~ B.M. Bower, Chip of the Flying U
I loved vintage and historical fashion for its own sake long before I started writing historical fiction. These days, I've even been known to let the question of fashion influence me when deciding what time period to set a story, if there are no more important considerations—giving it a nudge of a few years into another decade or toward the other end of a decade, just so I could picture my female characters wearing certain styles that I like better! I like to have a bit of an image in my head, even if I don't actually describe people's clothes.
Descriptions of characters' clothing can add wonderful historical flavor and authenticity to a story, so long as they're handled the right way. Beginning each chapter with a head-to-toe inventory of what someone is wearing will get old quickly. But casual mentions of clothes within the flow of a story, especially if they relate to a particular occasion or activity, can really give you the feeling that you're seeing and becoming familiar with life in that particular period. Personally, I've found that it's nice to have a basic, working knowledge of fashion from the time period of your story before you start writing, so when you have occasion to mention clothing you can do it naturally, instead of stopping to do rushed research. Then afterwards while polishing the story you can do more specific research, if you like, and fill in the finer details.
One thing that I've found to be a challenge when researching historical fashion is finding resources that focus on what ordinary people wore. Books, fashion plates and magazines provide plenty of information on the cutting edge of fashions set in the cities—which is fine, if your characters are wealthy or live where they have an opportunity to follow the latest fashion. But if you're writing about middle-class families in small towns or on the frontier who dress simply and practically for everyday life, you've got to dig deeper to find descriptions or images of their clothes. The best resource of this kind that I've found so far is Calico Chronicle by Betty J. Mills. (This book has more of an emphasis on pre-Civil War fashion, though it covers from 1830 to 1910. ) And once you get into later decades and past the turn of the century, there's another valuable resource—a visual one. By this time photography was becoming more common, and you can find lots of informal snapshots from the Edwardian period in addition to the posed studio portraits of earlier years. These days, great places to find historical images online are antique-photo blogs like this one (there are many more linked in its sidebar) and historical Flickr groups. Bliss for the history buff...or anyone who just loves those beautiful dresses.
How much do you think about what your characters are wearing when you write historical fiction? What have you found to be the best research resources?
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