Posts tagged with: historical research

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?


Choose your poison

For some reason, my husband got nervous tonight when he found me cooking dinner and reading a book on poisons. If only he knew how normal this is in our house…

Research is a passion of mine, as it is with many authors. At the moment I’m struggling with Christmastime poisons in regency England. In 1800, over 90 percent of poisonings were due to plant toxicity. Today, that percentage is down to 7 percent. Since I need to kill my villain, I need something that was deadly and available in England at that time. Mistletoe? Not very toxic at all for an adult human, although it would make anyone sick. Holly berries? The same.

Now, the English or European Yew tree is another matter. Found in many church yards all over the British Isles and France, a tea made from the leaves is deadly in only a few hours. Withered leaves are even more potent than fresh ones, and fortunately for my Christmas story, the yew keeps its leaves year round. But how am I going to disguise the taste? Hmmm.

English nightshade is another possibility. Although it flowers in the summer, the deadly fruit doesn’t show up until fall. Even the roots are deadly. This plant is known for belladonna, used in small quantities to make pupils dilate by the rich and famous in the renaissance.

Hemlock is another good choice. While Socrates famously drank it, a sneaky writer would put the leaves in a salad along with spinach. Not a good choice for a Christmas story, so let’s put this away for a later tale.

Privet hedges are all over England and give wonderful privacy. The entire genus Ligustrum plant is poisonous, particularly the blackish berries. However, a well-tended hedge won’t flower or have any berries. The plant thrives in the wild, so our intrepid villain could go on a stroll to gather his murder weapon.

This was in the days before autopsies, CSI laboratories, or even the germ theory of disease. Poisonings could be passed off as natural causes or terrible mistakes. It’s impossible to know at this distance how many poisonings were never suspected or ignored by relatives, neighbors, and the community. 

Makes you wonder why Mr. Bennett put up with Mrs. Bennett all those years when relief was right outside his door. 

Kate Parker makes her living by killing people, but only in her stories. The third Victorian Bookshop Mystery, The Royal Assassin, comes out in July. Bon Appetit!

What’s In Your Backyard?

Summer’s here, and lots of us will be making road trips of various sorts. Writers: don’t miss out on serendipitous research discoveries along the way.

old sturbridge

Of course, there are famous must-sees for historical writers: places that recreate life in former centuries, like Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA, or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Nothing thrills my geeky little heart more than hanging out with the way-over-educated volunteers who show you exactly how to dye hand-spun wool with elderberries or dance a gavotte. (In Williamsburg last summer, I spent half an hour in 103-degree heat examining the stitches on a just-finished boot…and the cobbler talked to me the whole time about the precise materials and tools and methods he used, thrilled to have someone as obsessed as he was to actually listen to it all).

Many things I saw in the Williamsburg museums—dutch ovens, fire wagons, ceramic ornaments, hand-knit silks stockings—were made in England during the period I write about. There’s nothing like seeing those things in person to really understand what they’re like. I was squealing and flailing with delight, to the point that the security guards started quietly following me around, apparently worried they were going to have “a situation” on their hands. (BTW: The stockings were as fine and silky as anything machines can make….good news for the accuracy of all those historical love scenes!!)

The Latest Comments

  • Vivi Andrews/Lizzie Shane: Hope your mom recovers quickly, Tammy!
  • Vivi Andrews/Lizzie Shane: I really love the sense of place, time and character that you’ve established in just...
  • Autumn Jordon: Kylie, Good opening. I wondered immediately what the two villains might be scheming about? I might add...
  • Tamara Hogan: Kylie and Ruby community, My apologies in advance for being scarce at the blog today. I’ll be...
  • Autumn Jordon: Also proof to IRS that this is you’re serious about being a businessand not just a hobby.