historical fashion

What They Wore: The Governess Was Wicked

I love historical fashion from pantaloons to pelisses, and over the years more and more of it has made its way into my books. Clothing can be a wonderful way to ground a scene in a time and place, and it can also tell you a lot about a character.

Afternoon dress, ca. 1855, French, cotton, from @metmuseum

A photo posted by Really Old Frocks (@reallyoldfrocks) on

When I started writing Elizabeth Porter, the heroine at the center of The Governess Was WickedI knew I'd set myself a particular challenge. Governesses typically wore simple clothing in a limited range of colors (think functional colors like greys and dark blues and greens) and with few embellishments. She would have had a few dresses including her "best" dress that would have been worn to church or on special occasions. Otherwise, her clothing would have had to last as long as possible to maximize on cost.

Dress, ca. 1856, British, from the Metropolitian Museum of Art

Most of what we see in museums are beautiful examples of exquisite — and exquisitely expensive — gowns. The more workman-like dresses weren't necessarily preserved for history. That means that you'll see a lot more of Mrs. Norton's wardrobe when you go to museums than you will Elizabeth's.

While her clothing might not have been as luxurious and fashion-forward as the woman whose children she educated, a governess did share something in common with her mistress: they both wore the same silhouette.

Cabinet photograph, Aug Linde (photographer), 1850-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

The late 1850s was characterized by large, bell-shaped skirts that flared out from a tightly cinched waist. One big development in undergarments allowed women to achieve these huge skirts: the cage crinoline. Up until this point, ladies would have piled on petticoats to create a full effect. Although they look horribly impractical to us, crinolines of wire covered with cotton actually created a structure for a dress to lay on top of and flare out from the body.

Cage crinoline, ca. 1862, British, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Crinolines were relatively inexpensive, so women of all classes eventually adopted them (although the massive yards of fabric needed for truly huge skirts would be a fashion statement only very wealthy women could afford).

Dinner dress, 1855–59, British from the Metropolitian Museum of Art

The shape crinolines created was so popular that reports were 200 pound of product was lost in the Staffordshire potteries in 1863 due to the wide skirts of working women accidentally sweeping shelves clean.

Cabinet photograph, H J Whitlock (photographer), 1850-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

If you're interested in fashion history (or just really like all of the pretty pictures of dresses I've shown), join my Facebook group Really Old Frocks and follow my @reallyoldfrocks Instagram for more beautiful old-fashioned fashion.

And last but not least, I'm giving away two huge prize packs to celebrate The Governess Was Wicked thanks to a little help from my author friends. You could win ebooks, signed paperbacks, audiobooks, and an Amazon gift card!. All you have to do is enter here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

BONUS: I had to include this stereoscopic picture I ran across in doing my research for this article. It's both creepy and flirtatious with the older gentleman kissing the hand of a young woman who is fending him off coquettishly with her fan.

Stereoscopic photograph & stereograph, 1851-1860, from the Manchester City Galleries

PHOTOS: A Walk-Through ‘Manus x Machina’ from The Met’s Costume Institute

Last weekend I spent the day at the Metropolitian Museum of Art's "Manus x Machina" exhibit from the Costume Institute. The exhibit, which focuses on the marriage of machine produced fabrics and effects with handworking in couture and high fashion — is grouped into themes like lace and sequins rather than being ordered chronologically. That means you'll see a wedding dress from 1870 next to a dress from 2015 which makes it easy to see silhouettes and styles reflected over and over in the garments even as eras changed.

There's nothing like seeing an exhibit like this in person, but if you can't  make it to New York City, here's a walk-through of some of the dresses.

If you want to see more dresses from "Manus x Machina," you can check out the exhibit album in my Facebook group, Really Old Frocks, which celebrates historical fashion in all its forms.

"The Girls She Left Behind"

I've talked before about my love for fashion plates, but sometimes when I'm rooting around in the New York Public Library's digital collection I stumble upon something I've just got to talk about. For 10 cents in September of 1919, you could buy a magazine with a pretty remarkable-looking cover. Check it out.

"The Girls She Left Behind Her." 1919. Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The cover is entitled "The Girls She Left Behind Her," and it's pretty stunning. Not only do we have a young lady in what was traditionally a man's riding kit — boots, jodhpurs, and all — she's standing in front of at least six female figures, all dressed in historical garb.

From what I can tell we start with a woman in Elizabethan dress on the far left and progress through the 18th century to the Georgian empire waist dresses all Jane Austen period drama fans know so well. Barely visible in green behind the main figure is what looks like the full bell skirt of a dress spread over a cage crinoline (mid to late 1850s) and then the mutton sleeves of the mid 1890s. Topping it all of with her back turned to us in a stunning pink dress is a woman wearing the fashions of the first decade of the twentieth century.

This is a little early for the extreme changes in fashion that the flappers brought with them, and so the magazine cover is in a way even more remarkable. You can see just how aware the editorial staff of this magazine must have been about the opening up of social conventions regarding dress — and also a woman's place in society — when the central figure of a fashion plate is wearing trousers. Even more interesting, I don't read any censure in this drawing. Rather than a fearful cartoon of how society would fall apart just because a woman pulled on a pair of pants, the artist seems to be making a statement: this is how it is.

I won't go so far as to say this image was intentionally feminist. The illustrator still calls her a girl, and we've got to remember that this pretty white woman who represents beauty ideals of the time is meant to move magazines. Besides my old college professors would scold me for not contextualizing what feminism would have meant in 1919 and instead projecting my own modern ideas onto it. Instead I'll just say that this magazine cover is a fascinating sign of its times.

Now if someone could make me that white skirted riding coat and find me a pair of those boots I'd be a very happy lady.

A Most Fashionable Facebook Group


Happy Monday everyone! I'm almost one week out from heading on vacation and I'm itching to grab my passports and go, so it's going to be a short post today.

I wanted to let you know about an incredible and growing group of readers that have joined me on Facebook in the last couple weeks. I started a group called Really Old Frocks that's all a celebration of everything we love about historical fashion. Historical romance readers are especially welcome, but the group is also for costumers, history nerds, and period movie aficionados who want to gush over the beautiful gowns and accessories we all love!

I'm starting to put together some documents in the file section with recommendations about resources for writers or curious fashion fans, and we've got some great themed days like #MovieMonday, #20sTuesday, #RogueFriday, and #SinfulSaturday to look forward to.

So head on over to Really Old Frocks and join our little growing community! I post regularly (even on vacation, I promise), and I'd love it even more if I could see what you guys have got!