The Making of a Regency Costume

Part 1 of 4:

The Dress & Pelisse

My plans for this year (2018) include going to both the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Reno and the Romance Writers of America conference in Denver (including the 1-day Beau Monde Mini-Conference featuring all things Regency)–not just one, but two occasions to wear historical costume. So I decided at the beginning of the year to create a Regency costume—not just a full-length, high-waisted gown, but the whole shebang. This post is the first of a 4-part series on the construction of that costume, its accessories, and, finally, the results as seen in the professional photo shoot to which I treated myself after the three-month-long project was complete.

Having decided to make the costume, I went shopping right after New Year’s for a pattern and fabric. Unfortunately, there aren’t many Regency patterns available at present, as these tend to be directly proportional to the number of Jane Austen adaptations on the big screen at any given time; as of this writing, 18th-century patterns tend to be more prominent, thanks to Outlander and Poldark.

McCalls #7493, the pattern I used to make my costume.

I did find a few, though, and settled on McCalls #7493. I liked the fact that it offered, in addition to the aforementioned full-length, high-waisted gown, either a short spencer with a pleated peplum in the back or a full-length pelisse with a cutaway front, pleats in the back, and a double-breasted bodice with a draped collar in a contrasting fabric. Both had two-piece sleeves, and both were fully lined. In other words, this was not a pattern for beginners. But I’ve been sewing since I was nine years old. Few patterns have the power to defeat me—and I’m rather a snob about that. So this fairly complex pattern was right up my alley.

Now that I had the pattern, it was time to shop for fabrics.  In my opinion, fabric stores have gone downhill in recent years, with more focus on crafters (especially quilters) than on people who sew, you know, actual clothes. Thanks to all those quilters, I knew it would be no problem to find a cotton print that looked reasonably accurate for the period; fabric for the pelisse (I’d decided to go for the pelisse rather than the spencer, because harder. Yeah, I’m a snob that way.) was likely to prove the greater challenge, so I concentrated on that first. I looked at both Walmart and Joann’s Fabrics (my only local options) for a coat-weight fabric that wasn’t an anachronistic polyester or an obvious poly blend, but without success. In desperation, I went to the back corner of Joann’s, where the upholstery fabrics were kept on enormous cardboard rolls against the wall. And there I found a dove-gray fabric with a slight nap. It was certainly coat weight—in fact, my first thought was that it weighed a ton—but upon reflection, I decided it was no heavier than denim, and lighter than some denims I’ve worked with. For the lining, I bought a length of gray broadcloth that would conceal the wrong side of the fabric while keeping the added weight to a minimum. The upholstery department also yielded another treasure: a relatively lightweight brocade whose color would match the body of the pelisse while the weave provided a contrast.

Clockwise from top left: the gray pelisse fabric; the cotton print I chose for the gown; the silver-gray brocade I used for the contrasting collar of the pelisse.

Now, for the gown. As I had expected, there was no shortage of cotton prints. I’m not generally a fan of sweet little floral patterns, and given that I’m *ahem* past the first blush of youth, I wouldn’t be presenting myself as a young lady in her first Season, but a fashionable society matron. Still, I wanted something that looked reasonably accurate to the period. I finally found a somewhat bolder print, a gray-on-gray pattern punctuated by yellow-and-brown birds and butterflies along with yellow roses and green leaves. This would not only match my pelisse, but also give me additional colors for accessorizing without looking like I was in half-mourning.

Detail of pelisse back view, showing princess seaming & pleated skirt

True to the fashions of the period, my pattern contained no zippers or snaps; the pelisse buttoned in the front, and the gown buttoned in the back. (This also meant that I would be unable to get in and out of the dress without assistance; I made a mental note to make sure to have plans in place before the event for someone to help me into and out of it.) I knew that fabric-covered buttons were popular during the Regency, so I decided to make covered buttons. Alas, both the gown and pelisse called for ½-inch buttons, and I couldn’t find covered-button forms in that size locally. Thank goodness for Amazon! I was able to buy a button-making kit in the correct size, plus a bag of additional button forms—a good thing, too, as I would need eighteen buttons for the pelisse alone (four for each sleeve and ten for the double-breasted bodice), plus another four for the gown. Then, too, there was that pelisse fabric. I suspected it would be too thick for buttons that small, and when my button kit arrived, one practice attempt was enough to prove that I was right. I decided to use remnants of the gray broadcloth I’d used for the pelisse lining. The color was so near a match that they looked identical, and the lighter weight was much better suited to the purpose.

Detail of pelisse sleeve showing covered buttons

As for the gown, I ended up making a couple of small additions after it was complete, one to the bodice and another to the skirt. It was important for the bodice to fit closely, and since I’ve always had a small bustline relative to the rest of me, this meant placing the buttons considerably farther inside than the markings indicated on the pattern. I was afraid this would make it look somewhat off-centered from the back, so I added a second row of buttons on the outside of the bodice, a couple of inches from the buttonholes. They don’t really do anything—that is, there are no corresponding buttonholes—but they do give it a sense of symmetry and, as my proofreader and fellow seamstress pointed out, they reflect the double-breasted construction of the pelisse. This brought my total button count to twenty-six, so I was especially glad to have all those extras.

Detail of gown showing hem with double rows of tasseled trim.

Finally, when I stumbled across a braided trim with tassels in exactly the same color combinations as my dress fabric, I couldn’t resist buying enough to put a double row around the bottom of the skirt, reflecting the ornamented hemlines characteristic of the late Regency period.

In Part 2, I’ll be sharing what was, for me, the most challenging part of the costume: the bonnet.

 

Mediterranean Cruise

One of the questions writers hate the most is “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the reason we hate it is that the honest answer would be, “Duh, I don’t know.” Seriously. Out of more than twenty books, there are only three or four that I could definitely say what inspired the story.

A recent exception would be my first romantic suspense novel, Moon over the Mediterranean, which was just released. When my husband and I started planning this trip, I thought it would be nice if I could get a novel out of it. Since the setting wouldn’t really lend itself to the Regency period (because, you know, Napoleon was running amok all over Europe), I decided to try my hand at the type of book that I credit with giving me a lifelong craving for travel: a romantic suspense novel in the tradition of Mary Stewart, M. M. Kaye, etc. Since the book’s publication, several reviewers have recommended it as a summer “beach read,” largely because of its exotic setting(s). So now, I’m going to be like that annoying neighbor who invites you over and then proceeds to show you all the home movies from his vacation. Except in my case, it’s not movies, but some of the sights we saw on our trip, which also figure in the novel.

Hubby Mike and me on Formal Night. (No, I’m not that short; he, at 6’5″, is that tall.)

Since I’m a firm believer in not talking down to readers, I’m not going to tell you what this is. I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out.

Me, standing in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The two-toned cream-colored house in the right middle ground is the Keats-Shelley House, where the poet John Keats died in 1821. It’s now a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets.

Stunning view along the hair-raising road from Naples to Sorrento.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. In the book, Robin has a fright here; while I wasn’t assaulted, like she was, I did find the too-aggressive salesmen too much of a deterrent to do any shopping.

The windmills of Mykonos, Greece.

The section of Mykonos known as “Little Venice,” because of the way the balconies hang out over the water. One of the “mushier” scenes in the book takes place here.

Street scene in Ephesus, Turkey. The large building on the left is (or was) the Celsus Library.

The Parthenon, Athens.

The Erechtheion, with the “Porch of the Maidens.” It’slocated on the Acropolis, like the Parthenon, which is only a stone’s throw away. (No pun intended.)

A close-up of the Porch of the Maidens.

The Doge’s Palace in Venice, as seen from the balcony of our stateroom.

 

 

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, with the Doge’s Palace on the left and the prison on the right. The “sighs” were from prisoners glimpsing the outside world for the last time as they crossed the bridge.

 

USA Today HEA interview

In spring of 2016, I had the good fortune to be featured on USA Today’s HEA blog in an article on historical mystery series with strong romantic elements! Since there were eight authors referenced in the article, everyone’s interview had to be abbreviated due to space constraints. I’ve included my entire interview below; if you’d like to read the HEA blog entry (I’ve been told it was one of the most popular they’ve ever done, and was shared more than 1,400 times!), you can read it here

1) Did you plan from the start to include the romantic element in your book or series, or did it evolve in the writing of the stories? If the former, why? If the latter, at what point did you realize this element would be significant to the book/series?
Yes, the romance was a big part of the series from the very beginning. I’d had success with “across the tracks” romance in my self-published Regency romance The Weaver Takes a Wife, so when I got ready to develop a mystery series, I decided to go back to that particular well, in this case pairing a young and inexperienced (in more ways than one) Bow Street Runner with the widowed viscountess who is his chief suspect in the murder of her husband (Book 1, In Milady’s Chamber). I knew from the first that I was asking readers to suspend a great deal of disbelief in accepting that a Bow Street Runner, even a young and handsome one, might become romantically involved with an aristocratic lady. In fact, I felt this scenario was well-suited for a series, as it would allow for the gradual development of a relationship that might be difficult to pull off in a single title.

2) Does the romantic element develop over several books or is it strong from the start?
It seems a bit sacrilegious to mention my own books in the same sentence as Dorothy L. Sayers, but at the risk of sounding presumptuous, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane was my model, as far as developing the romance goes. In the first book, the attraction is all on John Pickett’s side. Julia, Lady Fieldhurst is far more concerned with saving her neck from the gallows, but even aside from that, a woman of her class would never think of a man of his station in those terms. It was interesting to see reviewers’ response to this one-sided attachment. One reviewer said, “If you’re looking for a romance, you won’t find it here,” while another said, “The romantic tension crackles, because absolutely nothing happens”!

3) What is the relationship between the protagonist and the significant other, and the role of the significant other in the story? (Are they partner sleuths, or is the “other”, while involved in the story, not one of the primary investigators? If you are writing a series, does your protagonist have only one significant other, or are there a series of them?)
In the first book, he was investigating her husband’s murder, and she was the primary suspect. In the later books, they keep running into each other—sometimes coincidentally, other times not. Because of her social position, she can go places that he can’t, and ferret out information from people who might refuse to talk to him. The most recent book, Dinner Most Deadly, found them at cross purposes for the first time, with Julia reluctantly agreeing to protect her best friend’s estranged husband, who is a suspect in the case Pickett is investigating. And it makes her miserable, which goes a long way toward making her realize just how important he has become in her life.

4) If you are writing/have written a series, how is the romantic element maintained after the couple marry or otherwise have a meeting of the minds on their relationship?
I don’t want to give away too much detail here, because the book that resolves the relationship has not yet been published. Suffice it to say that I’d expected the series to end once that resolution came, but after writing that book, I realized that the daily challenges of making such an unequal match work offered plenty of opportunity for conflict—and comedy—that deserved to be explored.

5) Do you think the romantic element is important to the marketing of your books? Is it featured, by either you or your publisher, in the marketing materials? If not, do you know why?
I think it’s very important—in fact, I doubt if there’s a single person who reads my books strictly for the mystery! While my publisher markets the John Pickett series as part of its mystery line, I write my own copy for the cover flap, and I make sure to mention the issues within the developing relationship as well as the mystery. I also promote it on romance review websites, and next month I’ll be attending the Romantic Times conference for the first time.

6) There are historical romances with strong suspense of mystery plots. How are those different from the books that you write?
The most obvious difference is the fact that my series follows the same couple over a number of books—and that, four books into the series, the romance is still unresolved and unconsummated. I also think my books contain more humor than the historical romances with mystery or suspense elements, which seem to deal with darker themes and/or tortured characters. I don’t do tortured characters; John Pickett is rather like a Regency “Chuck” (from the titular character of the TV series, portrayed by Zachary Levi) in that he’s brilliant but utterly lacking in self-confidence.

On Discipline and Inspiration

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a very disciplined writer. After all, I’m an Artist. As everyone knows, Artists work when—and only when—they are inspired by their muse. And if my muse decides to take a pet and not show up for a few days—or weeks, or months—well, that’s not my fault, is it? My muse will return when it’s Time.

 All that changed when I had coffee with Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo awards and perhaps the premier science fiction writer in the country. My daughter is a major Connie Willis fan girl, so shortly after moving to Colorado, I contacted Connie Willis and asked if she would be willing to autograph a book for my daughter’s birthday. She agreed, and we met at a Starbucks in Greeley, where she is apparently a regular fixture.

 We talked for an hour, and during the course of our conversation, she told me she does all her writing at Starbucks; when she tries to write at home, she said, she looks around the house and sees all the other things she “ought” to be doing instead.

 Hmm, I thought, that sounds familiar. So the next morning, I took my laptop and went to Starbucks (not the same one; I don’t stalk Connie Willis). I discovered that the internet connection there, while okay for the occasional bit of research, is too slow for efficiently posting status updates to Facebook, reading and replying to email, playing Candy Crush, and all the other things that tend to distract me when I’m on the computer. By the time I left Starbucks an hour later, I’d written a thousand words—and all without a peep from that fickle muse.

 Since that first visit to Starbucks, I’ve written three novels of 65,000 words each, sold two of them, and started a fourth, which at the time of this writing is about 20% complete.

 Thanks, Connie. I needed that.