Paper Lantern Writers 5 Best Fashion Blogs
By Michal Strutin
August 15, 2023

Fashion signals to readers a time period, region of the world, and station in life—all without saying a word. We may look back on historical periods with smirks at strange styles: foot-high chopines that Renaissance gentlewomen wobbled on to keep their gowns from getting dirty, decorated codpieces that high-ranking men wore—sometimes stuffed to show off their virility. Yet even looking back a few decades, certain styles represented their times. For instance, we laugh at 1980s chartreuse, wide-lapeled polyester suits and shoulder pads fit for a superhero.

Clothing can make political statements: Mao suits in early Communist China and the all-white outfits of nineteenth-century women suffragettes, which groups of women emulated at recent political gatherings. Clothing can also single people out for degradation or oppression: the yellow badges prostitutes and Jews had to wear in sixteenth-century Venice. A version of the Jewish badge survived in the Nazi regime: a yellow star of David.

Fashion is visually powerful and can immediately resonate time and place, political or tribal association. It offers so many clues. Let’s take a look at some of the blogs Paper Lantern Writers have devoted to fashion.


Lacing a Dandy by Cruikshanks

It’s All in the Underwear, says author Edie Cay. Indeed! Think of flouncy slips from post-WWII (“the war’s over!”) or the girdles my friends and I wore—aspirationally—in eighth grade when we had nothing to girdle. In the Regency Period (the early 1800s), the setting for Cay’s When the Blood Is Up series, undergarments undergo a rapid change, Cay says, “Instead of the older style of bra which was a smoosher, the new style of bra was a lift-and-separate concept, which you can tell in portraits of the period.” Men of that period were not immune from the vagaries of fashion. “A dandy…was a man who was heavily engaged in fashion. A man who might say, wear a waist slimmer, or calf pads, or butt pads, given that means breeches and trousers were quite form-fitting.”


Elsie Clark, a 1920s vaudeville singer, in her stage costume.

In Ana Brazil’s post, The Character Makes the Clothing, Ana points out that “Before you start researching your characters’ clothing, you should really understand your characters. You should at least know their age, their marital and economic status, and their daily responsibilities.” Good advice. “As a non-headlining jazz singer in a vaudeville troupe, my twenty-something heroine Viola travels across America by train (second-class), lives in cheap hotels…and sings in glorious, majestic theaters.” Viola needs both an everyday wardrobe and dazzling stage costumes. Old newspaper ads and 1920s fashion photographs help inform Ana’s clothes choices for her characters. She also watched shows such as Downton Abbey to see how people actually looked while moving around in the clothes of that time.


Anne Beggs (right) in Medieval dress.

If you’re interested in Medieval clothes, Anne Beggs details them in Getting in the Fashion Groove for Historical Fiction. She points out that, in various times and places, sumptuary laws were in force to control the wearing of certain goods. “The church certainly wanted to urge/coax/ demand people avoid the deadly sins of avarice, lust, self-indulgence/pride and jealously.” Venice in the sixteenth century, the period I’m writing about, also had sumptuary laws. Often these laws were transactional: you donate such-and-such and we allow you your Chinese silks. Her post includes information on dyes, such as the vermilion color gleaned from Kermes insects. As for how Medieval clothes felt: “It was experiential to go about my day dressed as my characters. And the looks I got when I opened my door to the neighbors or delivery man.”


Satin damask wedding gown by Maison Worth, 1878 – Museum of the City of New York

Big bustles, sleeves that looked like art pieces, skirts with more layers than a wedding cake, and plumed hats, some topped with whole stuffed birds. That’s the Gilded Age (~1877-1900), says Kathryn Pritchett in her blog 7 Things About Gilded Age Fashion. [The] “fashion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century showcased the fortunes of both the old and new money in New York City and helped establish one’s place in society. It was an age of excess that helped ambitious women (and the rest of their clans) stake a claim in a rapidly changing world.” Her seven things detail bustles, ladies hats, outer garments, brooches, tea gowns—”the equivalent of modern athleisure wear,” shirtwaists, and all-the-rage kimonos.


Henry VIII, studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-50

As I mention in Historical Fashion: the Worldly and the Weird, “Who wore comfortable clothing in the sixteenth century? The lower classes, the people who had…all the discomforts of poverty….Fancy shoes? Not for them.” The upper classes wore codpieces, shoes like stilts, tight bodices that hinted at escaping breasts, and puffed-up sleeves. One of the two main characters in my upcoming Late Renaissance mystery, a woolens merchant from Cairo, wears a long, loose galabeya—always comfortable. But when the ship approaches Venice, he changes to a doublet, hose, all the accoutrements of a fashionable Venetian. He complains about discomfort, but voices the equivalent of “When in Rome…”

For links on how to find fashion through the ages, from East to West: Link List: Fashions for the Ages

Michal Strutin

Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

View Michal’s PLW Profile

Share This Post


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *