Posts tagged with: costume

Building A 17th Century Costume

Have you ever wondered exactly what it feels like to wear the huge ensembles of silk and embroidery that the ladies in the English court used to don in the 17th century? I think about it often, because I write about women wearing stays and layers of draped fabric in my books.

At a reader conference this past year, I was fortunate enough to meet Victoria Vane, fabulous author and amazing creator of historically accurate costumes. After watching her creations on Facebook for months, I commissioned her to create a late 17th century English court costume for me.




My current Scottish historical romance series, The Highland Roses School series, takes place in 1684 and 1685. The first two books are released, and are set up in Scotland, but in the third book (releasing in May 2019), the heroine, a feisty Scottish lass, must go to the royal court in London. For the first time in her life, she must don the rich garments of the elite. I wanted to experience what my heroine was feeling in the strictures of the costume. Victoria’s creation would help me do just that. Even though my heroine grows up during the time when these dresses were worn, she is poor and has never worn the full costumes, although she has worn stays (something I have not).

Victoria and I started this project by looking at many designs, colors, and types of fabric. After two weeks, I finally decided on a gorgeous magenta and lavender combination of silks that Victoria recommended. Imported from India, the fabrics are rich and beautifully embroidered with elaborate patterns, which was very authentic to the time period. After decades of dour dress under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the court under Charles II had swung the other way with bright colors, jewels, and large headdresses.

Victoria didn’t have a pattern for the costume, so she studied a one-page descriptive picture and created one! So talented. My mother and I drove to Victoria’s studio in South Carolina, which is upstairs in her beautiful house, for a final fitting. I spent two hours in the costume, and here is what I experienced.

Stays are called stays because they keep everything in place. 17th century women did not wear bras (or underwear), just a smock or shift, which is like a long (or short) night gown. The stays are laced in the front or back and go over the smock. Depending on the person pulling the ribbons, the stays can be pleasantly supportive or like a boa constricting wrap that presses all your organs closer together inside. I wore my stays for two hours and had lines from the boning etched into my skin when I removed it. But it sure gave me a nice display of cleavage and something of a waistline! So, it was totally worth not being able to bend at the waist or do much of anything except look lovely. At least just for two hours. I don’t think I could wear them everyday unless I’d grown up doing so.

The petticoat, or skirt, came next and tied at the waist over the stays and a crinoline that was actually from my wedding twenty-four years ago (I knew I’d need that thing again!). Then I was helped by both Victoria and my mother into the outer dress, or mantua, which was very fashionable at the time. A mantua is a dress that is open in front to show a coordinating stomacher (which was pinned in place back then) and the pretty petticoat.

Victoria bustled up the long train so that it didn’t extend too far, creating beautiful swoops of fabric. I wore pompadour shoes, which were close to what they wore in the era, and white stockings (which I put on under my smock first).

The final part of the costume is the headpiece, a fontage. It is a stiff, white, lacey addition to an updo. It is said that the mistress of a French King lost her hat while riding horseback with him one day and tied her hair up with a bit of lace. The king said she looked enchanting, and so she began tying her hair up with lace, which the court began to mimic. The lace became larger and higher, and ta da, you have the fontage!

The costume is beautiful. It is also heavy. I felt rather like a fortress in it. If a man placed his hand on my waist to dance, I would not have felt it through the layers and stays. Getting into it, definitely required at least one attendant, and it would take quite an effort by the hero to get it off me. Perhaps he would have been more familiar with the hooks and laces than I am. Otherwise, I can definitely see the skirts being thrown upward in a frenzy of passion!

I am so thankful to Victoria for creating this masterpiece and giving me such a wonderful experience that will enhance my writing! She was also gracious enough to answer a few questions for us!

Hello Victoria!

When did you start sewing, and what drew you to it?

I never had any sewing instruction aside from Home EC in High School, but I did have a very good friend who used to make her own clothes. Until three years ago, my only dressmaking experience was re-making a thrift store dress into a prom gown, making my bridesmaid’s dresses from a very simple pattern (in 1983) and some dresses for my nieces on Christmas.

I began historical sewing three years ago after ordering a historical dress online that turned out to be a parody of the picture! I was so upset that I cut it up and remade it! It actually turned out wearable, so I decided to try making one from scratch.

(link to photos of my extreme costume makeover )

Brides Maids dresses (1983)

Collette Cameron

My first historical gown was a champagne-colored Regency gown that turned out a bit too big but a friend of mine, author Collette Cameron, loved it and asked if she could buy it. Since I still needed one for myself, I decided to make another and the same thing happened! So, I made another one… and another… and another.  Every time I posted a picture of a dress on Facebook, someone would ask to buy it, so I kept making them!  It has now been almost three years and 130 dresses!

(Links to Google Photos of my dresses)

What is your favorite style of costume to make?

I adore Georgian/18th century dresses! They are fun and flamboyant! (Like me LOL!)

What was your most interesting costume/accessory to make?

The most challenging was the 17th century mantua and Fontage I made for you!  Since there are no commercial patterns for either the gown or the headdress, I had to do a lot research and improvisation!

The most interesting dress to make is the Robe a la Française/ French Sacque gown. It appears very difficult to make but after the first one, I found it to be highly intuitive. I love the elegance of this style.

If someone would like to commission you for a costume, how should they contact you? Are you already totally booked?

Although I have become extremely busy over the past few months, I work very fast (usually 2-3 days to complete a dress) so I have not yet turned anyone away.

 My prices start at $175 and go up to $500 depending on the type of gown, materials, and complexity.  Everything I make is custom-sized and one-of-a-kind. I usually do a short video chat to discuss the project, answer questions, and select materials.

The best way to contact me is by email:

Thank you so much, Victoria, both for the amazing costume you created for me and for coming on the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog!

Readers, have you ever dressed in historical costumes before? Did you enjoy it?


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