Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Period Dress — A reflection of the times


Have you ever noticed how social attitudes, public decorum, accepted behavior, and fashion seem to go hand in hand? Consider, for example, the early Victorian era. Both men and women of class wore fancy garb. An upper class woman's gowns modestly covered her body more or less from head to toe. High collars were worn in public, and men, too, were garbed from top to bottom. (Interestingly, in the 16th century, a woman's breasts could be partly or even totally exposed, and this was the accepted norm.)


During the first part of the Victorian era, a woman's job was to manage the home for her husband, whose only domestic duty was to make the money to run the household. She must be virtuous, obedient, faithful, and devoid of any intellectual opinion or pursuit. The man, however, could have a mistress (also expected to be faithful) and/or an afternoon or evening dalliance at a man's club.

Near the end of that era, women began to come into their own; not long thereafter, we have the roaring twenties and the day of the flapper. How times had changed! The independent woman could enjoy an exciting night life in a sexy dress without  a man escorting her and without judgment from her peers. In fact, her peers were probably there with her. Speakeasies and roadsters created handy entertainment and mobility, and nobody foresaw the impending crash of '29 that ended it all. The Great Depression with its simple, basic garb and incredibly hard times brought reality back with a vengeance. The glamorous twenties were all but forgotten in the struggles to keep a roof overhead and food in the stomach.

World War II brought yet another change in dress as men headed into battle and women took over the factory jobs that kept the troops and the country running. By the end of the war, nearly 25% of married women worked outside the home, and their independence was reflected in their choice of stylish, professional clothing. Chic fashions marked the mid to late 40s as the great actresses on the silver screen donned well-designed day and evening wear as they stepped out into the world of men.

Along came the fifties and sixties and the counterculture hippie movement back to basics. Then came the rockers, the druggies, and the increasing rebellion against accepted societal norms. Protests against the Vietnam War made headlines. Values were changing. Fashions came and went until today, where we have X-rated gowns designed to barely cover minimal parts of actresses who try to outdo one another in the shock category as they walk the red carpet to some entertainment awards event. Genders have melded together so that one may not be certain whether the person they see is male or female. Social attitudes, public decorum, accepted behavior, and fashion continue to go hand in hand as trends march forward to who knows where.

What does all this have to do with writing? Everything. Whether you write historical fiction, flapper-era mysteries, 1940s romances, modern day thrillers, or something in between, your readers expect to be transported seamlessly to the time and place of your story. Your characters had better be properly attired for the ride because a significant number of those readers will know if you get it wrong.

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. She also helps new and not-so-new writers improve their skills through posts on Blood Red Pencil and offers private mentoring as well. You can contact her through her writing website, LSLaneBooks.com. Also, you can visit her at DenverEditor.com.

12 comments :

  1. And isn't it fun to create a character who does not dress appropriately for the times? The novel I'm starting now has an 1830s era female character who dresses like a man although she's not hiding her gender. There are good reasons, of course, at least from her point of view.

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    1. There are valid reasons to deviate from the norm, especially when those reasons help define the character. However, others in the story might be dressed appropriately for the place and the era.

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  2. It is fun to do that when it is a reflection of the character and an unusual character trait.

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  3. Thanks for this walk down the historical path, Linda. I got lost in research when writing my latest book, looking for the appropriate clothing for the years from my mother's birth until the early 50s. But I do love research, so that was not a chore. In fact, I had to keep tearing myself away from the internet and get back to writing.

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    1. I understand completely. I got lost in the research for this article and failed to keep track of the time.

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  4. It's so funny how stereotypes so often become the "norm" when we think of a time period. For instance, the Victorian period info above was only true for a specific set of women in a specific stratum of society. I am certain all of those working women (maids, housekeepers, cooks, milliners, glove makers, seamstresses, farmer's wives) had little time to be worried about the latest fashions out of London. But much like today, bits of what was considered "high fashion" trickled down through all layers of society. Lord knows a bustle didn't help with housework. :)

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    1. Doing housework in a bustle? Now that paints some interesting mental pictures. One of the articles I found in my research stated that working women got clothing not secondhand, but fifth-hand--by which time it was literally rags. It could be a nice touch to have a variety of characters to show readers how different classes lived and dressed.

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  5. You hit on not only the time period but how it affects clothes. During down times, skirt lengths are longer; optimistic times, shirts are shorter. You can look at fashion through the years and almost tell what's going on in the world. Maybe I shouldn't give away all those long skirts in the attic. In 2017, anything goes. Maybe the restrictions on fashion are no more. Women wear what they feel comfortable in and what they like.

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    1. Up and down times, as well as attitudes, make a big difference. As far as society goes today, it seems almost like anarchy. If you don't agree with something, you protest, smash windows, and destroy vehicles. If somebody gets hurt, oh well. This is definitely an unstructured time with numerous factions and few taboos--unless, of course, one happens to be a conservative. If it feels good, do it. If it feels right, wear it. No rules. Keep the skirts, Polly. :-)

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  6. I have to. Getting up in the attic isn't as easy as it used to be. The skirts will be there until we leave the house, one way or another. (Some are culottes. Ha!)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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