How to Think Like a Costume Designer When Writing Historical Fiction
Claudia Cravens on What Clothes Tell Us About Character
My mother trained as a costume designer and is a self-made cinephile, so the background noise of my childhood and adolescence was the classic films channel. My sister and I grew up to the scratchy deadpan of Bette Davis; the swell of strings under Fred Astaire’s feet; the rapid-fire sniping of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Layered over all of that was our mother periodically calling out something to the effect of, “Look at that hat!” We’d look up in time to see Bette Davis in Now Voyager, looking out at us from under a hat that perfectly frames her newly steady gaze, and get a quick breakdown of how now that her clothes fit right and her headgear locks our eyes on her best feature, we know that she’s come into her own and is ready to change her life. As we learned to follow plots that turned on dialogue, we also learned to follow costumes: when done right, a costume design will tell us everything we need to know about everyone’s means, motives and trajectory.
So when it came time to dress the characters in my debut novel, Lucky Red—that is, to add more detail to a montage of nineteenth-century brothel life—I texted my mom:
Me: Quick historical question: is “duck canvas” an accurate material for cowboy pants? I’m looking for the inexpensive, hard-wearing opposite of wool suiting.
Mom: That would be perfect. …Denim wasn’t a big thing yet—it’s a true San Francisco fabric. [heart emoji][clap emoji][sunglasses emoji]
Me: Thanks! [many heart emojis]
Mom: And they’d wear clothes to death. Remember, “Deets don’t quit on a garment just ‘cause it’s got a little age to it.”
While I could have just written something about stiff new pants, or plain “canvas,” I like the rhythm of “duck canvas.” I’m also pleased that it’s historically accurate costume design.
As writers, we don’t really think of the clothes our characters wear as “costumes,” but it’s hard to think of a better term for what they put on (or take off) throughout the story. Good costume design isn’t about making people look fabulous so much as it’s about taking us into the world of the story. Even if we don’t consciously notice it, the age, color, texture and fit of a garment can give a wealth of information about a character’s self-image, social position, finances, and relationships to others in the story.Thinking like a designer is especially useful when writing a novel with a historical setting, as costumes offer a unique opportunity to make the world of the novel feel real.
A fantastic recent example of costume design that communicates purposefully like this is HBO’s Game of Thrones. As background for those who managed to escape this torturous cultural phenomenon, the series involved an incredibly wide cast of characters from different families, with constantly shifting loyalties, and costumes were immensely helpful to the audience for keeping track of all this.
Each family had a distinct color scheme that made all members from the highest lord to the lowest man-at-arms instantly recognizable: House Lannister wore red, House Tyrell wore turquoise, House Martell wore ochre, etc. And when the center of power moved from Queen Regent Cersei Lannister to Queen Margaery Tyrell, the ladies of the court switched their dresses from crimson to teal. It’s so simple and yet so effective: we don’t even notice ourselves noticing it, but when we see the extras dressed in the colors of the upstart new queen, we immediately know to brace ourselves for Cersei’s response.
Thinking like a designer is especially useful when writing a novel with a historical setting, as costumes offer a unique opportunity to make the world of the novel feel real. We live our lives in the day-to-day—the taste of morning coffee, the sounds outside a window, the feel of keys in a front pocket—and clothing plays a huge part in how we feel in the world and in our bodies. So when it came time to bring readers into a Dodge City brothel in 1877, costumes were the perfect entry point.
In writing Lucky Red, I put everything I’d absorbed growing up to use, starting with color. Bridget, our plucky but down-on-her-luck protagonist, begins the novel in a faded pink dress; when she starts working in the Buffalo Queen brothel, she is always in her scarlet work dress; after much adventure and misadventure, she winds up in black with touches of purple. It’s a simple color story, but it tracks her journey from naïve to worldly, from passive to powerful. It also helps build the world of the Buffalo Queen: brothel madams Kate and Lila wear various deep reds—garnet, wine, burgundy—to place them on that same color arc, but they’re more experienced than Bridget, and therefore in deeper shades.
Other colors have roles to play as well. Blue and green are colors of and from the outside world and only worn outside of the Buffalo Queen. Brown is worn only by male customers so that they will fade into the background of the wood-paneled saloon: the men that the girls at the Buffalo Queen have sex with are of little interest compared to their own lives and relationships. Yellow signifies danger, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean by that.
Texture is also of premium importance in Lucky Red’s costuming. How we feel in our clothes is one of the central questions of our day-to-day life: it affects how we feel in our bodies, how we hold ourselves, how we move, even how we behave toward other people (it’s pretty hard to be kind and patient in a hot, itchy sweater, right?).
We may take a lot of it for granted—it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll hitch your jeans up now and then throughout the day—but it’s there, affecting our mannerisms and movements. This is where I started tapping into my mother’s encyclopedic knowledge of historical American clothing.
As I watched and re-watched westerns on my laptop, I took screenshots and dragged them into our text chain with questions like, “Would this shirt be soft or scratchy?” “What’s the knot in this tie called?” “When they wash their dresses, will the dye run?” Her answers always provided new bits and pieces of information: many people mail-ordered clothes from back east to wear them to rags in the west; a shirtwaist is another name for a blouse; yes, red dye would run like crazy.
Weaving together all of this information with the color story of the novel’s costume design allowed me to create a strong visual through-line while also bringing Bridget’s day-to-day world to life. It also let me weave in the threads of my home and family, the long afternoons sprawled in front of black-and-white movies when I learned another way to understand story through design, and all the precious, ordinary things that make up life.
Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens is available now via The Dial Press.