As I’ve been working on writing a wedding-day scene for my historical novel set in Vancouver 1885-1913 I realize I need help to get her underwear and clothes right so I can be as authentic as possible.
I’ve been reading historical novels for years, but have always glossed over these terms in my effort to get on with the story, and only ever had a vague idea about what they were.
Now I understand that part of the reason I never fully understood is because their design, purpose, and construction changed according to the whims of fashion and the social position of women over the couple of hundred years they were worn.
The study of the history of fashion is a complex and detailed discipline and one I don’t claim any proficiency. But in Vancouver, we’re fortunate to have a knowledgeable and passionate costume historian, Ivan Sayers, who not only knows the minutiae of fashion, but also the social history of women as it relates to it.
From details about the multiple layers of underwear and the way a corset was tightened. From the colour and pattern on fabric to the way a woman wore her hair. From the kind of jewelry to the style of shoe – Ivan knows these details as they went through their subtle and profound changes every few years from the 1800s to the present. As well as what was available and acceptable here in the early days of Vancouver.
I spent a fascinating couple of hours with him last week and he gave me the low-down on Vancouver fashion of the 1880s – what the women here knew about the latest fashions in Europe, how they tried to replicate it, and what they’d do to fudge it the parts they couldn’t, whether because it wasn’t available or was too expensive – specifically for my servant-girl protagonist.
Shifts, crinolines, bustles, petticoats. Here was my chance to get the low-down without having to pour through books and try to figure out which style was appropriate for the time in.
Ivan is a local historical hero in my books – and we’re lucky to have him. Next week I’ll talk about his work to create a costume museum in Vancouver and his fashion shows featuring original clothing that he commentates, bringing a feminist historical perspective to the issues, trends, and movements as they relate to clothing of the time.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Ivan’s projects, check out SMOC, the Society for the Museum of Original Costume which he founded in 1992 to build, preserve, and study historical textiles, fashion, and traditional costumes.