I’ve never been much of a fashionista myself. Comfort trumps style in my life except for a few special occasions. But there is some part of me that still loves to play dress up, at least where my characters are concerned.
Researching time-period clothing is one of my favorite areas to explore when starting a new novel. I’ve collected quite a few reference books and bookmarked dozens of websites where one can find full color fashion plates or scans of 19th century fashion magazines. It’s rather like playing paper dolls or having unlimited outfits for Victorian Texas Barbie.
My latest novel, Full Steam Ahead, took me to a time period I had not researched before. The early 1850’s. While many aspects of antebellum fashion mimic that of the hoop skirts so famous during the Civil War era, there were some notable differences. One of those most interesting to me was a staple of women’s clothing that was an outer garment and at the same time an undergarment. It was called simply, an undersleeve.
As you can see from the arrows in these pictures, the undersleeves consisted of white or off-white fabric that extended beyond the bell-shaped sleeves of the formal garment. They could be plain or decoratively embroidered. Not only were they stylish, but they served a practical purpose as well. Since they were a separate piece and not sewn directly into the dress itself, they could be easily removed and laundered, thereby saving the dress from the wear-and-tear of excessive washings. A sleeve was less likely to be soiled by everyday activities such as eating, cleaning, or even writing letters when an undersleeve was worn.
I discovered these beautiful examples of undersleeves on an historic costuming site called Maggie May Fashions. The one on the left is a more plain, everyday example, while the one on the right has intricate needlework for a more sophisticated look. The undersleeves were often held in place with a series of ties or could be basted loosely by hand into the inner sleeve of the dress itself. Some ladies used an early form of elastic around the upper casing and kept them completely separate from the dress.
Since my heroine worked as a secretary for the hero, she was always around ink, and was certain to wear her undersleeves. This is the dress that I pictured Nicole wearing when she first met Darius in his study. I changed the color to a deep wine red instead of the green, but the rest of the description fits.
I was a little disappointed that the dress featured on my book’s cover didn’t have the deep bell sleeves and white undersleeves that were so typical of this era, but since the cover itself was so lovely, I didn’t complain.
So what about you?
- What is the most unusual fashion item that you found yourself falling in love with?
I was a child of the 80’s and while I never went in for the leg warmers or ripped t-shirts, I will admit to owning stone-washed jeans and having big 80’s style bangs.