Clothes Make the Character (Or why everyone in the Traitor Son series has to have a wardrobe)

My daughter, in her silk and fur, between Giulia Grigoli of Verona. Italy and xxxxxx who made Giulia's dress and her own.

My daughter, in her silk and fur, between Giulia Grigoli of Verona. Italy and Margherita De Marco.  I believe both her dress and Giulia’s were made by Monica of Sartoria Monro.  Beatrice’s dress by me.

 Margherita De Marco

Yes, it’s true—I have closets full of historical clothes. In fact, not only do I have closets full, but so do my wife and daughter—clothes for at least three time periods (besides our own, of course) and sometimes four. Or five.
Nor are these clothes, strictly speaking, costumes. To me, a costume is something that looks real but is not—the most extreme, and perhaps wonderful, example I ever saw was a staging of Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where all the elaborate Elizabethan fashions were dome in garbage bags, duct tape and glue. They looked fantastic, I promise you—and they wouldn’t have allowed you to light a camp fire or walk in the woods or ride a horse or, really, experience any part of the past, including the experience of what it might be like to wear those clothes.
And it is in the word experience that I want to couch my arguments about clothes and character. You do not have to be a gender studies professional or a mere (that was ironic) costumer to understand that clothes do a great deal to define and project our gender, our status, our role in society and, oh, our individuality or lack thereof, our taste and fashion—they are like a signboard of who we are.
So when I write, one of my very first questions, once I’ve considered character and motivation of a ‘person’ in my fiction, is ‘what does she wear?’
Probably worth noting here that I love to sew. And that every time period has its own conventions, its own stitch styles and buttonholes and eyelets and so on—its own notions of how to stiffen and when to leave soft, what to stretch and what to make rigid, what to emphasize and what to flatten. In fact—and I can’t emphasize this too much—what people wear is very much like how people fight. It has a little to do with practicality and a great deal more to do with social needs and cultural norms, and thus, each set of clothes for each character helps me define what the culture is like, and what the clothes say, and what the culture allows those clothes to day.

Laying out a medieval sleeve.  Cat optional.  In fact, completely UNNECESSARY

Laying out a medieval sleeve. Cat optional. In fact, completely UNNECESSARY

I find it interesting when my work is called ‘Historical Fantasy.’ To my mind, and with due apologies to outraged readers, all fantasy is historical; every single fantasy novel I have ever read makes assumptions about culture, costume, gender, military culture, farming, industry and economics, religion and even magic that are strongly embedded in history. This should surprise no one—history is the story of the human race, it is almost impossible to imagine an entire culture that is truly alien to us—and that can be made to function organically and make sense to the reader. We begin confronting this ‘reality of fantasy’ as soon as we discuss clothes. What are they made of? If I say wool, I have to wonder where wool comes from; sheep, obviously, but raised how? And where? Sheep had an enormous impact of the European Middle Ages; sheep also had impact on the Mongols, in a different way. Wool is important to the economy of Alba, in the Traitor Son series—so important, I might add, the wars can be fought over wool production, and merchant adventurers like Ser Gerald Random base their finances on the regular income from wool, which the King bases his fortune on the taxation of wool exports.
Wait, wasn’t this blog about fashion?
Say silk—and then wonder where it comes from. Are there mulberry trees? Are their silk farms? Is there a China?
Even if we leave ‘historical’ fantasy (and so far all that’s making it historical is economic and cultural linkage to fabric, for heaven’s sake) we aren’t safe. Invent fantastical spiders that spin miracle fibers, and you have to ask, if these things interest you—what’s the infrastructure of that like? Where do the spiders live? Is there a magical spider equivalent of the mulberry bush? Are the spiders killed to harvest the fiber? Is this a child-labour culture?
How about furs? In most pre-modern societies, furs were a reliable indicator of status; sumptuary laws in many European countries tried to regulate who wore which one (although new research indicates this was less to limit the lower classes and more to make sure people bought local and not ‘foreign’ fur.) Furs—and leather quality—influence everything from armour construction to how a hero or heroine might dress; who does not love the ‘simple leather jerkin’ of the generic European past? (I challenge you to make one and then tell me it is ‘simple.’)
One of the most remarkable books I read last year was ‘The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages’ by Elspeth Veale. In a single book Ms. Veale showed me the depths of my ignorance about the internationality of the fur trade in the Middle Ages—and also showed me how all the infrastructure for the New World trade in beaver pelts had already been created long before Columbus sailed. She also effected the economy of my fantasy world.  Who knew how much money people spent on furs?
Just before I read the book, I was in Cumbria with my wife Sarah and her sister Nancy Watt (both veteran reenactors and in the case of my sister-in-law, a deeply gifted seamstress and historical costumer) when we visited the site of a seventeenth century tannery.
Like Elspeth Veale’s book, that one historical site did a great deal to cure my ignorance (and I’ve worked with leather since I was a child). Did you know that dog shit (sorry, but I wanted the impact of the word) was an essential element in tanning? That carts would cruise from kennel to kennel, collecting it? Mmmm… picture a job where you literally wade in dog shit and dead animal bits. Oh, and walnut hulls in acid. Wow, this is pollution of an almost modern toxicity, and it did a great deal to enlighten me on the glorious life of the countryside, or even why tanner’s yards were so horrible and always located in the very worst parts of town. Sometimes alongside brothels.
So there’s a very general look at some of the materials that go into clothes and how much they influence society, and the attendant cultural baggage. But then there’s cut.
(Warning, generalization!) Until at least the late 13th century, Europeans wore very loose fitting clothing, often fitted to the waist with a cord or belt. After the early fourteenth century, clothing got ever tighter, until by the 1380s, court-culture clothes were nearly skin tight. It would be easy, if you didn’t make and wear these clothes, to characterize the earlier clothes (and peasant clothes) as ‘practical’ while the court fashions were ‘difficult to wear’ and ‘constricting’ and ‘uncomfortable.’ This is where we begin to examine the interactions between culture and fashion; a lifetime could be spent on it, and I only wish you, the reader, to see how complex the inter-relations are. And why ‘experience’ is important to making judgements.
You see, those tight clothes—at least some of them—were influenced by changes in armour; and they were skin tight to make the new ‘plate armour’ fit better. And in fact, at least in men’s fashion, this led to a sort of reinforcement loop, wherein clothes were made to look more like the armour and armour began to be made to look more like the clothes—all because armourers could suddenly imitate complex curves. And those tight clothes are extremely comfortable. Also very difficult to make, and thus require a professional tailor or pourpoint maker and not your wife or mother—thus marking the wearer of the tight fashions as completely distinct from a farm worker, an apprentice, or a monk.
As tailoring improved, women’s clothes grew tighter, too. Was this a side-effect of the sexual revolution after the Black Plague? Does that mean that if my world of Alba hasn’t had a plague, clothes should not be tight? Or was it a side-effect of Thomas Aquinas’s suggestions in the late 13th century that perhaps it was not a sin for men and women to dress to appeal to each other? Clothes are related to Theology? Well, Of course—ask your Islamic friends.

Pablo Payam, by Dmitry Bondarenko

Pablo Payam, by Dmitry Bondarenko

Pablo Payam (pictured above–say, you did know that the UK edition has drawings of all the major characters, right?) wears very different clothes from Gabriel Muriens—not just because his culture is different, but even for a few practical reasons.
Who is Pablo Payam? He’s a character in book 3 of the Traitor Son series who you haven’t met yet unless you have read these free short stories…
As a writer, I have discovered that the more I know about fashion, the less room I have to mix and match. It was Celia Friedman (I’m a huge fan of her work, and BTW she ran a superb role playing campaign in which I got to play as an impressionable youth…and she’s a costumer) who pointed out to me a number of the truisms of loose and tight, long and short, and suggested to me that the rate of change in fashion is fairly constant—that fashions changed as rapidly in 15th century Italy as they do in modern Italy, for example. And that, since every fashion represents a departure in taste and cut, often in technologies like weaving or tailoring or construction, it can be very false to take what you like from three different eras and countries to ‘invent’ a new ‘look.’ It’s all there for a reason.
And finally (SPOILER) a word about Blanche Gold. Blanche is a minor character in book 2 (Fell Sword) and a major character in Book 3 (Tournament of Fools or something like that). Blanche is a Royal Laundress to the court of the King in Harndon. I wanted to have characters who were not nobles or great merchants or mages or scholars; I wanted, if nothing else, to show the impact of ‘great events’ on the kind of people most of us are in real life—people largely unable to effect major change with our swords or our special powers, just trying to get along and perhaps ‘have a life.’ Blanche has a fairly complex and unexpected future ahead of her. But let’s talk costume.
First, Blanche, as a servant of a great family, is clean. Her cleanliness is an advertisement of her skills—and in fact, when I write her character’s POV in Book 3, she spends a fair amount of time avoiding getting dirt—and blood—on her hands or her clothes. And cleanliness is part of fashion—a part that is very difficult for those not born to the upper classes. Let me just add that this is another area where the experience of reenacting aids writing. It is not that the past was so very dirty—it is that, when you live, for example, in an army camp, the opportunities to wash your hands in warm, soapy water are few and far between, and the effort and discipline required to make that fire, boil that water, buy soap and use it are almost as great as the discipline required to stay clean in the first place.
But Blanche—who is young, attractive, and in the direct employ of the Queen, Desiderata—the very embodiment of Medieval loveliness, grace, and a kind of empowerment (and fashion) has to dress the part. Blanche, and any other servant of the Queen, would represent her to the world—when shopping, for instance; when working, when going about a big city like Harndon. Servants—and noble retainers—in the Middle Ages wore liveries—some quite amazingly colourful—and Blanche is often in livery. Her clothes are a little more practical then the queen’s, but probably modeled on them in simpler, cheaper fabrics. Blanche, as a laundress and fine-sewer (a woman who can sew very well, which is different, of course, from patterning or tailoring and cutting cloth) would probably embellish her clothing with embroidery, an advertisement of her kills. She would resent anyone who damaged her clothing—she might be quite adept at avoiding them…. And that thought, in fact, gave birth to a scene…

Miller's Wife, about 1430.  To me, this is very much how Blanche might dress--except in livery, most days.

Miller’s Wife, about 1430. To me, this is very much how Blanche might dress–except in livery, most days.

This image—the Miller’s wife from the Tapestry ‘Falconry’ in the Devonshire Tapestries in the V+A—is Blanche, to me. Her neat, modest, but attractive clothes are not as extravagant or expensive as those of the great ladies around her, and yet, she seems to hold her own.
So does Blanche. You’ll see. She’s not just a pretty face.

Next blog, we’ll talk magic.  That is, how I evolved a magic system, and the history of all the stuff I ‘invented.’  Hah.

4 thoughts on “Clothes Make the Character (Or why everyone in the Traitor Son series has to have a wardrobe)

  1. Steve

    The cat must be ill or something. It should be laying in the middle of your project (AKA new bed), playing with the thread or just shedding all over the place.


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