Characters in Corsets Revisited

by Karen Wills

I write historical fiction, so I convinced my writer pal, Shirley Rorvik, to register with me for the Historical Novel Society’s 6th North American Conference in Denver last month. We split up workshops in order to learn as much as possible. I lucked out and attended Kim Aulerich-Mahone’s session. Kim is a knowledgeable historical costume designer and creator.

Why does attention to fashion matter? The immediate answer is that repeat historical fiction readers generally have a favorite place and time period. They’ll quit reading and won’t recommend books with blatant errors. (See Susanne Alleyn’s book, Medieval Underpants and other Blunders.) I learned that e-bay notwithstanding, Edwardian hats had big brims, and Victorian hats were small. Women didn’t wear sweaters before 1920. Men used to have trousseaus, too. There were no calicos in America in 1747, but in 1790 there were. In 1913, women went for straight silhouettes. The difference between silk and satin is all in the weave. Lily Langtree made black a trend. Queen Victoria’s many pregnancies ushered in the high waist, the better to hide a baby bump.

The clothes a character wears can show time period, location, mood, economic status, and ethnicity. Remember the March sisters in Little Women? Fashion can be symbolic like the protective cape worn in Willa Cather’s, Song of the Lark. We can depict and understand characters from what they wear.

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