January 21, 2012

Let Us Be Elegant or Die

The immortal words of Louisa May Alcott (or Amy March, to be precise) ring true for most women - hence bobby pins, curling irons, corsets (!), and high-heels. Most of them look a lot like torture devices to me. But torture or not, fashion has always played an interesting role in society and, of course, in literature as well. It is one of the things that can be used to distinguish the various cultures of a fantasy world, while in historical fiction it creates an authentic atmosphere.

A few days ago Rachel posted about the styles she has been creating for her novel The Scarlet-Gypsy Song, and as it seemed to me like a good idea, I thought I would follow suit. Pun rather intended. So without further ado, here is a glimpse of the fashion in my most recently completed and my in-progress novels.


Justin isn't exactly a fashionable sort of fellow; he is comfortable in his blue jeans and sweatshirts, and suits are agony for him. In Tera, however, the styles are quite different. Ethan's people are horse-centered and the men tend to spend much of the day on horseback, so their clothing has been adapted to that purpose. The tunics are of light fabric to allow for easy movement, and the sleeves can be bound back if necessary in order to give the wearer fuller use of his hands; sashes are worn around the waist, tied to the left if the wearer is still a boy, to the right if they have reached manhood. Breeches are padded along the inner leg for comfort while riding (the Horsemen use neither saddles nor blankets), and they are tied about halfway down the calf, above the wearer's boots.

As for the women, the only thing about their clothing that really strikes Justin on his arrival in Tera is the veils. Every girl past the age of ten covers the lower half of her face, and only her father and eventually her husband is allowed to see behind it. All colors except white are acceptable for unmarried women; white is worn by the married women alone, setting them apart.

the white sail's shaking

And with this we go from fantasy to historical fiction. I must admit that the fashion here is much simpler than it was in Wordcrafter: all but one of the characters wear uniforms. Even here, though, one can add spice. The distinctions between ranks was reflected in the amount of trim and the number - and position - of epaulets on the uniform. Midshipman, for instance, were fairly plain with blue cloth and gold buttons, although in the American Navy they managed to get gold trim on their hats as well (as far as I can tell, the Royal Navy was much duller and didn't allow their midshipman such frivolities). Lieutenants had a single epaulet on the left shoulder, although if they were commanding a ship, they switched it to the right - this would have been the case with Stephen Decatur during his command of the Enterprize. Captains got the distinction of having two epaulets and a lot more gold banding on their uniforms. (Sailing masters didn't get any gold at all - poor them.)

All this is pretty generic, but I doubt that men would have dressed in exactly the same manner simply because they were peers. Tip Brighton and Charlie Bent are both midshipmen, but Charlie, being by far the more refined of the two, has much more "frill" to his outfit; Tip is just a backwoods young man from a none-too-wealthy family, uncomfortable enough in his uniform itself without adding decorations to it.

So there you have the styles in Wordcrafter and The White Sail's Shaking. Naturally it is possible to overdo in this area; but then, it's possible to overdo in any area. You can always go too far and burden the reader with unnecessary and unwanted details, and you can also show the reader nothing and thereby rob them of the ability to experience that element of the story. A good thing to do, therefore, is to create as you write (or before you write, depending on how you like to plan) and let your imagination run, and then later you can edit the descriptions as you like: move them, space them out, polish them, or even delete them if you find you no longer want or need them.

don't forget to enter the new year contest!


  1. Wonderful post. Fashion is a hard thing to make helpful but not overbearing.

  2. I love Royal Navy uniforms ca. late 1700s. I read somewhere that they had to be purchased by each individual, and, as a result, the shade of blue could vary slightly. Not sure if that is true or not, but there is an episode of Hornblower where he has to buy his own uniform from a tailor.

    I like it when a character wears something that makes them memorable, such as Alan's blue coat in Kidnapped or the elven brooches in The Lord of the Rings. Little things like that can make a big overall impression.

  3. Great post, Abigail. I did one as well on my blog. I love reading about the different fashions from various times.

  4. This is a lovely post! The fashion and costume in a story is an important sector of any book, isn't it. As you mentioned though, it can be difficult not to give too much details that it can become boring and tedious. That is a good tip, to just write in all the details, and then later polish, edit and refine =D.

    The Crown of Life is a hard/easy one to work with when it comes to the costumes because it is historical, and yet so long ago, and the clothing terms are in Latin mostly. The hardest one I find to imagine are the costumes of the soldiers and high officers which can be somewhat challenging. I have found some really good historical guides from the library with pictures to help!

    Thanks, Abigail, for sharing the fashion for your books, they both sound great. The costumes and fashion of Wordcrafter especially sounds mysterious and imaginative!

    In His love,
    ~Joy @ joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com

  5. I enjoyed reading about fashion in both books, Abigail. Loved especially the Navy details. Telling details can add so much to the experience of reading. While reading about Medieval France, I learned that shoes with long pointy toes came into fashion, and eventually became associated with decadence. Just interesting, such things! They add to our understanding of human nature and history.

  6. Lerowen - Glad you liked it!

    Marian - It seems to me that the shade-differences turned up in "Mr. Midshipman Easy," but as it's been a while since I read it, I may very well be wrong. It is another interesting facet of that style, though. Uncomfortable though they must have been, I can't help feeling sorry that the old uniforms went out of style; the new ones are so dull. (Also, were you thinking of the scene in The Wrong War/The Frogs and the Lobsters? That came to my mind.)

    Gabrielle - I enjoyed your post, too! You chose some very nice designs, especially Evie's birthday dress. That shade of pink is lovely.

    Joy - Finding research materials can be irksome. Still, Google makes it so much easier! I recently discovered a resource that has images of the American officers' uniforms in the time period White Sail's is set in (1800-1808); that was exciting (in a terribly nerdy way). It's so nice to find pictures rather than just descriptions.

    Maria - Your comment about pointy toes reminded me of a character in Rosemary Sutcliff's Simon. He owns a very new and stylish pair of boots with severely up-turned toes, and when he wears them his gait is described as resembling that of a self-satisfied duck. But, to quote Amy March again, we must be elegant or die!

  7. Thanks Abigail. I liked the shade as well.

  8. Very nice to have a great elegant design of gowns.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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