Three things to know about me (at least in relation to this blog):
1) I like words.
2) I like history.
3) I like textiles.
Textiles (you know, cloth) like Rodney Dangerfield, never getting no respect. The more literary the fiction, the fewer words will be squandered on describing who wears what. Characters are dressed, or not dressed, and that’s about it. Conversely, the most sniggering parodies of “lady writers” will inevitably include a detailed list of the heroine’s closet, complete with designers’ names. (“She tossed her Blackberry into her Prada bag, along with her Marc Jacob sunglasses, Coach wallet, Cross pen, and Hermes scarf.”)
Historical fiction often gets the double whammy. Too many adjectives will be used to describe too much clothing, but using modern words and woeful history. I’ve already written here about the sad, inaccurate state of “historical” men’s shirts (a chorus, please, Kalen!), especially the ones make of silk that button down the front. But the ladies seldom fare much better. Think of all the Regency misses who wear high-waisted white cotton dress with puffed sleeves, which makes for boring writing and history.
There’s so much more that can be said about how a character dresses. It’s how she presents herself to
the world. (It’s how he does, too, but to save blog verbiage, I’ll stick to the ladies for now.) It determines how she moves, even if she moves. Dress can show a character’s rank, income, job, marital status, religious beliefs, and sensuality. It can be a symbol of honor, or a brand of poverty, and it can reflect whether she’s a neatnik or a slob. It can show political beliefs, or stunning insensitivity, whether she dresses to attract men, or rebuff them.
It’s obvious that a lady in a jewel-studded brocade gown will move far differently than her maid in linsey-woolsey. But even an 18th century farmer’s wife would have tucked up her skirts and secured them through the slits for her pockets to keep her best glazed-wool petticoat clear of the mud in her yard while doing chores, and nearly every woman of every rank would cover her “good” clothes with an apron while doing any slightly messy task.
An 18th century Englishman’s shirt would have been made of linen, with virtually no exceptions. But was the gentleman supporting Irish manufactures with Irish linen? Did he care for style over politics, and buy Holland linen smuggled into London past trade embargos against the Netherlands? Or was he of the lower class or “middling sort”, who still relied on linen that was processed and sewn at home? One tidy adjective can say so much.
Careless writers will always put the common folk in cotton, reflecting the modern price (and often contempt) of this fiber. But in 1800, before the cotton gin, cotton could be costly, reflecting either its complicated manufacture or its import from India. Complicating things further for historians, “cotton” was also used to describe a process that raised a fuzzy nap on woolen cloth (“cottoning”), so often cotton isn’t cotton at all, but wool.
A late 18th-century woman looking over bolts or pieces of fabric in a shop would definitely have understood the differences. She would know that ballasor, imported from India, was a cotton muslin suitable for her husband’s hankerchiefs, while balzarine was a light-weight brocade for day gowns, a blend of worsted wool and cotton woven into fanciful patterns on a jacquard loom. She would have requested beaverteen (a coarse, heavy, cotton twill with a thick pile) for her sons’ winter jackets. She might have bought several lengths of Canterbury (an old-fashioned cotton brocade with a silk warp, named after the city where it was first woven) for a gown for her widowed mother-in-law. She would have chosen jaconet (a thin woven cotton, between cambric and muslin) for infants’ clothes and caps, and perhaps a quantity of striped siamoise (a light but sturdy cloth, woven of linen and cotton) for summer slip coverings and bed hangings. All cotton, yes, but all as different as can be, and while the fine distinctions between the fabrics may be lost to us, the words themselves are evocative of a different time.
Consider the textiles of the more recent past. Dotted Swiss and cotton velveteen are forever the itchy,
unyielding fabrics of Sunday dresses from my childhood. Kettle cloth and wide-wale corduroy were what we all sewed into shift dresses and jumpers in Home Economics classes back in the 60s, when Home Ec was still Home Ec and not Family & Consumer Sciences. The first of the slinky synthetic knits were appearing then, too, in Orlon, and in Banlon, that creepiest of all fabrics for men’s shirts. Say Quiana and Ultrasuede and polyester-double-knit, and it’s instantly the 70s. Today it’s matte jersey and ramie and Tencel and Polarfleece, and Lycra laced through everything. And just consider all the subtle variations today in cotton denim: sand-blasted, stone-washed, and double-dip-dyed, from snow to chambray to midnight.
So please, my fellow writers. I know that one writer’s (and reader’s) perfect telling historical
detail can be another’s "infodump" (and is there any more inelegant, disparaging
scrap of jargon than that?) I’m not asking for the entire inventory of the dry goods store or milliners’ shop. Just don’t call everything cotton!
I can’t leave historical textiles alone without mentioning the two best sources out there, for readers, writers, and collectors. First is Textiles in America 1650-1870, by Florence M. Montgomery. Written by a curator of textiles at Winterthur thirty years ago, this has recently been reissued (though with a horrible cover). While the title implies an American bias, most of the quotes from primary sources are English. There’s an excellent glossary of textiles, and the photographs are most useful. But textiles are a tactile pleasure as much as a visual and historical one, and for that the series of publications from costume historians Sally Queen Associates are unrivaled. While smaller in scope, the spiral-bound pages of these books are illustrated with 3×3 swatches of actual fabric. (Think Pat the Bunny for historians.) Available books in the series include the 18th century, Regency era, and Victorian. The next time you read about nankeen, you’ll KNOW what it feels like.
Any other fabric-lovers out there that have to touch everything? Do heroes in silk shirts bug you, too, or do you think I’m being hopelessly picky? And did anyone else struggle through sewing classes in high school, or do you still find pleasure in turning a length of cloth into something to wear?