Vision: A Resource for Writers
in the Beauty of a Thousand Stars
brief look at clothing styles
© 2003, Lazette Gifford
thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) -- Christopher Marlowe
lothing fashions appear to change from week-to-week in our hectic world. It is hard not to be anachronistic in styles for modern novels when they are apt to change between the final draft and printing.
there can be no such excuse for getting the clothing styles of past ages wrong.
Books abound on the subject, and a quick trip to the library will yield
more material than a writer can use.
it is fashionable to make fun of the constant change in women's fashion, a look
at the history of clothing will show that men were often just as quick to take
up the call to style. Take, for
instance, a close friend of
the future King George IV -- Beau Brummell (George Bryan Brummell,
1778-1840) . Beau set the style for
men's wear in his day, and his name has now become pseudonymous with dandy.
styles are often named after a time period, such as Victorian in the latter half
of the 19th century when Queen Victoria's tastes influenced more than just the
politics of her day. Women's style
of that time included the wide hoop skirt, long sleeves, and luxurious fabrics.
earlier in the same century, the clothing favored by empress Josephine during
the rule of her husband, Napoleon, swept through Europe (circa 1804-1814).
Marked by a high waist (still known as empire waist today, two hundred
years later), this style looks far less extravagant than what would appear
before the end of the century in Victoria's reign.
The straight, loose skirt, puff or long sleeves, and a long train from
the shoulders were decorated with fringe, embroidery and spangles.
since the simpler Empire style comes before the Victorian, we can assume that
clothing styles will become simpler as we look back in time, right?
but then we find the sumptuous Elizabethan style a full 200 years before Empress
Josephine. Named for Queen
Elizabeth I (1533-1603), this late Renaissance style included wide skirts of
rich material worn over farthingale (hook skirt or petticoat, used to extend the
skirt), a corseted waistline and stiff stomacher, low neckline, wire-supported
ruff, and with a variety of sleeve styles.
should notice by now that influential people set clothing styles. Imitation is not only flattery, but also a way of saying that
the person doing the imitating is savvy in the ways of the world.
Dress codes have often been a sign of political station, and sometimes
have been enforced as such.
current day parents seem to find amusement in dressing their children up like
miniature rock stars, there is usually a dichotomy between the styles worn by
children and those worn by adults. In the late 1800's and early 1900's a proper
young woman coming of age made a show of the transition by putting her hair up
and lowering her dress hem, in opposition to how she had dressed before.
while today's styles may seem to change with frightening rapidity to someone
with a checkbook or trying to write a hip (or has that word changed as well?)
novel set in modern times, there are ways to get away from generic terms.
One of the easiest methods is to pick up something like Random House
Word Menu by Stephen Glazier, (Copyright 1992, ISBN 0-679-40030-3), which
has lists upon lists of different clothing types, each with a nice, short
description. An overcoat or cloak
might be anything from a parka to a duster, mackintosh, greatcoat, shawl or
poncho. Each of these coverings
gives a different feel to the character stepping out to face the inclement
let us look farther back in time. What
is the difference between the clothing of the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient
Romans? To the casual observer,
both look like nothing more than some cloth wrapped around the body.
The writer can't afford this kind of generalization in their work, and
even if you don't intend to write about that age, it doesn't hurt to know a
little bit about it.
basic Greek mode of dress was the chiton (Ky ton), adapted from
the earlier peplos, the chiton was a gown or tunic worn in ancient
Greece. They came in two styles
(like much of Greek culture) the Doric and the Ionic.
earlier Doric style, very much akin to the peplos, was a single oblong
piece of clothe, usually wool, folded to form a double covering at the waist and
fastened with a broach at the shoulders. Sometimes
the broach was replaced by a row of small buttons.
A male version of this style, called an exomis, was pinned on the
left shoulder, leaving the right one bare.
(Now there is a bit of information that could be worked into a story -- a
man trying to hide a scar, perhaps, on his right shoulder would be at a distinct
The Ionic style, however, had sleeves, was usually linen, and often sewn at the shoulders rather than pinned. Both were held in place at the waist, usually by a girdle.
chitons were longer than men's, and the two styles present an entirely
different look. The cloth itself
was usually quite plain, although sometimes a decorative border was added.
women also never left the house without a type of covering called a himation.
The term applies to cloaks worn by both men and women and appears to be a
generic term for a number of styles, including a wrap of very fine wool called
the khlanis. The best of these came from Miletus and were called Khlanis
Milesia. The xystis was
a longer robe of fine material and worn on special occasions.
Men's cloaks and wraps were also worn over the tunics or as a single garment. The tribon was coarse, dark colored wool, and was the traditional dress of the men of Sparta. The chlamys cloak was usually worn over the left shoulder and fastened at the right with a broach, leaving most of the right side open. It could be fastened at the throat. The chlaina was a winter cloak, made of thick wool.
often wore clothing made of animal skins like the diphthera (goatskin) or
spolas (leather jerkin). Cloaks
of goatskin or sheepskin were cured with the wool on.
came in a number of styles as well, from simple sandals that were little more
than a sole strapped to the foot, to shoes that ranged from light, slipper-like
coverings to heavy nail-studded boots.
usually made of felt, were rarely worn except when traveling and in bad weather.
These petasos had a wide brim that could be turned up, and a strap
that tied under the chin or at the nape of the neck.
Kynai, made of skin or leather, were also worn, and conical hats
were also popular, such as (In Hellenistic times) the tholia, worn mainly
by women, and probably made of straw.
A brief aside -- there is a big difference between Hellenistic and Hellenic times.
Hellenic age is usually considered the history of Greece from the 8th century
BCE to the death of Alexander The Great.
The Hellenistic age covers a wider landmass, encompassing all of the Greek civilization in the Mediterranean and parts of southwest Asia, from the death of Alexander (June 10, 323 BCE) until about the first century BCE. Hellenistic culture includes considerable fusion of foreign elements.
Okay, we have a brief description of the Greek's clothing -- far too little for real use to a historical novelist, but enough to make a point about the variety of materials available. What then, did the Romans wear?
toga is the ubiquitous Roman clothing best known to readers and writers.
This loose mantle of white wool was originally small and semi-circular,
but later became elliptical and about 18.5 feet long and 7 feet wide.
Worn doubled lengthwise and draped around the body in loose folds, it had
a weighted end that was thrown over the left shoulder or arm.
early Roman history both men and women wore togas, but later only women of ill
repute still adapted this clothing, while proper young ladies and matrons wore
did come in slightly different styles, according to their embroidery.
The most famous was the purple edged toga praetexta worn by young
boys and various officials in free towns and colonies.
Victorious emperors and generals wore the toga picta, with golden
embroidery while the common toga virillis was worn by boys after the age
of about fifteen. The toga pulla,
made of natural black wool, was worn at funerals.
were difficult to drape properly as well as to keep clean, and at times the
Emperors had to enforce the law that they be worn at special occasions.
While most women no longer wore togas, the tunic continued to be the basic garment of both men and women. Short sleeved, and tied around the waist, it was the common indoor clothing, as well as the dress for slaves and children. Married women wore a stola over their tunics -- a long, full dress with a high girdle and a colorful border around the neck. Extra tunics were worn in winter.
Purple stripes of varying size, running from the collar to the hem, marked senators from equestrians, while charioteers dyed their tunics the color of their faction. A variation of the tunic was the long-sleeved dalmatica, which could be made of materials like wool, silk or linen. It eventually became an ecclesiastical garment, reminding us again of the close ties between Rome and the nascent Christian Church.
-- primarily the cavalry -- wore trousers but for the most part they were
considered the clothing of barbarians.
came in a variety of styles, much like the Greek counterparts, but the most
famous is probably the caliga -- a heavy sandal with a hobnailed sole and
separate leather top, fastened by thongs. One
of the most infamous of the early Roman emperors, Gaius Caesar, was nicknamed
for this boot -- Caligula -- because he grew up with soldiers in military camps.
For once the ruler was named for the style, not the other way around.
let's leap forward in time again and look at one last bit of clothing addition
that is often misused, and placed in times wholly inappropriate.
The first zipper -- called a slide fastener -- was shown by Whitcomb L.
Judson at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
It used hooks and eyes with a slide clamp for hooking and unhooking them.
It wasn't until 1917 that the U.S. Navy made windproof flying suits with
slide fasteners. Zippers did not
start appearing on civilian clothing until the 1920's and 1930's.
B.F. Goodrich Company gave the name zipper to the slide fastener on their
overshoes. This was formerly a
someone creating a completely new science fiction world can do well by making a
quick study of clothing styles, and how both politics and climate can affect
them. Clothing is a part of
culture, and as important a part of worldbuilding and general research as
deciding the natural climate in which your story takes place. It need not -- in fact should not -- over power the story,
but a quick study of styles can add a wonderful depth to written material.
of helpful books:
Dictionary of Costume and Fashion, Mary Brooks Picken, Copyright 1957 and
1985, ISBN 0-486-40294-0
book lists over 10,000 terms related to fashion and gives not only styles, but
also information on cloth, fashion terms, and a number of other helpful tidbits.
Psychology of Dress, Frank Alvah Parsons, Copyright 1920.
interesting look at what drives fashion from the then president of the New York
School of Fine and Applied Art.
Mode in Costume, R. Turner Wilcox, Copyright 1958, ISBN 0-684-13913-8
in text, but great in line drawings, this book is a nice quick reference for
seeing how something actually may have looked.
and Fashion, James Laver, Copyright 1965, 1982, and 1985, ISBN 0-500-20266-4
excellent history of dress, with a nicely readable text and great pictures and
drawings. Well worth picking up.
Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins,
Copyright 1997, ISBN 0-19-512491-X
Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, copyright
1997, ISBN 0-19-512491-X
two books cover far more than just clothing (which sections are actually a
little light), but are very good general introductions to the civilizations and
good quick reference works.