Wednesday, November 28, 2012

19th Century Fashion in Fiction

The winner of last week's book give away: Naomi!! Please email me your address so we can mail your copy of Liz Curtis Higg's A Wreath of Snow!!

Where do writers go to research historical fashion for their fiction?

Do you get swept up into the world of yesteryear when you start reading historical fiction? or fantasize about what it would have been like to wear those long beautiful evening gowns of the 19th century?

Personally, I really don't like to wear dresses. But I am fascinated by the amount of creative work that went into fashion a hundred years ago, and I wouldn't refuse the chance to try on one of those gorgeous gowns. Like today, a hundred years ago the degree of high fashion or utility of a garment reflected so much about the person wearing it. And that's what draws me, the-not-so-fashionista-woman, into researching fashion for my current WIP (WorkInProgress--my current work of fiction).

by permission

In my new WIP, my heroine has just lost her courage for the future, and the hero is just finding his. The setting is Wisconsin, 1894.

Alright, now onward to the fashion.

Heroine first.

She likely took some, but not all of her clothing with her from Chicago. She was raised with wealth, but after her father's death she lost her savings in order to fund her dream. I imagine that she has given away or stored most of her more elegant gowns and likely has a few very serviceable pieces she wears to travel, and for day to day work. She is probably given a nurse's gown or has one made. So, she may appear as an odd mixture of wealth, vocation, and very plain dress wear--and of course, she is a woman who looks beautiful in anything she wears!

For my research, I stumbled upon a great website from my Jane Austen blog link, Victoria & Albert Museum at:
I imagine she might have worn a traveling suit like this one I downloaded from V & A:
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This is an 1895 day jacket and skirt used to travel. This one is made of cotton for light weight and warmer weather, so I assume Lena's travel suit would have had a similar cut and style, but would have been made of wool to travel to Wisconsin in January of 1894. This beige color, according to V & A's description, was a popular color for travel as it did not show the dust of the journey as much as other colors.

And for her day dress she might have worn something similar to this dress also found with a description on V & A's website:
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This day dress was made in 1889 and sports a waist length bodice. It is paneled with satin, edged in ribbon, and trimmed in back with a made up bow. The bodice is lined with the same green silk that makes up the skirt's petticoats. Both the bodice and skirt are boned and the collar and cuffs are faced with gold beaded tulle.

This dress was made in Paris, but I suspect my heroine's dress would have been made in Chicago or New York, and would have been made from lower quality or warmer materials.

But for the nurse's uniform, I found a nice link to a medical museum in Youngstown, OH: 

They have a nice display of an 1890's nurse's uniform my heroine might have worn:

On the other hand, my hero looks to the heroine as if he's stepped straight off the stagecoach still dressed in his black Stetson, cowboy boots, and oiled canvas slicker--a picture of masculinity and strength. In 1894, the west was far from fully civilized, cowboys still existed. Geronimo had just surrendered in 1886, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee had just occurred in 1890. My heroine sees the hero as out of place and a generation behind in style--but his charisma and the fact that he embodies her dreams of a man, do little to make her want to change him.

My hero's aura and garments are a bit tougher to research. I did find a picture of Texan cowboys in 1891, some modern descriptions of oiled canvas, and a black frock coat he might have changed to for a nice evening out.
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This 1890 type of frock coat was likely worn by both the elderly doctor and by my hero when he takes her to dinner. It is longer than some coats, double breasted, made of heavy wool with a sateen lining and a velvet collar.

Or he might have worn something like this western wear found at:

You can also check out my Pinterest board for 19th century fashion at:

So, are you intrigued?
Would you read on to find out more about my heroine and her hero? Can you "see" them better now?
What details in fiction draw you in?


  1. Love the pictures. My WIP is set in 1876. :)

  2. Hi Digging FP's! I'm a sucker for old pics and pics of old things. 1876 sure sounds fun. Now that I pinterest, I have a much better idea of the fashions by each decade of the 19th century.

  3. It's always fun to see these visuals! It makes the story come to life :) I love historical dress and sometimes think how much fun it would be to get the chance to step back in time for a moment and try it all on ;)

  4. Me to Joanne! I love following you on Pinterest too! I'm sure we are kindred spirits!


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