Part of “writing from inside” concerns the question of dress, particularly for historicals. The problem is how to get accurate information on the styles of the day. What the ladies of Downton Abbey wore to dinner is not the same as what a shopkeeper’s wife on the prairies would wear. Cowgirls might wear a divided skirt but a milliner in Victoria would be scandalized at such a garment. There are even differences between American West and Canadian West in the issue of dress and manners. Canada, as part of the British Empire, was very tied to the notions expressed by Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century, i.e. prim and proper, whereas the new settlers in the American West were a product of revolution and war and had scant time for what they considered hidebound rules or etiquette. A gentleman was polite and considerate of a lady, but no one cared which fork was used for fish.
My latest dilemma in writing a novel set in 1890 in the Canadian gold mining town of Prospect British Columbia concerns the bustle. The time is at the cusp of a change in fashion. In the 1870’s the bustle was worn low, spreading the skirts into a graceful sweep behind the wearer, often ending in a train. By the early 1880’s it had become smaller but then in the mid 1880’s bustles changed to huge, wire cages worn just below the waist. Skirts still contained yards and yards and yards of fabric, and it was pulled back and up, fastened at the waist then cascaded down in ruffles and ribbons over a large, high bustle. The less charitable critics at the time said the fashion gave women the profile of the back end of a horse! By the 1890’s this fashion extreme was receding and bustles were small, padded affairs worn low on the back.
By rights, my heroine in the wilds of British Columbia would be behind the times in regard to fashion, but she is also a hard-working woman who needs clothes that accommodate her lifestyle. No servants to lace her corset from the back, no char woman to scrub her steps and black her stove and, no dairymaid to milk the cow.
The Eaton’s catalogue of the time advertised bustles “rolled and padded.” Since most of Western Canada depended upon the Eaton’s catalogue for everything from handkerchiefs to houses, I’ve decided to let my heroine wear one of their smaller bustles for special events. She can look elegant and feminine when she goes to a concert, but she’ll wear sturdy skirts and blouses, covered by an apron for the hard work. When she’s feeling particularly daring, she’ll wear a divided skirt and ride her horse astride!