Think about what you’re wearing right now. I, personally, am sat in my pyjamas (I shouldn’t be, it’s nearly 1pm) wearing a top with the Australian flag and baggy pink bottoms with an odd square pattern on them.

If you picked me up and dropped me into the 18th century, there’d be a lot of things wrong with what I’m wearing right now.

Clothes are important for a number of reasons. They can signify your characters’:

  • Wealth
  • Status
  • Occupation
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • And more

So where should you begin?

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Researching Clothes for Historical Fiction: Why it’s Important

Scroll to the bottom to find a full table of historical clothing items, sorted by time period and clothing type. 

Everyday Wear: This is what your characters are going to be wearing, for the most part. You don’t have to spend hours describing the weave of their tunic, or the cut of their jerkin, but it’s part of building that picture for your reader. It’s about creating the right amount of background for them to bring the period to life.

Formal Wear: Perhaps your characters are going to a ball, a formal dinner, or even getting married. Did you know the white wedding dress wasn’t a ‘thing’ until Queen Victoria wore white to her wedding in 1840? Or that diamonds in engagement rings weren’t a “thing” until 1477, and they crashed again in 1930 during the great depression? It’s easy to assume that traditions have ‘always been done’ but if you have your 15th-century bride rocking up in anything other than her best dress, you’re likely not doing the time period justice. Many people simply couldn’t afford to buy a new dress (especially if they were only going to wear it for one day! The shock! The horror!)

An Icelandic wedding dress, circa 1700-1800.

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© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Underwear: And more importantly, did they even wear underwear? Even if they did, it’s likely it wouldn’t have looked much like the Calvin Klein adverts that are plastered on billboards the world over. They certainly wouldn’t have referred to them as ‘pants’ and might not even have referred to them as ‘underwear.’ So before your characters start stripping off for that dunk in the lake, make sure you know what they’re jumping in with!

Accessories: Often a status symbol, moreso than anything. A thick gold chain could signify wealth or a position as a mayor or town official. Pearl earrings could signify that the person wearing them was a virgin (or that they needed protection from fire). You might just throw on whatever’s in your wardrobe, but your characters likely won’t. Ruffs literally had no purpose other than to make you look wealthy, given that lace was expensive. So have a think about what your characters are putting on and what it’s saying. It could also be a good chance for you to use an object as a writing tool.

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)

Materials: Which materials were common, and which weren’t? Would your characters be wearing linen? Silk? Wool? When did the trades of these materials become popular? How much did they cost? What would the average person have been able to afford? All of this needs to fit in with your character and who they are, so if they’re wearing head to toe taffeta, make sure you’ve got a justification for sticking them in it.

Shapes and cuts: Often a symbol of foreign fashion. Think about the ruckus Anne Bolyen caused when she rocked up at court wearing the latest in French fashion, changing the Court’s ladies from the Spanish style to the French overnight.

Catherine of Aragon wearing an English hood, Anne Boleyn wearing a French hood.jpg

Colours: Some colours would have been reserved for royalty (during Henry VIII’s reign, only royals could wear purple silk) and other colours were reserved for the clergy. Colouring was also a status symbol as few could afford dyes, so if you have a flamboyant character stepping out in shades of burgundy, you need to make sure they’re rich enough to afford that. And remember: the deeper the colour, the more it’s been dyed, the wealthier the individual.

Military uniforms: And whether or not they had uniforms. For example, did you know that until the middle of the 19th century only officers and warrant officers in the Royal Navy (UK) wore regulated uniforms? So if you have two armies meeting one another on the field, don’t assume they’ll be wearing handy bibs to signify their alliances. Most would have carried standards or decorated their armour or horses instead.

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Patterns as a status symbol: What does it mean to have a pelican on your dress? Or a rose? Or a thistle? Nowadays, not much, but in the 15th and 16th century the colour of the rose was a political symbol. The thistle might have suggested that you were Scottish, or had familial ties to Scotland. The pelican might be a symbol of motherly love, like what Elizabeth I claimed to feel towards her people. You could use these as subtext, or character personality cues. If you’re feeling particularly meta.

Crests: Crests are important if you’re capturing real historic people within your novels. Make sure you know what their crests are/were, what their mottos were and how they would have used them. Would they have had them over their fireplaces? Embroidered into their clothes? Flapping on their banners as they rode into war? Likely it’ll be all three.

Table of historical clothes sorted by period:

^^ Thanks, Wikipedia!

Takeaways:

  • Make sure you know how wealthy your characters are and where they sit in the social pecking order: it’ll determine a lot of what they wear
  • Understand the difference between everyday and high fashion for your time period so you don’t have people stepping out dressed for a ball when in fact they’re just popping to the market for eggs
  • Don’t take anything for granted: wedding dresses weren’t always white and shoes weren’t always made of leather.
  • Learn the words they would’ve used for their clothing items. So ‘tunic’ instead of top, ‘jerkin’ instead of jacket. If you’re not sure whether your readers will understand what it is, make sure you describe it well. Check out my post on language to see how. 

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