Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Two #Historicalfiction Authors Chat about costume, sewing and their latest books

Gabrielle Kimm and Deborah Swift in conversation about costume design, seamstresses, lace and their latest novels.

Gabrielle Kimm and Deborah Swift met when they were both shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers in 2007 and have stayed in touch with each other ever since to share their love of writing historical fiction.

G.K. You’ve told me before that you used to be a costume designer for the theatre. Can you tell me a little more about what you did?

D.S. A costume designer’s job is to enhance the character that the actor is playing through the messages conveyed by their clothes. These messages can be subtle – creased or carelessly fastened clothing can suggest a person who is not concerned with their appearance, even if it is a uniform identical to the one someone else is wearing on stage. So a designer’s job also includes suggesting to the actor how the clothes should be worn as well as what they should wear.

G.K. The creation of a piece of theatre is a really complex matter, isn’t it?  And for historical pieces such as Shakespeare, in particular, there must be a tremendous amount of research?

Shylock for His Majesty's Theatre
designed by Percy Macquoid 1908
D.S. Yes, but I used to love it. The best reference sources for costume designers are paintings. For Shakespeare in traditional dress paintings such as Moroni’s The Tailor are invaluable. (GK – Oh, I absolutely love that painting, and used it as a costume reference myself in my second novel) I used to relish finding curtain material (for example) that had just the right brocaded look for a 16th century bodice. Of course many of Shakespeare’s plays are now performed in modern dress, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need designing. The designer can take as much time drawing the right modern clothes as they would for a period piece. Even for a contemporary play actors like to see designs on paper because then they can visualise themselves, and it helps them in creating the role. The designer has often finished the designs by the time rehearsal starts. Often I was supplied with a photo of the actor to help me with the process, so I didn’t design something that would not suit the body shape of the actor. (By the way, these days ‘actor’ is the term given to both male and female members of the profession.) Actors have to get used to period costumes, so the actor is often supplied with a ‘practice’ skirt or corset, or practice shoes to get used to wearing them.
The Tailor by Moroni

GK – my oldest sister Fiona, who is an opera singer, often says just that - that she needs the shoes and the skirt (or at least the underskirt) to get the feel of the role in rehearsal) But I suppose in many ways the research for a theatre production is a similar process to the work we both undertake as novelists.

DS. Yes, to me it’s the same process but in reverse. I used to take a text and make it into images, now I take images and make them into text! It’s probably one of the reasons I write historicals. But I suppose costume design was radically different in the Renaissance. I know you’ve been working on a book about a seamstress in a travelling troupe. Did they have designers in the Renaissance or were theatrical costumes made by seamstresses to the actor’s orders?
G.K. The characters in Commedia dell’Arte are traditional – they are archetypes, if you like, and each character had a recognisable costume (and some had masks), with which audiences would have been totally familiar.  People would have been expecting, for instance, Arlecchino (Harlequin) to be in his diamond-patterned jacket and leggings, and Il Dottore (the Doctor) to be in full academic black robes with a skull-cap (later changed to a wide-brimmed flat hat).  So design was not really a feature in the same way as it is in the modern theatre. Some more elaborate garments might have been donated by satisfied wealthy audience members, other costumes would have been customised from everyday clothes already owned. 

The troupes varied in terms of wealth – some, like The Gelosi, were nationally adored, and were also favourites of the French court, so they would no doubt have had far, far more money to spend on their costumes and sets than a little up-and-coming troupe like my Corraggiosi.  My lovely actors work more on the ‘make-do-and-mend’ level !

D.S. One of the things I loved about theatrical costumes was that they were bespoke – often it was the only garment like it anywhere in the world. And today it is hard to think back to a time when everything was hand sewn. What sort of fabrics did they have in the sixteenth century, and does your character love her work or hate it?

G.K. Sofia does enjoy her sewing.  She is a seamstress when the story opens, but as the story begins, she is fleeing her home, falsely accused of theft, so we don’t see her at work at that point.  A little information leaks out about how tough her life has been, however – Sofia’s employer has not been an easy woman to work for. 

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that seamstresses in Renaissance Italy were really menders rather than makers.  The business of designing and creating new garments was largely done by men, and the women performed the more menial, but just as necessary, task of re-fitting, mending and darning.  You couldn’t wash those big heavy embroidered dresses (... not something we would feel comfortable with today!) so I imagine they wore through more easily once they’d picked up dust etc.  Sleeves were removable (fastened to bodices at the shoulder with laces) so those could be replaced or mended quite easily, which is just as well – how many times must people have accidentally dunked their sleeves in the soup, or had the baby be sick on them!

It is Sofia’s skill with a needle which enables her to join the acting troupe in the first place, and she happily settles down to mending and customising the player’s costumes, and is very happy in her new role.  She fairly quickly becomes interested in acting, though, which – for various reasons – rather takes precedence over her sewing ...

You ask about fabrics – linen of varying qualities was used in undergarments in the Renaissance (the finer the better – the aristocracy would have had their undergarments made in near-transparent linen lawn, while the more rustic would have made do with a cloth not far removed from sacking!)  Wool in winter, linen in summer for outer garments, and for the wealthy, all the various types and weights of silk would have been much in demand.  I came across a description of something called cypress gauze when researching – a totally transparent silk lawn.  It sounds absolutely gorgeous!  Other fabrics used - I’ve found doublets made from doeskin and leather as well as wool and silk.

Historical costume is fascinating, isn’t it?  I wonder if it’s partly the drama of the costumes which attracts women readers to historical fiction.  The covers of both our books would suggest that, perhaps.

D.S. I agree, but I try not to be too costume-obsessed in my novels. Obviously having the expertise is useful, but I suspect readers would get bored if I always described the clothes in too much detail. By the way, do you like the costumes on your covers? I  particularly liked the cover for ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ – she has a very direct gaze!

Manet's Olympia
G.K.   I think it’s fair to say that when my first novel’s cover was designed, it was nothing like the ideas I had had in my head!  I had been thinking along arty lines, with grainy black-and-white images, etc.  But I loved the dress they found for my cover model to wear, so was quickly won over.  I agree with you about the direct gaze of the Courtesan!  When I discussed this cover design with my editor, I told her that I was very taken with Manet’s painting ‘Olympia’ - the model for which was prostitute (and artist) Victorine Meurent, and said I would like my cover model to have something of her confrontational stare – I think they obliged!

 I like your covers very much – the image for ‘A Divided Inheritance’ is particularly lovely, like a glimpse through a part-open window.  I’m guessing from the look of the cover that your new book is set earlier in history than your previous two books.  Did the change in era bring with it any research difficulties?

D.S. Yes it’s set in 1610, just after the Gunpowder Plot, so for me it was a whole new research adventure. One of my characters is a swordsman so I spent a lot of time researching sword-making and swordsmanship. And actually I was surprised that there were more women skilled with the sword than you would imagine. Afternoon fencing matches are described as part of the entertainment at Clerkenwell, with female fighters. 

forging a sword at
But for Elspet Leviston, my main character, I also had to research the craft of lace-making. Did you know that needle-lace was made by literally sewing individual stitches onto the ‘réseau’ - the net background? Once the net was fully embellished the background was painstakingly snipped away. So much work! Bobbin lace was equally time-consuming, with bone bobbins pinned to a straw-filled pillow upon which the lace was gradually braided and twisted together. It evolved from braid-making in Italy, but soon Flanders and Normandy became the centres of this type of lace-making, and thousands of women in Europe were employed in this craft because it could be done easily at home as ‘piece work’.

G.K. I didn’t know about the needle-lace.  It sounds incredible.  Sometimes I’ve wondered about people’s eyesight in these times.  Given that people only worked by daylight or candlelight, and spectacles were very much in their infancy, people must have strained their eyes so badly!  Your description of lace-making leaves me so keenly aware of the hours and hours and hours people spent on creating things of such beauty, at such potential cost to their own health.

D.S. I suppose labour was very cheap, particularly women’s labour. It makes me so glad we live when we do – where we are free to write and give voice to our stories, and where through the internet we have access to information about so many other people’s lives and cultures. I expect you find that life in the classroom has changed beyond all recognition.

G.K. It’s changed a lot since I trained as a teacher, that’s for certain - it was still chalk and blackboards back then!  The internet has totally revolutionised the way we as teachers are able to access and present material for lessons, which is wonderful (though it has also revolutionised the way the kids communicate illegally too!  Where we scribbled notes and passed them under the desk, they are all texting and Skype-ing and posting photos on Instagram ...).  As an English teacher though, the focus and fundamental core of my lessons is still the power of the written word, and I suppose that hasn’t changed at all.  Luckily..

We hope you've enjoyed our meandering chat and will forgive us our foray from England into Renaissance Italy! We can be contacted through our websites and or chat with us some more on Twitter @swiftstory and @gabrielle_kimm

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