference between stays and corsets.
But, June, you say. You’re a fantasy writer. What does historically accurate clothing have to do with anything? Historical accuracy is for losers. And to that I say, you are correct. But if you’re using something that has a heavy historical context (like clothing, technology, etc) you might as well know a thing or two about the subject before looking a fool. If only because readers like me notice the small things and cry OR because the aesthetics are cool but knowing where they come from and how they can be changed to fit your world is even cooler.
Fashion defines a society. Fashion defines a culture. What garments are important? What garments are the same among the upper and lower class? Do their roles as garments change depending on class? (ex: stays were often wore “out” for working class women while upper class women would see them strictly as undergarments) How do fashion trends define the eras? It’s not hard to notice that throughout history nearly every decade as a definite silhouette. It’s not hard to tell the difference from a regency era gown from an early Victorian gown to a late Victorian one. They all look vastly different.
I’m not asking anyone to know the ins and out of historical clothing but it doesn’t hurt to read up on it or look at some existing examples. To know the anatomy and construction of what would make a complete outfit (or to read about what people might wear for a given situation if no artwork or garment exists). It all feeds into how your characters hold themselves, how they might be able to move. It’s not so much that people were just “Shaped Differently” back then. Their clothes were constructed with a certain poise or look in mind. And y’know. I just want to stop seeing modern underwear in fantasy underneath historical clothing while we all pretend the undergarments don’t contribute greatly to the finished overall look.
But again, you’re right. We’re not writing historical fiction here. We don’t need to have every mention of clothing in our fantasy novels be completely in line with the point in time we might be basing our setting off of. This is about adaptation.
Adapting Historical Fashion for Non-Historical Purposes.
I’ve said it a bunch by now I’m sure. My books take place in a world based off the late 18th century. Why? I dig it. As such, when I first started putting together the aesthetics of the world that period was also my go to. I know I already did a whole thing on culture and society but really this is more or less just about how fashion can amplify those two things. I mentioned setting and what fabrics might be commonly used or found. And what might make sense to use (lighter, breathy fabrics for hot climates vs thicker fabrics and furs for cold ones) vs ones considered high class and enviable or with trends that might be coming from other countries that have stronger influence.
When I take real life fashion and shove it into my world (give or take a few changes) I usually ask myself a few things first.
1. Who controls the fashion trends?
- The younger generation, the monarchs, a group of travelers who just look super stellar? Who is the rest of the community following when it comes to the newest look and what elements of it are they trying to steal/adapt? What element is the thing that really catches on?
- Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge fan of waistcoats and breeches and stockings, tailed coats with flaps (although anyone who reads my book will also know I axed powdered wigs. Because I could.) But to just copy wouldn’t say much about the opulent and flamboyant Escana. To increase the idea of the vanity and the peacock attitude of the younger, partying courtiers I have young men who usually dye their stockings to match their waistcoats (because colored socks > white or black socks) and forgo the coat to show off sleeve details as well as lose some of that “seriousness”. It says a lot about them while still remaining in a circle that gives readers a clue as to where my inspiration came from.
2. Who disagrees with the fashion trends?
- And how does their disagreement influence the perception of certain garments or the people who wear them? Just read one thing about how evil corsets are and how crinolines are literally cages for women and how many of us go around thinking Victorian ladies fainted every time they opened a window and understand these perceptions can be long-lasting and completely change an outsider’s opinion on how people lived. Granted for world-building or story purposes hopefully these will be happening currently instead of being a huge misunderstanding of history.
- Over and over again I say things like cultures not being monoliths but neither are generations and there’s nothing that makes a world feel more lived in and full than people who don’t all wear a uniform based vaguely on what the author thinks a medieval gown looked like. It’s just also sometimes nice to get tidbits like a character wearing a scandalous or pricey color just to look good even if they can’t afford it. Is it usually super vital to the plot and story? No. If used sparingly can it be fun background information to how the society your character lives in works or views things? Sure.
3. Colors and fabrics and spares, oh my
- Okay. That’s not a question. But it’s an umbrella for me to put my thoughts under. Because I live in the 21st century I don’t often think about things like dyes or luxury fabrics but this would be front of mind for most of my characters. Not everyone can afford to wear certain colors, or certain colors come with a context that means they shouldn’t be worn for certain situations or for certain people and the same could be said for fabric. We live with these fashion rules now (although I’m not so strict in my memory of them because my current life doesn’t depend on it, but I do write about princes and courts so it’s more important for a courtier to not wear a happy color to a funeral than for me. Or things like no white after labor day).
- Hand-me-downs. I grew up wearing them. They were common in history and should be more common in fantasy. If a family was not wealthy they could only afford so much fabric or to follow fashion trends for their eldest. It wouldn’t be unheard of for a family to still be wearing clothes considered “outdated” and it’s not like we all just throw our clothes out when they get old. While a trend might have moved onto a new silhouette or something, someone with less means might still be wearing decades-old clothing that have held up well (these clothes were built to last. Fast fashion could never) or could have chosen not to jump on the trend at all. In my book, the opulent courtiers and royals of Graza Palace dress completely different than some traditionalists who wear garments more native to Escan before it was an empire that are completely different from the suits and 18th century gowns I’ve borrowed. They’re timeless and probably see a lot more turnover from one family member to the next than a gown that could be out of style in a year.
4. And lastly, making sure I’m not turning it into a costume
- This becomes important when taking garments that have a cultural context in the real world and using something similar to it or basing another garment off of it. I would start with this for the purposes of using culture clues to ease someone into what actual culture the fantasy one is taking inspiration from to give them a taste of what certain things might look like without going into full detail but it’s key to then know what makes these garments…these garments so you’re not bastardizing them. Why do people wear them? (especially if a form is still worn in modern times) What are they usually made out of? What are the occasions they are worn for? A respectful nod to something will just add to your world building, a costume rendition with 0 understanding of how certain garments will work will just make it seem like all your characters are in cosplay.
So in conclusion: No, I’m not advocating you be historically accurate for your already not historically accurate but it pays to look into why your basing clothing off a certain period and what goes into making that piece of clothing…that piece of clothing. Why it looks that way, how someone wearing it would look/hold themselves, and what it means in the context of your setting as well as things you might change and take extra liberties with for the purpose of storytelling. Clothing can add character and it could be just as useful a tool in world building (in my biased opinion) as language given that fashion can have such a huge impact on people but it can also fall flat.