This July our PLW Tuesday blogs are dedicated to one of the most fascinating research rabbit holes ever—historical clothing. Throughout the month we’ll share how we researched the corsets and chemises, hats and hose, bustles and buckles—maybe even garters and galoshes—that perfectly set our characters in their time period.
I get to kick off the month with one of the most exciting, roller-coaster decades of American History: the 1920’s.
What’s not to love about the American twenties? The Spanish Influenza epidemic was (basically) over; the boys were back from the war in France; the prohibition of alcohol launched a never-ending party; most women could cast their own vote; and the stock market just kept going up and up. The twenties is so vibrant and full of promise that I’ve set my trilogy-in-progress THE VIOLA VERMILLION VAUDEVILLE MYSTERIES on its threshold (1919). But more about my stories later.
Just to get some terminology out of the way, historical research includes two types of sources:
- Primary Sources: Documentation and artifacts created during the period you’re researching. For researching 1919, this includes newspapers, magazines, and diaries written, photographs taken, movies created, recordings made, and clothing worn in 1919. Primary sources are usually found in museums, archives, and very often in family attics.
- Secondary Sources: Documentation and artifacts created after the period you’re researching. This would include books like Frederick Lewis Allen’s ONLY YESTERDAY: AN INFORMAL HISTORY OF THE 1920s, first published in 1930.
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. Once you understand your characters, your research has focus, and it’s less likely that you’ll wind up lost in the rabbit hole. (Being lost in a rabbit hole is not always awful, of course, but it does keep you from the actual work of writing.)
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 with washrooms down the hallway, and eats in inexpensive Chinese restaurants. She also sings in glorious, majestic theaters twice and three-times a day before hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Viola needs both an everyday travelling wardrobe and some fabulous let-me-mesmerize-you stage costumes.
To keep Viola in dresses and costumes, I needed to research clothing for each of her two identities: woman-on-the-move and ambitious vaudeville chauteuse. Fortunately for me, many years ago I inherited the photographs, theatrical ephemera, recordings, and scrapbooks of Elsie Clark, a 1920’s vaudeville singer. Since Elsie’s exciting theatrical life inspired my vaudeville trilogy, I also let her photographs inspire how I dressed Viola.
I’m sharing some of Elsie’s photographs here and have many more on my blog.
While Elsie’s photographs launched my clothing research, I also sifted through many 1919 newspaper advertisements (via newspapers.com) to learn about popular fabrics and colors, and to see illustrations of undergarments, shoes, and hats. Research hint: go straight to the Sunday newspapers, because that’s where the most elaborate weekly ads are published.
Although I could have based my clothing research just on Elsie’s photographs and newspaper advertisements (and Wikipedia Commons, Pinterest, and Tumblr, which I also searched for 1919-ish photographs and illustrations), I also sought out secondary sources for inspiration on how people moved in their clothing.
These shows were great for showing how people tango’d and waltzed; how they shrugged out of their coats; and how they dressed from the undergarments up:
- Downtown Abbey: Season 2 episodes 7, 8, and  Christmas at Downtown Abbey all take place in 1919. True, Lady Mary and her posh set are wearing the finest and freshest of 1919 fashions, but you’ll also have the contrast of what the servants are wearing.
- Mr. Selfridge: All of Season 3 is set in 1919, and the episodes show a variety of upper, middle, and lower-class clothing. This is probably the best variety of 1919 clothing, and although the show Is set in London, American clothing of the time was very similar (and Mr. Selfridge is himself American).
- Peaky Blinders: Season 1 episode 1 shows what the working class of Birmingham, England was wearing in 1919.
There are very few movies set close to the 1919 vaudeville stage, but these three are worth watching. Again, not for accuracy, but for inspiration: Gypsy (1962), Funny Girl (1968), and Funny Lady (1975).
- Although I’ve focused on clothing suitable for 1919 and the 1920’s, these research suggestions are equally successful for most stories set in the 20th century. (I’ve tried to use 19th century newspapers to research clothing, but most newspapers of that era do not have illustrated clothing advertisements.)
- Start your research with a heart-to-heart sit down with your characters. Once you can understand their personalities, the quicker and more focused your research will be. And then the character will truly make the clothing come alive in your writing.
Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s latest historical mystery is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, which features murder, mayhem, and music in 1919 San Francisco. Her award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans.