Wednesday, December 21, 2011

19th Century Frocks & Frills: Researching Fashion

Where do you go to research historical fashion for your fiction?

Do you get swept up into the world of yesteryear when you start your research? or fantasize about what it would have been like to wear those long beautiful evening gowns of the 19th century?

Well, personally, I really don't like to wear dresses. But I am fascinated by the amount of artistic creative work that went into fashion a hundred years ago, and wouldn't refuse the chance to try on one of those gorgeous gowns. And like today, a hundred years ago the degree of high fashion or utility of a garment reflected so much about the person wearing it. And that's what draws me, the-not-so-fashionista-woman, into researching fashion for my current WIP.

by permission

In my new WIP, Lena has just lost her courage for the future, and Riley is just finding his--set in northern Wisconsin, 1894.

Alright, now onward to the fashion.

Lena first.

She likely took some, but not all of her clothing with her from Chicago. She was raised with wealth since her father was a Civil War surgeon. But after her father's death she lost her savings and the home she was raised in to fund her dream, I imagine that she has given away or stored most of her more elegant clothing and likely has a few very serviceable pieces she wears to travel north, and for day to day work. She is probably given a nurse's gown or has one made when she agrees to work for Dr. Reese. So, she may appear as an odd mixture of wealth, vocation, and very plain dress wear--and of coarse, she is a woman who looks beautiful in anything she wears!

For my research, I stumbled upon a great website from my Jane Austen blog link, Victoria & Albert Museum at:
I imagine that Lena might have worn a traveling suit like this one I downloaded from V & A:
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This is an 1895 day jacket and skirt used to travel. This one is made of cotton for light weight and warmer weather, so I assume Lena's travel suit would have had a similar cut and style, but would have been made of wool to travel to Wisconsin in January of 1894. This beige color, according to V & A's description, was a popular color for travel as it did not show the dust of the journey as much as other colors.

And for her day dress she might have worn something similar to this dress also found with a description on V & A's website:
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This day dress was made in 1889 and sports a waist length bodice. It is paneled with satin, edged in ribbon, and trimmed in back with a made up bow. The bodice is lined with the same green silk that makes up the skirt's petticoats. Both the bodice and skirt are boned and the collar and cuffs are faced with gold beaded tulle.

This dress was made in Paris, but I suspect Lena's dress is made in Chicago or New York, and is made from lower quality or warmer materials.

But for the nurse's uniform, I found a nice link to a medical museum in Youngston, OH:http: I think I'll have to stop and visit this medical museum on the way to Laurelville,PA this coming summer!

They have a nice display of an 1890's nurse's uniform Lena might have worn:

On the other hand, Riley looks to Lena as if he's stepped straight off the stagecoach still dressed in his black Stetson, cowboy boots, and oiled canvas slicker--a picture of masculinity and strength. Lena sees him as out of place and a generation behind in style--but his charisma and the fact that he embodies her dreams of a man, do little to make her want to change him.

Riley's aura and garments are a bit tougher to research. I did find a picture of Texan cowboys in 1891, some modern descriptions of oiled canvas, and a black frock coat he might have changed to for a nice evening out.
used by permission: copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This 1890 type of frock coat was likely worn by both the elderly doctor and by Riley when he took Lena to dinner. It is longer than some coats, double breasted, made of heavy wool with a sateen lining and a velvet collar.

Or he might have worn something like this western wear found at:

I'll have to keep looking for more cowboy clothing descriptions.

So, would you read on to find out more about Riley and Lena? Can you "see" them better now?
What helps you research for your historical writings?  


  1. Anne, Riley and Lena's story sounds so very interesting! Love how you flesh the story out with costume research. That's one of my favorite things and really does bring the words/pages to life. I have a special fondness for Lena's name as that was the name of my Kentucky granny. And Riley is a great name for a hero! I recently made the switch from 18th to 19th century clothing and it's quite a leap. But fun, fun, fun:) Bless you as you write. I can't wait to hold your book in hand someday.

  2. Oh Laura, thanks for your comments and vote of confidence. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. So if you jumped to 19th century clothing, that must mean your next book is 19th cent??
    Blessings and Merry Christmas this holiday season!

  3. I want to have Riley's oiled canvas slicker lined with beaver skin for warmth, since the oiled canvas was designed more as a rain and moisture barrier. The modern ones I found online had zip out liners. So I was thinking a fur liner that buttoned in and out would do, what do you think?

  4. Beautiful post! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. I'm so glad you enjoyed it Carrie! I had no idea when I posted this one that so many people would love it. Of course, on Pinterest, my collection of pics of 19th century dresses is a great hit too. I'll be the colonial era would be just as great a hit. I think people are visually fascinated by it!