I don’t know much about Victorian clothing, so I suppose it’s important for me to be clear. I’m not trying to pass on information in these articles. I’m sharing the way I look for information and some pitfalls I’ve found over the years in the hope that it will help others. So I’m starting with the hope that when I get stuff wrong, a kind reader will let me know (hopefully with gentle tact) and a reminder that the reason for research is to stop the author looking like an idiot.
From my point of view, skating over finer details sounds like a good start. If we are talking about Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn racing around the foggy streets of nineteenth century London, we can probably skip quite a few clothing descriptions. A reader is hopefully too wrapped up in the mystery of where the bloodthirsty vampire Count Dominic has his lair to worry about whether Miss Gwendolyn is wearing a cape or a jacket. There may come a point in a story, however, where you need to know a detail or two. Unfortunately for me, a lot of people are interested in nineteenth century clothing so if I get details wrong, they’ll know. They may laugh and point. So I need to have a rummage around and research clothing.
I’m going to start with some basics that I do know. If we stick to the date of 1875 then there were no artificial fibres in general use. I’ve had a look around and ideas of making fake silk from mulberry bark and nitrocellulose were around, but in the main and by and large all clothes were made from natural fibres. When Miss Gwendolyn rips up her petticoats to stem the blood flowing from injuries to the valiant Lord Kurt, those petticoats are made from lovely, absorbent, well-washed cotton or linen and not the slick rayon and nylon that came later. The warm cape that Lord Kurt slips from his shoulders to put around the shivering Miss Gwendolyn as they are trapped in a chill cellar is almost certainly heavy wool, possibly lined with fur. Fine ladies wore silk, much of it woven in England (I found this article, which I found interesting) and housemaids wore cheap cotton prints.
The other thing that I remember is that chemical dyes became widespread during the nineteenth century. I got it wrong in that I thought Prussian Blue was invented in the nineteenth century and I was out by more than a century. It was invented around 1706, according to Wikipedia. Mauveine, a purple dye based on coal tar, was discovered in 1856, however, and all sorts of wonderful colours were available by the time that Miss Gwendolyn went shopping for a new dress.
While I was wandering around the wonders of the internet, I found an article about green dyes in England in the nineteenth century here By the time that Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn were picking out their clothes, green dye produced with arsenic was known to be toxic and green dresses were associated with poison. Perhaps the dastardly Count Dominic surrounds himself with young women in green dresses – an instance of research bringing in ideas for the plot.
You can find a lot of information around concerning fashions and who wore what and when. Fashions changed then as much as they do now, although people used fashion magazines rather than TikTok. As a general rule of thumb, people can wear clothes that belong to fashions from before the date, in this case 1875, but they’re unlikely to follow fashion from years afterwards without a very good reason. When I researched the first post in this series, I found that if I had set the date a year later, the more fashionable dress would have been a slim princess line instead of a bulkier bustle. However, not everyone follows fashion all the time. People will be wearing out of date clothes just like you find people wearing older clothes that date them. Miss Gwendolyn may not have time to find a dress in the new fashion as she is too busy battling vampiric threats. Or perhaps someone will be coming from abroad and have a dated set of clothes. My personal preference is to keep things loosely in keeping with the time and only mention anything to do with fashion if it’s to do with the plot. Mentioning that someone is wearing an old-fashioned waistcoat or an outdated hat is a way of conveying information about a character.
Speaking of abroad, London was in the centre of a vast commercial empire. An expensive and rare Kashmir shawl would be an indication that someone with money had just come back from British India. Perhaps a character was coming back from China with Chinese brocades and exquisite silks. Was a dress decorated with particularly fine lace from France and does it tell more about the characters and story? But while Britain had made contact with Japan twenty years earlier in the wake of the Perry expedition, I doubt that there was much from Japan reaching the general public. If you are using a roughly historical setting then it’s probably easier to look up when, for example, gabardine was invented (1879 in its modern form) than making something up. Although gabardine could always be invented earlier and worn by Lord Kurt in your world. It’s not that much difference and as long as you keep things consistent then I can’t see how it matters too much.
I started thinking about Count Dominic’s clothing. Knowing that Vlad the Impaler fought the Turks, I’ll make a decision that Count Dominic would not adopt the Turkish dress but perhaps that of a Hungarian nobleman. I did a quick google and found this fascinating page which confirmed what I suspected. Most of the upper classes of Europe followed a similar fashion set by Paris with perhaps local trends. However Count Dominic may follow slightly older fashions that could give clues, or comment on the difference of the machine woven woollen cloth compared to the stuff woven by hand in the villages of the Carpathian mountains. Or perhaps he has made contact with some other evil monster elsewhere and imported fabric or fashion could give a clue. I wondered about imported alpaca fabric giving links to South America and dark forces there, but then I found that it was produced in Britain from the 1830s.
Let’s go back to those green dresses. I have found a few references to Paris Green – a dye containing arsenic and so toxic that it was used to poison the rats in the Paris sewers. I can’t find a date for that, but it was named Paris Green in 1867, so I’ll say that the poor rats were getting poisoned around then in my world. This means that there is an excuse to link Count Dominic and the green dresses of his young ladies and the sewers of Paris.
But that can wait. Next time I’ll be looking at fashion, clothing and fantasy.
You can find links to the rest of the articles in this series here