Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lace and High Heels - Costume in Historical Fiction

by Deborah Swift

I spent many years as a costume designer and one of the things that was always awkward was getting the actor to understand that once they were wearing their costume, their whole movement would necessarily change.

18th century stomacher; click for more info

When writing historical fiction, a writer has to bear the same idea in mind, otherwise the clothing ceases to help the characterization. People moved differently in the past. For example, the weight and bulk of women's skirts in the seventeenth century, and even more so in Tudor times with less silk available, would make ascending and descending stairs more tricky than it is today. Running up or down stairs when the skirts have to be held out of the way, would have been more or less impossible, as there would be no hands free to hold on to the banisters. Women did not 'run', it was considered unseemly.

Bearing these considerations in mind helps to make your characters true of their period, and not just modern people in fancy dress.

Corset Busk
By the sixteenth century, corsets were a commonly worn garment among English women, and by the seventeenth century they incorporated a busk, a flat piece of wood sewn into a pocket in the front. The front of the corset was decorated by a stomacher, which was often embroidered, or covered with lace, rows of ribbon, or bows called an échelle (ladder). I once wrote in one of my books that someone 'pushed her in the stomacher' and the editor asked if 'stomacher' was a misprint. Of course the term was technically correct, but the word (quite rightly) had to come out of the novel because I'd forgotten that not all readers would understand my costume terminology!

But the stiffness of the busk would affect bending at the waist, so picking up things from the ground would be a more awkward movement than it would be for women today. 'Slumping' would also be difficult. (for example, 'She slumped'). A stomacher needed to be pinned on every time it was worn, so dressing was time-consuming. Sometimes I read lines in novels such as 'she threw on her bodice and rushed to the window,' but that is very unlikely. Upper class men and women needed servants to help them dress.

Rubens painting of Mme Fourneau in a hat

In winter, clothes were exceedingly heavy because woolen garments and furs were added for warmth, making ease of movement very difficult. Portraits do not often show this, as they were painted indoors, but diarists such as Pepys often make reference to these outdoor clothes. 'To White Hall on foot, calling at my father's to change my long black cloak for a short one (long cloaks being now quite out)' 

Running in the rain in the seventeenth century would have been a challenge for a woman, whilst she kept skirts out of puddles, the cloak fastened together, and one hand on her hat to make sure it did not blow off.

Petticoat Breeches
As for the lace and high heels - that was for the men!
By the mid- seventeenth century, loose breeches, called petticoat breeches, became very popular for men. They were large and loose, decorated with loops of ribbon hanging from the waist and around the knees. They were usually worn with a long-draped 'vest' or an over-skirt which fell just above the knee. They too were decorated with flapping lace and ribbon. I imagine loops of ribbon and lace would get caught on door knobs or other people's swords as you went! More about the odd fashion of Petticoat Breeches here.

Men also had the difficulty of walking in high heels. Shoes from the 1650's through to the 1670's tended to be square toed and longer than the foot inside them, and for men the heel was quite high, with red heels being in vogue. The heels accentuated a shapely calf, but again made speed of movement unlikely.
I have not yet read a novel where the man says, 'I must get out of these heels, they're killing me,' but it wouldn't be at all unlikely!

Boy's boot from the Bata Shoe Museum 17th C
If you are interested in period footwear, check out this great article from Collectors Weekly

So when writing it is not enough to imagine what the clothes looked like from the outside, but also the sheer reality and practicality of what it would feel like to wear them. Of course I have chosen some extreme examples, but it is not enough to just think about what things looked like. Questions I often ask myself are: How do they fasten? What do they weigh? Can the character dress herself? How does the clothing restrict her movement? What annoys her about her clothes - e.g. do the laces keep coming undone? Which parts are uncomfortable? Which parts does she change every day, and which stay the same? Do the clothes affect freedom of passage (through doors, for example)? Can the person sit down? What do the clothes tell other characters about her status? How well-worn are the clothes, and does she mend them herself?

In one of my books the wooden stomacher made it uncomfortable for the woman to sit. The physical discomfort echoed her emotional discomfort, and reference to the restrictive clothing really helped the scene.

As a writer we want to make the world feel real, not leave it as a 'story world'. Paying close attention to the clothing - the thing that is both the most intimate and the most external to the character, can add a whole new layer of  depth to your novel.

Thank you for reading!


  1. Excellent, Deborah, both in information about historical clothing and how to incorporate not only the look but the wearing in historical fiction writing. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Diane. I love researching the costume.

  2. A fascinating and informative post.

    1. Hi Charlotte, nice to say hello here. Charlotte shares my love of the 17th century!

  3. Thanks for this!

    I'm writing books set in late 17th century France and had to start a Pinterest page because I'm not very visual and I kept having to check back on what sort of breeches they were wearing. I try to keep all the details in mind when my heroine is in a hurry, but it's not easy. And remembering that the gentlemen are tottering around in high heels? I try not to make it comic, since that would just be normal...

    Though there are enough times in my books that they are disguised as peasants or a lady is treated more like a servant and has to have laces up the front and light or no corset. I always forget the busk, though!

    1. is my board. Boards, really, since I've been writing over the span of 1660's-1690's. Everything's sort of tossed up there, but I tried to sort by decade.

  4. Very informative post and beautiful pics. I love the look of 17th century women's clothing, but as a modern woman, the very idea of so many layers and so much binding is a bit sickening to me. I suppose what my Southern mom and grandmother have always said is true. "It hurts to be beautiful."

  5. Well said, and well illustrated! I'd love to see another blog offering online resources for researching period clothing.

  6. Debbie, you are so right, and getting the feel of clothes, not just the look of them, right is so very important to the authenticity of a novel -- no matter what century you're writing about! Thanks for the reminder! I will be sure to ask all of your questions going forward.

  7. That's very interesting and has raised all kinds of questions for me about the way that I read historical novels.

  8. thank you everyone for your responses to this post, I've read them all with great interest. What a great community we have here!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.