Friday, 7 July 2017

Ask Annie...about Regency costume.

On the first Friday of each month, Novelista Annie Burrows will be drawing a question out of the jar where we've been putting all the questions about the writing process posed by readers.

This month, the question she chose to answer is:


"Your heroines wear lovely gowns. Do you make them up, or are they based on actual Regency clothes?"

OK, well, first of all, if you’ve read any of my books, you will know that I don’t, as a rule, put in a lot of detail about this sort of thing.  This is because I think it can detract from the story, and the action going forward if you keep breaking off to spend whole paragraphs describing a room, or an outfit.  I tend to use broad brushstrokes to suggest the era, or the scene, or even the clothes, and rely on the reader to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.  So that I can concentrate on the emotional inner life of my character, and the action going forward.

BUT…part of being able to create vivid, believable Regency characters comes from being historically accurate.  I have to know all about the background even if all I’m going to do is sketch it in briefly, or it won’t ring true, and will be a far less enjoyable read.

This is particularly true of clothing.  I have to know what a Regency lady would wear, so that love scenes can play out convincingly as the hero removes her garments one by one.  I need to know what type of corset she might wear, how her stockings were held up, and whether or not she wore drawers.  Not only will this place her firmly within the historical era, but it will also say something about her social status, and her personality, too.  Silk stockings, rather than cotton, for example, or a gown that laces up at the back, rather than the front will tell the informed reader (and most readers of Regency are very knowledgeable about the customs of the age) a lot about my heroine without me having to take another couple of sentences explaining whether she is upper or lower class, wealthy or poor.

I also sometimes zoom in on an outfit a heroine is wearing to help show how she is feeling.  “The Captain’s Christmas Bride” for example, opens with the heroine’s friend struggling to do up the laces of her gown.  A short cut to telling the reader she has body issues.

In the opening section of “The Debutante’s Daring Proposal”, the heroine is conscious of her frayed gloves and her muddy boots when the hero strides onto the page looking all expensive and elegant, to emphasise the differences in their social and financial status.

As on all other topics of Regency life, I have a few favourite books that I frequently consult to give me inspiration, or to help me describe an outfit convincingly.

Another thing I’ve done is to purchase a reconstruction of a Regency costume, to see what it would feel like to move around in long skirts.  I wasn’t surprised that my movements felt a bit restricted compared to the normal jeans and t shirt which are my usual everyday wear.  Long skirts are not very practical.  By the end of the day the hem was filthy.  It seemed to suck up dirt like a hoover.  Being cotton, though, it washed very well, and came up good as new.  However, it made me realise that keeping clothes clean would indeed need the services of a maid to do the laundry and ironing.  How on earth would you have been able to keep your clothes clean without the help of servants in an age without washing machines?  Wearing light colours had to have been a symbol of status.  Lower class women would surely have chosen darker colours that didn’t need laundering every day, or changing every day at least.  So all those debutantes in their pristine white muslin gowns were probably making more of a statement than just about their youth and virginity.

           One thing that did surprise me, though, was how warm the outfit was.  Everyone assumes that
wearing light muslin or cotton gowns must have meant that the women would have felt cold.  The gown I’m wearing in the picture was actually made up of two dresses.  An underdress and an overdress.  The outfit came with a full length cotton petticoat, too.  The underdress could have been worn on its own, but I chose to put on the top one as well on this day.  Once I’d put all three layers on, I was actually too warm, so had to (shock, horror!) remove the petticoat.  I didn’t buy a corset, since I was only out in Regency garb for fun, not to go on a re-enacting event where authenticity would have been more important, but I can imagine that had I been dressed in a shift, corset, petticoat, underdress and overdress, I would have jolly well needed to make use of a fan to keep me from sweating.

 A  properly brought up Regency lady would not have ventured out of doors without a bonnet and gloves, either.  (I did buy a bonnet, but went without the gloves – shockingly fast of me!)  What with all those layers, and a hat and gloves, I felt I could have survived the most inclement weather.  Or at least, I could have done with the addition of a spencer (short jacket) or pelisse (long coat)  Don’t forget that with full length skirts, you could wear pretty much what you liked underneath and nobody would have seen it.

Thick woollen stockings and boots in winter?  Probably.

So, I do study pictures of what Regency ladies wore, and I’ve spent a day wearing a reconstruction of the type of gown a Regency lady would have worn, so that I know how she would feel in it.

So that I can leave out the descriptions of gowns with a fair amount of confidence!


(I have considered buying my husband some male Regency garb, strictly for research purposes of course, but they are far more expensive than the female attire.  Especially the hats.)




Annie's latest release is "The Debutante's Daring Proposal" in which the heroine wears a variety of costumes which are rather daring, and which cause gentlemen to look at certain parts of her anatomy rather than her face when they are speaking to her.


It is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon...
 




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