Something to keep in mind when writing fashion into your 1632verse stories is that the down-timers don’t think their fashions are ugly. From the point of view of the twentieth century, the up-timers will see many of the garments the highest classes wear as stiff, awkward and, yes, ugly. But then, to the truly fashion conscious modern mind, anything more than a season old is passé and ugly.
As far as the up-time citizens are concerned, the nearest thing to high fashion in the closets of the Grantville girls and women are prom dresses, bridesmaid’s dresses (which are very similar in many ways) and a few treasured wedding dresses.
So, more things to keep in mind, this time about these dresses. The girls wearing the prom dresses are young, with parents who are often willing to exercise veto power over their daughters’ more extreme choices. The bridesmaid’s dresses are rarely chosen by their wearers, although brides often agonize over the choice, trying to find a single style and color that will suit the entire party while still complementing the wedding as a whole.
Nonetheless, the fashion followers of both the seventeenth and twentieth centuries have a number of things in common:
A love for fine fabrics.
A love for color.
A need to be on the cutting edge of fashion.
A love for lace and trim
An abiding passion for black.
Modern proms are held in the late spring, in venues with central heating, so chiffon, taffeta and satin are more common fabrics than velvets, brocades and wool. Some of these are stretch versions, woven with lycra for a form-fitting effect. Clearly, lycra and other manmade fibers will be unavailable to the fashionistas of the seventeenth century. The popular fashion fabrics of the seventeenth century emphasize velvets, brocades and satins. Both then and now satin is admired for its smooth and glossy surface, brocade for its intricate woven patterns and velvet for its lush nap and rich colors.
Velvet can be cut, crushed or voided as well as plain. The difference between cut and voided velvet is subtle from a distance. Patterns are created in cut velvet by cutting areas of the nap very short. The patterns on voided velvet, on the other hand, are created when the cloth is woven, by leaving certain areas un-napped. Some twentieth century velvets are known as burnt velvets. They are created by using chemicals to dissolve areas of the nap while leaving the base fabric unharmed. Velour is a modern knit fabric with a velvet look.
Chiffon is a relatively modern (late-nineteenth century) translucent fabric that comes in varying weights. It is often used for sheer sleeves or overskirts; often glitter or crystals are applied to provide shimmer. While chiffon itself is not available in the seventeenth century, sheer, finely woven silks are (for example, take a look at the lace collar in Paulus Moreelse’s “Portrait of a Young Woman, which can be found at http://www.wga.hu/art/m/moreelse/young_w.jpg)
Taffeta is similar to satin in that it is known for its gloss. However, rather than having a smooth surface, the warp and weft are often visible. A commonly seen modern taffeta is moire, which refers to a shifting pattern on the fabric reminiscent of water stains.
All these fabrics—satin, brocade, velvet, taffeta and chiffon—were originally made from silk (although velvet might have a warp of linen) but by the late-twentieth century were made from man-made fibers almost exclusively. Certainly the silk versions were more expensive and much more difficult to find for the average American.
Down-timers also wore a lot of wool. Upper classes didn’t wear the coarsely woven, scratchy fabric that most up-timers will think of, when they think of wool. Seventeenth-century English wools were luxury fabrics, of very high quality and much in demand.
Black aside, both up-time and down-time high fashions come in just about any color you can name.
Dye recipes in the seventeenth century were valuable and dye masters guarded them closely. Generally, reds and purples were the rarest colors, while browns and yellows were the most common. The dyes varied widely in fastness.[n1] White was a difficult color. It was achieved only through repeated bleaching, and the bleaching techniques of the time could rarely achieve a true white when starting from a linen base. It was also an impractical color in a time when roads were unpaved, animals were everywhere and houses were heated largely by means of soot-producing fireplaces.
The riotous blooming of the up-time chemical dye industry, after the discovery of the first coal tar dye in the nineteenth century, means the up-timers are used to having fabric of any fiber in any color imaginable. Not only that, they are used to colors that are controllable and repeatable. They expect colors to be fast and not fade, although even the most color-fast modern dyes will fade if exposed to sunlight. Then as now, sunlight is the major enemy of bright colors.
Cutting Edge Fashion
Prom dresses come in all sizes, colors and styles, but if you look at enough of them, certain patterns emerge. First, there are lot more long dresses than short ones. Second, strapless dresses (held up by boning) have been in fashion since the early 1990s. Third, most of them are actual dresses, not skirt and top combinations. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think all prom dresses look alike or are demure. They might be loosely draped halters, midriff-baring tops paired with long skirts, or sleeveless, nearly backless, gowns.
Down-time high-fashion dresses always have long skirts, often have tightly fitted, boned bodices with long sleeves and generally consist of skirt and top combinations. Yet the prom (and bridesmaid’s) dresses look nothing like them. Long prom dresses might have full or narrow skirts, but the skirts, even if full, are fitted at the waist. They swoop in long, smooth, body-hugging falls from bust to waist to floor. Often the horizontal seam is raised or lowered off the natural waist to fool the eye. Many are lined so as to eliminate the need for a petticoat, the waist band of which would spoil the flow of fabric down the body. When not lined, a close-fitting, full-length slip might be worn underneath—or nothing more than basic underwear and pantyhose.
Some prom dresses use princess seams to eliminate the waist seam entirely. This is a style that flatters many body types and can create clinging, well-fitted bodices without boning or darts.
Strapless dressing must still use boning, but the boning in a prom or wedding dress exists to mold the fabric to the body; not the body to the fabric. Boning keeps the strapless gown up, smooths the curve from bust to waist and can help create cleavage where nature hasn’t obliged. Most twentieth-century boning is plastic, which can be a problem or an asset. Plastic boning is, well, plastic—it bends and flexes. Breathing and bending down are rarely a problem. On the other hand, as it warms, plastic boning loses its strength. It sags and falls away from the body.
High fashion for the down-timers has a fuller silhouette than the up-timers are used to. While the head-on-a-platter effect of the ruff was considered old-fashioned by the 1630s (wide, soft lace collars were much more the thing), full sleeves and full skirts were still common. These skirts were often made to look even fuller by folding part of the skirt up to the waist to reveal the petticoat. Up-time women, being trained from girlhood to agonize over the size of their hips, will find the fashion unflattering.
Many of the down-time sleeves were tied onto the bodice. This isn’t because of a lack of tailoring knowledge but for fashion. Bodices could thus be worn with or without sleeves, or one bodice could be worn with two or three different pairs of sleeves. Often, in order to display the fine linen of the chemise, the sleeves would be constructed out of strips of fabric. Cuffs, sometimes five or six inches deep and edged with lace, held these sleeves together at the wrist. The Spanish fashion for long hanging sleeves was still followed by some.
Fashionable bodices were short-waisted, often with tabs at the bottom edge that echoed the tabs on men’s doublets. They were usually boned and laced in front, with a stomacher over the lacing. The most common boning materials were reeds and whalebone. Whalebone is actually baleen from the mouth of the whale. Some of these stomachers were separate pieces that were pinned on. Often the fabric of the stomacher was different from the fabric of the bodice and skirt.
Most prom dresses rely on fabric, color and drape for their appeal. Heavy trim is uncommon, although sequins and glitter are often fused to lightweight fabrics such as chiffon to provide shimmering overskirts, capelets or sleeves. Rhinestone might be seen along the edge of the neckline or on the narrow straps supporting the bodice.
Where up-timers do splurge on trims is on wedding gowns. Any style that might appear as a prom dress has its wedding dress equivalent. There are three basic changes that convert a prom or bridesmaid’s style into a wedding dress. First, twentieth-century wedding dresses tend to be white or some other pastel color. Second, they often have trains and very full skirts, supported by voluminous tulle petticoats. The point where the train is attached is often masked by a large bow. [n2] Third, wedding dresses are often heavily trimmed. Glass and crystal beads surrounding pearls swirl across the bodices, are scattered across the skirt and lend the veil the weight it needs.
White was not associated with weddings in the seventeenth century. Many—if not most—women of all classes were married in their best dress, whatever that was. Only the highest classes might have a specific gown to be married in. Even then it wasn’t worn once, cleaned and put into storage. It might be worn again to other special events, or dismantled so that the trims and fabrics could be reused.
The down-timers loved trim, and didn’t save it for their wedding dresses. Real pearls, gemstones and metallic braids were used by whoever could afford it. Many trims, even those dyed to match specific fabrics, were moved from garment to garment to get the fullest use possible out of them and justify their expense. Lace was particularly valued, to such an extent that it was the focus of numerous sumptuary laws, dictating who could—and conversely, could not—wear it. The lace of the seventeenth century was time consuming to make and costly to buy. It was extensively used on the cuffs and collars of shirts and chemises. Lace pieces could be and were made removable for cleaning, bleaching and starching. Starched lace, by its stiffness, showed off the patterns.
Love for Black
The lace was further displayed through the contrast of the white openwork patterns against the black of the background fabric.
The down-timers love black because true black was expensive, transitory and difficult to come by. Some of the best blacks they had access to were laid down in layers, often beginning with indigo. A high quality, fine wool might be dyed two or even three times with colors that, in combination, would achieve the desired effect. The cheaper dyes tended to lean toward brown rather than true black. Laws attempted to prevent dye houses from using iron or excessive amounts of tannin, which were cheap and easily available, in their attempts to create black, as both weakened the fibers of the fabric and greatly shortened its useful life.
The up-timers love black because it has been enshrined in the fashion vocabulary. Yet, even today, finding a true black can be difficult. Set three bolts of black fabric from three different manufacturers next to each other and they will likely be three different colors. Some blacks appear bluish, some brownish and some more gray than true black. The difficulty of finding a good black, however, doesn’t prevent teenage girls from looking forward to getting their first “little black dress.”
And In the End
So, given all of this, what parts of up-time fashion will the fashionable conscious down-timers adopt?
First, the dress as a one piece garment. In OTL, bodices and skirts began to be joined in the 1650s and the style became common by the first quarter of the eighteenth century (although the economic and wardrobe-stretching benefits of two separate pieces insures that style remains current today).
Second, the use of boning to shape the dress rather than the body.
Third, the narrower silhouette that shows off the figure down through the hips rather than stopping at the waist.
Down-timers are not, however, used to sleeveless, strapless and backless dresses. A display of cleavage wasn’t considered shocking, whereas bared arms and shoulders were. For some, their shock will be expressed in thundering denunciations of the wearers. For others, the shock will be tempered by excitement and the desire to imitate, especially among the younger, more daring crowd. For summer wear, at any rate.
Sleeveless dresses will require abandoning or modifying the chemise (a washable garment). The boning available (whalebone, reeds, string and rows of tight stitching) won’t be very suitable for modern-style strapless dresses, although some women will undoubtedly try. Of the down-time choices, whalebone is probably the most flexible. However, as it ages it dries and become brittle. When it breaks, whalebone becomes sharp and if not properly contained can cause severe injury. Metal coil boning (perhaps created from otherwise defective springs hammered flat) would be snapped up by tailors if made available.
Softer bodices, like halters and backless dresses, need undergarments that would tax the ingenuity of an engineer. With existing garments available to study, however, the challenge would eventually be met.
The thing to keep in mind about strapless, sleeveless and backless dresses, however, is that they expose the upper body. If there is effective central heating, the weather is warm or the room crowded, many may not care. During the winter, in small groups or in poorly-heated venues, bolero jackets, shrugs, shawls and stoles may well make a comeback. For the up-timers, at least. And heavier fabrics—velvets and fine wools—might well supersede the chiffons and light-weight satins.
[n1] For more on historical colors and the dye process, see “Seventeenth Century Dyes and Mordants” in Grantville Gazette, Volume 4.
[n2] Thus turning the dress into a BoB dress—Bow on Butt.
Line drawings by Lisa Satterlund