Dressing for the Part


Getting into character

I went to the Goodwood Revival last week (for non UK readers this is a huge vintage car event in the South of England where people dress up in period costume). It was amazing! Everywhere I looked there were women in fabulous outfits and men looking dapper. It was like stepping back in time, into a more glamorous and genteel age. I managed to find a nineteen-forties looking dress to wear, with an appropriate undergarment which attempted to combat my incipient middle-aged spread! It struck me how much discomfort people in times gone by were prepared to go through in order to look stylish. There were people in ‘winkle-picker’ shoes, women in pencil skirts, a plethora of ‘Victory roll’ hair styles, men in waistcoats, boys with brylcreemed hair, girls with ringlets –and hardly any sloppy modern day clothes to be seen. When we write historical fiction, we need to consider the effect bygone fashions would have had on deportment and behaviour. It helps us to ‘wear,’ either literally or figuratively, our characters’ clothes. In her radio 4 Reith Lecture, ‘Can these bones live?’ Booker prize winning author Hilary Mantel puts it this way:

At first you are a stranger in your chosen era. But a time comes when you can walk around in a room and touch the objects. When you not only know what your characters wore, but you can feel their clothes on your back: that rasp of homespun wool: that whisper of linen and weight of brocade: the way your riding coat settles when you mount your horse: the sway and chink of the items at your girdle or belt, the scissors and keys and rosary beads. You listen: what sound do your feet make, on this floor of beaten earth? Or on these terracotta tiles? How do your boots feel as you pull your feet out of the mud? How old are your boots? What colour is the mud? When you can answer these questions, you are ready to begin.

I’m not sure I’m prepared to don a corset to find out, but certainly inhabiting our characters’ worlds, even their wardrobes, will help us in our quest for authenticity. Perhaps I need to go to the Goodwood Revival every year!

CharactersGill ThompsonComment