I am a Leo, and I adore clothes for many reasons. How many of you use what you’re wearing as a costume to hide behind or to convey your current mood? When I pack a suitcase, I have to carry various mix-and-match options, not because I need the extra clothing, but because I may not be in the right humor to wear the all-white dressy outfit. I may want to strike out with something red. I’ve learned to carry an assortment of wardrobe pieces and accessories just so I’ll be comfortable with the environment as well as my frame of mind. (If you go to the RWA literacy signing, guess my mood from what I’m wearing. <G>)
I like to dress the characters in my books similarly. With the contemporaries, that was easy. If my heroine was wearing spike-heeled, knee-high boots, watch out! If she was wearing sloppy shorts and T-shirt with chocolate stains down the front, I might be conveying the same mood—PMS with an attitude—but with a different type of character.
In historicals, dressing my characters for personality and mood is a little tougher because the variety of clothing is limited to some degree. (Anyone else design clothes for Barbies and paper dolls? I even created historical clothing for a school project!) Sure, a governess can be dressed in dowdy woolens while an heiress can be wearing handmade, imported lace, but that merely reflects social status. I might have them wear simple designs instead of ruffled, but that only indicates good taste or body type, not character or mood.
In MYSTIC WARRIOR, I had the option to play more with costume because my heroine lives on an island where everyone wears simple tunics and sandals– no modistes and no fancy fabrics in a country where one walks mountains and beaches. So when I have her land in late eighteenth-century France, where fashion went from one extreme to the other, I had lots of leeway to assert her character. Of course she complained about petticoats and corsets and high-heeled shoes and the results when she trailed them through the running sewer of primitive streets. As time goes on and she learns more of the culture, she gradually progresses to adopting her clothing to suit herself, not completely understanding the differences between rural and city styles but knowing what made her comfortable. That she’s unaware of the provocative differences in these outfits that she designs for practical purposes gives some evidence of her essential nature. I don't think she'd ever understand fashionable fans!
In reality, people of that time period—unless they were royalty—had limited attire. Yes, women of a certain status had round gowns to wear about the house in the morning, and a walking gown for running errands, and an evening gown for dinner, but they did not have entire closets from which to choose. In most cases, they didn’t have closets but a small wardrobe that held all their gowns and undergarments. An expensive evening dress, or a favorite walking gown, might be adapted from one year to the next by lowering waistlines or adding ruffles, but clothing was far too expensive to buy as frequently as our heroines do in historical romance.
So how did Regency women express their characters and moods when limited to which color ribbon to wear with their white muslins? That’s my challenge as I return to Regency England for my next book. I suppose not all my heroines are Leos with a flare for fancy dress, but still, I’d like them to choose clothes that express their inner selves. Although I don’t think my dowdy spinster in the first book will be damping her linens anytime soon!