Tag Archives: Georgette Heyer

Dress Shopping, Victorian Style

january1843fashionsI do love a good makeover: That scene where the heroine discovers the perfect clothes to bring out her best features. They make me want to fist pump and say ‘Go girl! Bust out that bustle (or crinoline or redingote, depending on the era)!’

As in life, women in literature dress for other women – namely their female readers. But how did one actually go about putting together that killer outfit guaranteed to turn the hero’s head and bring him straight to one’s side? In 1840, the internet did not exist, Mr. Selfridge’s father was still a boy, and Mr. Harrod, having given up on the linen draper’s business, wouldn’t move his grocery and tea enterprise to Knightsbridge until 1849. Mr. Harvey did sell linens, but he had only hired clerk James Nichols the year before.

Until sewing machines were invented, every last hem, flounce, tuck and bead was stitched by hand. Ready to wear clothing consisted of shawls, simple hats and bonnets, smocks and the shoddiest of work clothes for the poor, referred to as ‘slop-ware’.

It amuses me when romance novels feature female characters going to the dressmaker’s or sending for one, as if buying several gowns at £200 – £300 apiece is no big deal.

 

Fashion Plate A

In an age where middle class income ranged from £100 – £1,000 a year, believe me, for most women this would be a big deal.

 

What you wore depended on what you could afford combined with what you knew how to make. The ‘slop-ware’ mentioned above was worn by the poorest working classes, for dirty jobs. As England had no compulsory education during the early Victorian era, girls in the poorest families could not count on coming into contact with textile crafts in sewing classes. They might learn to sew at home provided their mother or another female relative had picked up the skill. To avoid widespread public nudity, families depended on charity, or used clothing vendors.

Large numbers of Victorians wandered the streets in second-hand clothing. Even in the best families, new clothes were time- and money-intensive. Children customarily wore hand-me-downs. Even oldest children could find themselves in a cousin’s outgrown suit or dress. If the family had a trunk of grandma’s old dresses, that might be raided for free cloth.

A woman at the pinnacle of society, whose family income stretched into the tens of thousands of pounds or more, could afford new wardrobes of the latest fashions every year. She would customarily give her outmoded gowns to her lady’s maid to dispose of. The privilege of claiming her mistress’ cast-offs was a valuable benefit of that servant’s employment, and was often included along with her wages.

Once in possession of a second-hand garment, a lady’s maid could keep it, refurbish, or wear it. (Ideally not where her employer would catch her.) If she sold it, dealers would come to the mews or servants’ entrance and buy them for their shops or stalls. After going through multiple owners, used clothing ended up in places like Petticoat Lane, where vendors would pull goods out of enormous bags to present to working-class customers. Men and women alike found gowns, trousers, mantles, frock coats and more for a few shillings each. When a common laborer could expect to put by maybe one or two shillings a week for clothes, outfitting a family even in these dirty and worn clothes took a chunk out of his savings.

Daytime BodiceIn the middle class, women often did learn at least basic sewing, which enabled them to take advantage of new-fangled paper patterns, introduced in the 1830s. The wives and daughters of artisans and middle class perused fashion prints as enthusiastically as wealthy women did, though with the intention of using cheaper material and simpler decoration. Patterns often came with one skirt design and two bodices, one high-necked and with longer sleeves for a respectable daytime appearances, and one with a lower neckline and shorter sleeves for evening events. Thrifty women would make up both bodices to get more wear from their garment.

Once they had a design and a pattern, there were several steps between the page and the finished product. They would start at the linen draper’s (seller of general dry goods) or mercer’s (seller of textiles only). In the 1840s, the choice of dress materials ranged from wool and cotton to silk, velvet, satin, and lace. Within types of material, quality varied. ‘Wool’ encompassed everything from merino to cashmere; cotton ranged from cheap calico to fine batiste.

It was not unusual for a dress to require 20 yards or more, so once all that cloth was cut, it had to be hand-stitched.  Sewing women could be hired for this, some of whom might have workshops of their own. Some establishments could deliver a gown the day after it was ordered, for during the London Season, they would employ a workshop full of seamstresses that were required to work up to 20 hours a day.

Do you have any favorite makeover scenes in movies or books? Some of mine are Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Penelope Featherington in ROMANCING MR. BRIDGERTON by Julia Quinn, and just to keep in mind men can benefit from The Makeover as well, Philip Jettan in Georgette Heyer’s POWDER AND PATCH. (It takes place in the 18th century, not the 19th, and the heroine is decidedly childish, but it’s still entertaining.)

Writing…and Reading

Some writers have had the urge to string words into stories from their earliest memories, while some of us don’t discover this passion until middle age or later.  Whether they first scribbled a story on the back of grade school homework or had to gather courage and read their first attempt to a room of people more experienced than they were, all the good writers I’ve ever met or heard of reads, and has read, enthusiastically from childhood on.

Well before I started writing seriously, I gave thanks that I was born into a family of book lovers. My parents possessed wildly different tastes in reading material, and both of them affected me. I got my love of historical romance from my mother. Her paperback books contrasted with my father’s volumes on geology, dog training, history and anthropology. Mom introduced me to Georgette Heyer, and the late historian Barbara Tuchman. Dad’s books were drier, but watching him devour volumes on a wide range of subjects encouraged me to explore the non-fiction shelves of the library.

They read to me and my sisters, everything from poems to comic books. I don’t really remember anything but pretty pictures, but the sense of security and comfort of being tucked beside them carried over into the act of reading itself. Once we could read for ourselves, we got books on most major occasions and often on smaller ones. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott were found in my bookshelves, along with Swiss Family Robinson, fairy tales and myths. I saved my allowance to buy Nancy Drew books.  My dad attempted to get me interested in ‘Treasure Island‘, his favorite book as a boy, in vain. Ditto for Charles Dickens. (Sorry, Dad. I tried.) He succeeded wildly with ‘Lord of the Rings’, though.

High school lit classes introduced me to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and The Moon is Down, as well as the sly, wry humor of Mark Twain. I found Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein around then as well, thanks to my best friend who shared out her brother’s science fiction books.

My interest in Tolkien led me to explore other fantasy writers. The voice of Ursula LeGuin is more ambiguous and darker, but her haunting stories stay with you long after you finish them.

As an adult, I discovered Jane Austen (finally!) and Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, the histories and biographies written by Lady Antonia Fraser, and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, among many, many others.

These days, I read Tolkien for comfort and inspiration, Heyer when I want to be charmed and amused, Fraser and Tuchman when I need more solid fare, C. J. Cherryh when I want to read science fiction, and Shakespeare and Homer when I’m in the mood for something classic. And I’ve read historical romance in one form or another for decades. There are so many wonderful authors out there to choose from.

Who are your go-to writers for comfort or inspiration?

The Shameless Escapist

photo by Anna Cervova

My daughter brought home a four-inch-thick volume of fairy tales (Spells of Enchantment, 1991, Penguin Viking, ISBN 067083053) from her high school library yesterday.  She picked it because fairy tales and folk tales convey so much of the culture they originate in.  That’s an excellent reason to read fairy tales, but I leafed through it because my two favorite genres, romance and fantasy, have the fairy tale a few branches up their literary family trees.  I skimmed a telling of ‘Cupid and Psyche’ that had more folk elements than the usual myth and read a French version of Rapunzel written by a contemporary of Charles Perrault (he of Cinderella fame).

Only then did I read the introduction.  The editor, Jack Zipes, provides an overview of fairy tales from the second century to the twentieth.  One of his phrases especially reminded me of why I like writing (and reading) romance: “…fairy tales are written and told to provide hope in a world seemingly on the verge of catastrophe…”  I’m enough of an optimist to believe that the world may not be on the verge of catastrophe, but one of the reasons I enjoy romance novels is that the best ones give the reader hope as well as entertainment.

I’ve always seen romance as an escapist genre, even for those of us who are happy in our relationships.  I am okay with this.  Sometimes you have an awful day at work and your child got an F for not turning in homework and the cat just produced a hairball the size of Massachusetts on the good rug.  I’ve been there.  (Some days I still am, at least for the hairball part.)  If I can write books where somebody can lose herself in another era with a hero and heroine that she can really care about, my work here is done!

What books and authors do you turn to when you’re stressed and need an escape?  How do they help you?  Georgette Heyer‘s civilized tone and her humor soothe me, and I love Mary Jo Putney’s tortured heroes.  Or I’ll turn to J.R.R. Tolkien for the sheer beauty of his language and the fabulous heroes he writes (in the non-romantic sense, lol).