In January 2013, I attended a wonderful exhibition at the Burrinja Cultural Centre in Upwey, presented by Eastern Regional Libraries Corporation and the Centre, to celebrate the National Year of Reading.
The exhibtion promised ‘travels through time and fiction of the periods, drawing together the threads of character, period, fashion and finery.’
The costumes on display accompanied by a novel of the period. I recognised many of the books, either read in school or turned into television or cinema classics. The costumes spanned 170 years of fashion history and were overwhelmingly for females. Women’s clothing underwent many radical changes of style, and until recently, despite ‘clothes maketh the man‘, the mention of fashion usually conjures images of predominantly female models on catwalks and shining in events like the Melbourne Cup’s Fashion on the Field.
I’m writing this blog as the postmortem on the recent United States Presidential Inauguration Ceremony is being mulled over with comments on the clothes of the participants – Bernie Sanders’ mittens, leading ladies purple outfits, Lady Gaga’s stunning appearance – and of course everyone wearing face masks and sending a powerful message about COVID19 and the mutant viruses.
Including costumery for characters important for writers and can improve a story on many levels, with detail valuable, whether you write fact or fiction.
The exhibition I attended, provided a mine of information for writing historical fiction. There were rare items such as a delicate crinoline dress dated 1860, bustle dresses from the late 19th century, suits from the Second World War era, 1950s ball gowns and 20th-century cocktail dresses and pant suits.
Accessories featured too: hats, gloves, shoes and handbags, jewellery … a feast of fashion for designers and researchers; especially wonderful for writers looking for colourful authenticity.
Most characters for a short story or novel require relevant research, and if you are delving into a particular period of history, the knowledge and inclusion of fashion, social mores, and specific idioms or jargon help the reader enter the world you have created.
If you make a mistake, believe me, there will be a critic somewhere who will notice!
Your blunder may not be as obvious as Brad Pitt wearing his 20th Century wristwatch in a fight scene in the 2004 Hollywood version of ancient Greece’s Troy, but may encourage the reader to question other details in your story.
I speak from experience.
A friend picked up a mistake in a Facebook post I made when I mentioned the first bicycle I owned in Australia bought secondhand at a high school fete in 1963. I said it was 50 cents when I should have said 5 shillings because Australia didn’t introduce decimal currency until 1966.
Details matter. When it comes to fashion it might alter the storyline, the timeline you decide to use and the location – even the need for minor characters. Consider the time it took a female to dress when layers fashionable: underwear (vest, knickers, corset, bloomers, stockings, underskirt, bustle and hoop), dress/skirt and outerwear of shawl/cape/coat/jacket, hat, gloves, shoes.
Depending on their wealth and station in life, they may have a dresser or maid, butler, hairdresser, even someone to apply make-up and choose jewellery. Or they may be so poor, they have one outfit, whatever the season that is altered and repaired!
When I spent a Christmas period in Toronto Canada that coincided with their worst winter blizzards in 50 years, I learnt to allow 10-15 minutes to take off or put on, the boots, coats, woollen hats and scarves. Each time you moved from outside to indoors visiting or shopping became a repetitive exercise.
Museums, art galleries and libraries often have permanent displays, plus special exhibitions, which provide a wealth of visual reminders about life in other eras and may contain hidden gems of information or give ideas useful for your writing. Events are sometimes free or available at a minimum cost.
The Darnell Collection
The Fashion Meets Fiction exhibition in 2012- 13 was created from a collection that grew from one woman’s passion for vintage clothes and accessories. Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania collected for over 70 years. The social history behind the items donated and gifted from around the world was ‘as important as the items themselves and preserving them and their stories for future generations became an important part of her passion.’
Letters, photographs and stories accompanied the gifts linking them to their original owners or donors, often detailing the occasion/s they were worn. The Australian goddaughter of Doris, inherited the collection in 2004. Charlotte Smith has grown the collection to 7,500 pieces, representing 23 different countries, to become the largest private international vintage clothing couture in Australasia.
Often the focus is on women’s clothing – and usually the glamorous items – however, clothing for men and children are represented. There are wedding dresses and sportswear, plus many reference library books, journals and exhibition catalogues.
The Darnell Collection provides fashion history education and is a design resource. Charlotte, the current custodian promotes the collection’s mission ‘to preserve, develop and enhance the collection’s ability to educate, interpret and inspire existing and new audiences for the better understanding and appreciation of the art of fashion.’
At the Burrinja Cultural Centre, the focus was on the style of memorable characters from popular novels: Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly, Phryne Fisher, Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Woodruff and others. The backstory of the clothes and accessories explained too.
This ball gown of rayon, cotton thread and sequins, by Margeaux Couture is c1950s America. The ornate handbag of silk, velvet, gold and glass beads from Hong Kong, same era. They were chosen to represent the world of David Dodge’s novel, To Catch A Thief, where the main character, a daring cat burglar thieves from hotels and villas on the French Riviera. I remember watching the film on black and white television. I can imagine Grace Kelly in this stunning red gown.
Since the 1950s, formal attire has evolved from private events to public ones – from debutante balls and gala evenings in sumptuous venues to red carpet entrances. As written in Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, “Carefully chosen for special occasions, a ballgown should not only flatter the wearer and demonstrate her sense of style but also illustrate an understanding of the event to which it is worn.”
Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, is set in the 1870s. The two-piece dress chosen for the exhibition is American c1880 of silk faille, silk velvet and gilt metal to suit her upper-class characters.
Silk faille a popular fabric during the Victorian era with its strongly defined, ribbed texture and dramatic draping qualities. It is weighty and has to be cut carefully to ensure the ribbing of the two connecting pieces match to avoid uneven patterns. The material came back into vogue with Christian Dior’s New Look and is popular today with wedding dress designers.
Whenever I see these voluminous dresses with complicated layers, frills and beading, I think of the seamstresses because even with the invention of machines much of the sewing would be by hand.
The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier’s machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his sewing machine invention. https://www.thoughtco.com/stitches-the-history-of-sewing-machines
My Aunt Chrissie, a tailoress, served her apprenticeship prior to WW2, and opened her own sewing school when she emigrated to Melbourne from Scotland in the 1950s. My older sister Cate, inherited her talent but my sewing skills are average.
However, sewing and fashion touches everyone’s life in some way. My generation experienced compulsory needlework classes at school, homemade clothes the norm for many working class people. Hundreds of stories and characters can be created around the subject.
The dress chosen for Daisy Miller, in Henry James’ novel Daisy Miller also c1880s, and made by Mrs C Tracey of New York. This silk faille Bustle Dress with silk taffeta lining and lace, has metallic thread, metal sequins and glass beads.
Bustles were semi-rigid structures of wire half circles held in place by cotton tape and secured around the women’s waist, sitting over her bottom thus creating an unnatural protrusion in silhouette. Less cumbersome than the crinoline, it still required a restrictive corset to achieve the tiny waist fashionable in the Victorian and early Edwardian eras.
This desire for a tiny waist had shocking consequences. A family story about my paternal Grandmother who married in 1900 mentions how she fainted twice donning her wedding dress because the corset strings had to be pulled tight to ensure the obligatory 18 inch waist!
The crinoline dress chosen for Eleanor Bold in Anthony Trollope’s, Barchester Towers, published in 1857 is from that era and also American. It is silk taffeta with silk thread and wooden buttons and the shape has been altered from the enormous dome usually found in crinolines to early bustle shape.
The mannequins used to display many of the Collection’s Victorian dresses are the equivalent to the average modern 12 year old! Most Victorian women were tiny, including Queen Victoria who was only 150cm tall. (That’s under five feet for those still dealing in feet and inches!) Mum was 150cm and was resigned to taking hems up on bought skirts and dresses.
The Day dress, c1860 America of roller printed cotton with natural dyes, chosen for Lucinda Leplastrier in Peter Carey’s novel of colonial Australia, Oscar & Lucinda. It has a wire hoop petticoat to create a domed or bell shape. An ungainly and dangerous style blamed for women swaying too close to an open fire and being trapped in smouldering garments. Hoop petticoats provided fodder for cartoonists to lampoon female social gatherings depicting the cumbersome dresses in small Victorian parlours.
I can vouch for the accuracy of the difficulty negotiating movement with a hoop in the hem of your dress. For my 60th birthday, I held a party inviting friends to dress as their favourite literary character. I went as Jo March from Little Women, after she sold her hair! A plastic hula hoop bought from a Two Dollar Shop provided the shape.
If your fictional heroine is wearing one of these dresses don’t add to her clumsy misery by having her drink a lot of tea or other beverages requiring visits to the bathroom!
Another Bustle Dress c1880s America was chosen for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. It is one of the most individual Victorian dresses in the Collection; an apt choice for Sarah Woodruff. Wool with Mother of Pearl buttons it has unusual paisley panels, which suggests the dress was made by a small town dressmaker or to be worn by the maker because apart from the bustle, it does not follow other Victorian fashion trends.
I remember reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman for HSC English Lit in 1970 and can imagine Sarah wearing this dress. Even with a dark cloak and hood, she looked striking and attracted attention ensuring her walks along the cliff top and by the sea did not go unnoticed.
Two of the displays triggered more memories of Mum. A wool suit with silk crepe lining by Paul Horla for Fritzels, Milwaukee c the early 1940s is a wonderful example of fashion during World War Two. It was chosen to represent Dominique Francon, a character in Ayn Rand’s, The Fountainhead, first published 1943. It reminded me of Mum’s wedding suit but of course, in 1948, Scotland still had rationing and her suit was not as upmarket as pure wool and silk crepe. However, the style is similar.
When material was rationed, wool fabric allocated to uniforms and war related outfits was still difficult to obtain and dressmakers and tailors ‘took extraordinary steps’ to ensure no scrap of fabric wasted. Skirts became pencil shaped, requiring minimum metres and jackets tailored for a snug fit.
“The clever details of this suit, which makes it look truly decadent in a time of austerity, are the collar, pockets and cuffs are fake… actually layers of leftover fabric cut and sewn individually… the ‘pockets’ are scraps of fabric stitched to the bodice and not usable.”
My Mother loved reading and had a penchant for genre novels – mysteries and romances her favourites. She introduced me to Agatha Christie and when I lived with a friend, in a Canberra flat while attending ANU, I discovered Margaret loved Agatha Christie too and worked my way through her bookshelf.
No surprises that Mum liked to read Maigret novels, Georges Simenon’s French detective and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, like The Case of The Lonely Heiress. Perry Mason being a Californian lawyer and both of these characters subjects for popular television series and films. I can remember watching them in the 1960s and 70s and Maigret has been revived recently with new adaptations.
Perry Mason had a devoted secretary, Della Street, who helped him solve cases and the Ball Gown with Shawl by Lucy Sector captures the evening glamour c1950s. This outfit of silk brocade and silk satin was made in Melbourne. The Governor’s secretary wore the gown when she attended a ball at Government House, Sydney 1954.
Lucy Sector’s fashion career began in Melbourne in 1930s and her respected label became fashionable and exclusive with dresses sold throughout Australia, including her own shop in Northbridge WA. The black handbag of glass beads and silk brocade lining was from France c1950s.
The Swinging Sixties & Groovy Seventies
The 60s and 70s heralded big changes in acceptable attire for women with dresses becoming shorter and more revealing and pantsuits designed for afternoon and evening wear. Candice Bushnell’s, Sex and the City, a popular bestseller in 1997 as a collection of essays on the lifestyles of her social circle. Later a movie was made and television series. The silk faille cocktail dress by Christian Dior chosen for the character Carrie Bradshaw has glass beads, sequins and silk lining c late 1990s.
In 1997, John Galliano replaced Gianfranco Ferre as Dior’s head designer. He combined his love of theatrics with inspiration from the Dior archives and the fitted, elegant and feminine dress is reminiscent of the 1950s.
The leather shoes are more recent c2009 by Manolo Blahnik and come with a fascinating backstory, inspired by a similar pair of shoes Blahnik produced for designer Ossie Clark in the 1970s. Blahnik was producing men’s shoes in his shop in Chelsea, London when Clark asked him to create shoes for his next couture collection. Making women’s shoes filled a creative void for Blahnik and his outrageous and flamboyant designs became the fashion must-have. Bushnell’s novel republished in 2008 and the 2009 television series of Sex and the City gave Blahnik shoes cult status.
In Octopussy, Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book, a collection of short stories and published posthumously in 1966, the main character is Octavia Charlotte Smyther (aka Octopussy). Attractive, smart and athletic women a feature of Bond novels and movies so the pant suit by La Gaye Parisienne, Sydney of lurex and lame fabric perfect. A pant suit fits the 1960s setting but vamped to look trendier and sexier than the ordinary.
London 1956, saw the first couture collections using metallic yarn. By the 1960s, silver and gold lame fabrics (as well as pastel colours) replaced black as the favoured colour for the popular cocktail scene.
Love Story by Erich Segal, set in the 1970s and first published in the USA 1972 to popular acclaim, capturing the mood of the era of breaking down barriers and shifting boundaries. One of the main characters Jenny Cavilleri is studying music in Massachusetts and is matched to a machine-made lace and silk pant suit by Ann Pakradooni, a well-known dressmaker in Philadelphia in the 1960s and 70s.
“Two years ago, this suit was part of a small display at the Philadelphia Art Institute. An 80 year old visitor asked if she could take a closer look at the inside of the jacket. Upon inspection of the stitching of the hooks and eyes, she realised she had made the suit when she worked for Mme Pakradooni in the early 1970s. She recognised her stitch work and explained each seamstress had a unique signature stitch, their secret signature for every garment they made.“
The straw Hat with cotton flowers and satin ribbon is Australian c1970s, and the leather Handbag, French by Pierre Cardin c1970s.
Agatha Christie’s, Death On The Nile, a Poirot Story was first published in 1937 and set in that era. The silk organdie Day Dress c1930s an example of the softer more feminine look to replace the boyish 1920s. Soft, transparent fabrics like silk organdie were popular with colourful and complicated designs printed on silk, rayon and crinkle crepe. Daywear became less decorative and more practical, reflecting women’s busier roles in society. The brown straw Hat has cotton and plastic flowers on velvet ribbon.
The Great Gatsby, by S Scott Fitzgerald is out of copyright this year so prepare for a slew of adaptations and interpretations. It was first published in 1925 and featured the memorable Daisy Buchanan and the Roaring 20s United States. The blue silk chiffon and satin Dance Dress has paste diamantes and the silk shawl c1920 from China is stitched with silk thread.
The Evening Bag by Whiting & Davis is c1920 America and is woven metal mesh with hand screened-printed pattern and gilt metal frame. Whiting & Davis was one of the biggest and best known mesh handbag manufacturers and still manufacture today. Screen printing allowed for a myriad of patterns and colours.
The shoes by YuYee c1920s China with the maker’s stamp reading ’embroider shoes made in China’ and comprise of cotton, silk thread and leather soles. China’s export industry ensured wealthy expats could purchase garments and accessories with a ‘westernized’ Chinese look. in the 1920s, popular fashion included the wallpaper effect of Japanese decoration and rich embroidered patterns of flowers from China.
Georgy Girl, by Margaret Forster embraced the Swinging Sixties, and is another popular novel that made it to the big screen. It also inspired The Seekers hit song Georgy Girl used for the movie. The Cocktail Dress by Guy Meliet is silk faille from Caracas, South America, and the hat is synthetic mesh with faux pearls, c1990s, England. Although made in the 1990s the hat is 60s inspired and pairs well with the straight A-shape of the dress and suits the personality of the novel’s swinging Meredith.
Guy Meliet trained in Paris before moving to Caracas. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many designers and milliners trained in Paris alongside a well-known couturier before launching their their own salons in countries demanding expensive, French inspired clothes. Meliet is credited with dressing some of the most beautiful socialites in Venezuela, including Chesley Larson, the owner of this dress. A world that was anathema to Forster, a lifelong feminist and socialist.
Although published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, characterises the late 50s and early 60s, known as the Cold War era when spies and double agents were in the news. The chosen dress is Italian c1960, woollen and by Spinelli.
Elena and Sante Spinelli immigrated to Australia from Italy in 1958. In 1960 their luxury knitwear label, Spinelli began in Adelaide, South Australia. Their international influences and flair spiced Australian fashion, evidenced by this ‘mod’ 1960s dress. Combining fine Australian merino wool and the skill of Italian craftsmanship produced a unique Australian fashion statement. The wool Hat by Mr M c1960s America and the Australian crocodile Handbag with leather lining finishes the elegant outfit.
What would any fashion or life story be without the ubiquitous wedding dress. Nicholas Sparks 2003 novel The Wedding, focuses on a couple celebrating 30 years of marriage and while planning their daughter’s wedding, the husband is ‘re-courting’ his wife. It is set in the 70s and the Wedding Dress by the House of Henry Josef, Sydney, is machine-made lace, silk satin, net and polyester.
There were many other novels and outfits to satisfy a variety of historical periods and a writer’s curiosity. I’m sure many exhibitions are available online, especially with the disruption of 2020 and the continued adjustments to life trying to be Covid-normal.
Explore, research, read – then write!
To end with a smile (and we certainly need more of them!) here is a poem I wrote last Christmas for one of my daughters who loves cosplay and comes up with wonderful ideas for costumes, which we make on a low budget.