Friday, March 29, 2013

In Fashion

Fashion is often regarded as a synonym for the frivolous, fickle and trendy; never more so than when it's applied to clothing. What we wear or don't wear is usually guided by a combination of clever marketing and popular opinion, and in discussion can appear to have as much depth and meaning as the average mud puddle.

As a teen I was interested in the fashions of my era; when I could save up enough money from my after school job I even bought a few trendy things for my wardrobe (most memorably, a pair of black velvet platform shoes, black hip-hugger bell-bottoms, and a black wrap-around skirt. Yes, I was probably the very first Goth.) After high school I lost interest in fashion, mainly because I was too poor to afford it, but regained an appreciation for the technical aspects when I started making baby clothes, Halloween costumes and holiday outfits for my kids.

My admittedly limited skills as a seamstress did come in handy when as a writer I began creating new universes. In my StarDoc SF series I had to cook up wardrobes for characters belonging to dozens of different species; not always an easy task. I had a bit of leeway in that no one else knew what humans or aliens would be wearing in the far future, so I could invent what seemed sensible to me based on the environments, cultures and job demands. Obviously one doesn't go jaunting around unexplored space in hot pants or a tube top.

To create the fashions I needed for the Disenchanted & Co. universe, which parallels our own Victorian era, I had many more resources to tap, including photographs of real live 19th century people wearing actual 19th century clothing. One of the finest collections I found was Kristina Harris's Victorian Fashion in America, a picture book with 264 vintage photographs with dates and valuable explanations of the garments shown.

As Toriana is a parallel universe I couldn't exactly duplicate 19th century American fashions, but I could use them as starting inspiration for my own designs. My ladies still wear gowns, and my gentlemen suits, with some variations to both unique to my world-building. One example is the waister, a kind of cloth cummerbund worn by women which acts as both a belt and an external corset (even in parallel worlds the ladies want to have a well-defined midsection.)

I've sketched a few Torian garments to get a feel for how they would actually look outside my head, and enable me to better describe them in the story. Here's one of the outfits Kit wears in my second novel:



All of the notes are really for me rather than the reader; I need to know all the details I can. The half-lace bodice is another of my designs that dates back to a time when large amounts of lace were difficult for Torian dressmakers to import and the country had yet to start manufacturing its own. Such practical improvisations often become fashionable later on as part of a nostalgia trend or a variation of retro style.

Clothing fashion still might seem pretty frivolous, but documenting it helps preserve a snapshot of an era -- what people wore and how they wore it. Without Kristina Harris's excellent collection of photos I would have to mostly rely on text descriptions of Victorian-era American clothing, which can often be inaccurate or contradictory. Seeing the actual clothes photographed on Victorian American people is so much better, because it is like looking through a window in time -- it's the real deal.

We can't preserve every fashion, and while I still have a black T-shirt hanging in my closet that dates to 1978, my platforms, bell bottoms and skirt are long gone. I think my mom has some pictures of me wearing seventies fashions, which are now (Holy Toledo!) thirty-five years old. Maybe in another sixty years you'll see a snapshot of me in a vintage photograph book, with the caption "Teen in all-black; possibly early Goth."

13 comments:

  1. Love the sketch. I can see where the recycled cloth comes into play. And it makes Kit more real to see this kind of thing, even though we haven't really gotten to know her well yet.

    And FWIW, I still wear black. That is until they come up with something darker... ;)

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    1. Ha. I knew you were original Goth. :)

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  2. I love to follow your thinking process, it's compelling. The sketch is great and the detail amazing. I think I've said it before but I can't wait to read this book. Oh another thing, what does FWIW mean?

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    1. Since Theo already explained I'll just say thank you for the lovely comment.

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  3. Sorry, Fran. I was being lazy. FWIW = For what it's worth...

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    1. Thank you. I tried all sorts of phrases but that one never came up. I have to admit to being old school - I hate all that text speak abbreviated stuff. Half the time I have no idea what people are texting, especially my son!

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    2. Ah, Fran, don't feel bad. At better than half *cough* a century *cough cough* I only know much of this because my daughters text me and then have to explain at the end of the day, what they tried to tell me. :)

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    3. You and me both, Theo. I tried to text my daughter last night and I think I sent the (admittedly garbled) message instead to my nephew -- and it took me twenty minutes!

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  4. Still lots of black in my wardrobe too. What can I say? I actually like it.

    Love the sketch, and the Torian style. I would wear Kit's skirt.

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    1. I still wear lots of black as well, Terlee, so you're not alone. Gray has become #2 most popular color in my closet; probably because it matches my roots. :)

      I was thinking about making up at least one real-life version of one of Kit's ensembles and having my daughter model it. She's a size 0 so I'd only have to use a yard or two, lol.

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  5. I think I am going to like Torian fashion! Love how the world-building all plays into it. I love it when an author is either a seamstress or just likes the details of clothing construction. The descriptions are a lot more interesting and I can 'see' what they're wearing better.

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    1. It's part of the fun of writing this series for me, Emily; I've always wanted to design clothing for an alternate universe, and finally have my chance. :)

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  6. Another great resource that you might find of use is Joan Severa's book, "Dressed for the Photographer." Not only is an extensive collection of period photographs of people from all walks of life, the accompanying description details the key points of the clothing and hair styles in the photos.

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