D is for Dress

Depending upon which school of thought a writer subscribes to, he or she will either describe characters and scenery in painstaking detail or in scant simplicity. Few writers take the middle path. They usually end up the most successful.

For writers, one of the most fun (and also most frustrating) elements of character design is choosing the right Costume. The specifics have to be perfect. If it can’t be imagined in the writer’s head, it can’t come out onto the page, either. Fortunately, we have a couple thousand years of human history and civilization to draw from. The problem, however, is not in finding What People Wore When, but finding what people wore where. Despite the vast wealth of knowledge we’ve collected on the internet, as well as in books, much of what is readily available in English is limited to western European civilizations. If a writer is writing a piece outside of this region, it can be very difficult to find information on the historical raiment of Asia, or South America, or Africa, or the Middle East. A 350 page book on the subject of global historical costume features only 88 pages of content outside of western Europe. I understand that in the English speaking world western European historical costume is what is most easily accessed, but one would think that in the age of information, the traditional clothing of the rest of the would would have been added to the English catalogs as well.

Or else I’m mistaken and the rest of the world has gone through history utterly unclothed.




49 thoughts on “D is for Dress

    • It’s really, really frustrating. Especially since I’m partial to traditional Turkish costume. It’s so hard to find anything on it in books or on the internet.

      • You could try readi old Turkish literature in the hope of finding references, or writing to costume experts in one of the london (or wherever you live) museums. Experts are always very happy to give you their knowledge!

      • I’ve got some books on Ottoman history, but I’m looking for specific, visual depictions to help me flesh out the ideas I’m working on. Unfortunately, I live in Japan, so searching the museums likely won’t turn up much. I’m still holding out hope of finding a good book though. I always put my faith in the books.

      • Oh, no need to go to museums – research experts on the internet and email them. It’s how i find out things about animals for my blog and for my job. Museums have web pages. Look at the staff listings, or email their head office.

  1. I hadn’t even thought of this difficulty, but luckily in some countries at least (Japan, China, India, some parts of Africa) the clothing hasn’t changed or has been preserved in the culture. It’s one aspect of traveling in other countries that fascinates me!

    • It’s true to an extent, but if you’re looking for an English explanation on any of these articles, you may be looking for a long time. Especially if you want them by period. The clothing in Heian Japan, for example, is vastly different than Edo Japan.

  2. Good point. I have written a historical novel and dealing with the clothes issue wasn’t too bad because I was writing about the pre-civil war south and there are plenty of places to find information and pictures.

    • Oh man, I don’t even write historical pieces, and I get frustrated at the lack of non-western clothing options. I can’t imagine how deep the research would have to go to be historically accurate in a place where information is scarce in English.

    • It helps me just to have a visual reference to work from. I have a hard time pulling things like that up from imagination, if I don’t have something to build off of first. When I come across a picture I particularly like, I want to research the whole era that it’s from, but that can be difficult, in English.

  3. I like the scant simplicity method best. Unless there is a reason to go into great detail.

    And, yeah, it’s hard to get info on what people wore when and where. Sometimes anthropology texts help.

    • Me too. I prefer to read books where something is left to the imagination, so I like to write that way too. At least, in editing I cut all that out. I over describe in first drafts. Better to have too much than to little, in the beginning.

      We have a set of world culture encyclopedias, but the pictures in them aren’t the best. I’m mostly looking for a visual reference, but they’re hard to find.

  4. I loathe writing details and I know it limits me as a writer. I’m trying to get better at it but I’d rather write a thousand lines of dialog than describe someone’s shoes.

    • In my opinion (and I know there are others who feel differently) all that’s needed is enough detail to place the reader’s feet on the ground in the scene. After that, relevant details are necessary, but a tidal wave of every single detail down to the materials used in the objects of the room aren’t needed.

      • I’ve ranted long and hard about people who describe chairs in a scene. I don’t know why chair offend me so much but I will close a book and never pick it up again if I read more than the color of a chair.

  5. We love EyeWitness books here in our unschooling home!

    I tend to write original, alien cultures….and your last line made me giggle, because I actually have a society that i generally naked by choice.

  6. Well, you could have included the mini library in Japanese I have of international costume. Unfortunately, I can’t afford the $300 book on the clothing of Royal India yet. 😛

  7. I love writing stories but historical fiction is something I’ve always shied away from purely because of the amount of research it would take to create a believable story. It always bugs me when I’m reading a story and I notice something glaringly obvious that the author didn’t research and I imagine if I tried writing a story set in the past I’d either end up being that author or I’d get so bogged down in research I’d never write anything!

    Cait @ Click’s Clan

    • The other end of that is when an author does too much research and feels that it all needs to end up on the page. It’s equally taxing to read a bunch of superfluous information that doesn’t actually help the story at all.

  8. Of course everyone else must have been naked! Savages, all of them 😉 You’re right, so many things are Eurocentric…I’m much more interested in finding out about the rest of the world!

    • Like I said, I could give it some slack for things being in other languages, but in the age of information, translators are a click away. You’d think that someone would have made the effort by now to make available these kinds of things in English.

    • I always feel that I need to be able to put myself in the story first, before I can put other people there. I construct my story with the kinds of minute details that no one would ever want to read so I know what’s where. Most of that ends up cut though, sometimes painfully, but it’s not meant for readers to see.

  9. Having an illustration or a photo of the period clothing is usually enough for me, but as an English writer, I do depend on the research methods mentioned.
    I am visiting from the Co-Host AJ Lauer’s Team to welcome you to the 2015 Challenge. Hope the first week has been a good one for you. Keep up the good work.
    Sue at CollectInTexas Gal
    AtoZ 2015 Challenge
    Minion for AJ’s wHooligans

    • Yeah, that’s what I’m looking for, just an illustration. You’d be surprised how hard it is to find more than one or two selections from the entire course of history for, for some regions and cultures around the world. Outside of western Europe, most costume literature treats African, Asian and South American cultural clothing as monolithic, giving one or two examples from a single point in time. I don’t think I need to point out how problematic that is, and not just from a desire to research, either.

  10. You could have a peek at the V&A on line collection – their historic textile collection is second to none. Interesting conundrum you pose, though. Not one my writing has taken me too yet

    • Yup, me too. Part of the beauty of reading to me is in picturing what’s going on in my own mind. Makes it difficult if I’m spoon fed details that run counter to what my mind wants to imagine.

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