One gown hung from the door of my wardrobe. Black and white, with lace at the throat, and tight through the waist, where a crushed satin belt was a slash of scarlet. Page 27, FAITHFUL.
One of the fun things (for me) about writing historical fiction is researching food and fashion of the time. Of course I want my character’s behavior to accurately reflect what she wore and what she ate (how did women sit down while wearing those large bustles? How much could a girl eat when laced in a tight corset?) Since FAITHFUL is set in 1904 I spent a lot of time looking at those details.
In 1904, clothing styles still reflected Victorian propriety. Women wore corsets that required back lacing (necessitating servants), wore clothing that was made of rich materials like velvet and silk (necessitating great care), and were generally covered up head to toe. Hemlines still trailed the floor except for ensembles worn on outings, like you see here. Women wore their hair long but swept up in elaborate hairstyles.
Corsets of the time were back-laced, but a woman who was traveling or had no access to a maid wore a corset with front hooks called a busk. Once the corset was laced to the proper cinch (the tighter, the better) the wearer could hook or unhook the corset herself. When Maggie finally casts off her corset, it’s not only a sign of her rebellion and growth, but an indication of the changing times.
As today, day wear was less formal than evening wear, but unlike today the wealthier folk always dressed formally for dinner, even when not entertaining. Men wore white tie and tails, and women wore elaborate gowns, elbow-length gloves, and jewels. Younger, especially unmarried women could get away with a low-cut gown for evening, but most women wore blouses or dresses with modest high collars.
Food was more formal, too, and multiple courses were standard at evening meals. A fish course came first, followed by a meat course, and a tiny amount of sorbet was served between courses to “freshen the palate.” One especially popular dessert was Nesselrode pudding, a confection of cream and fruit. The ice cream cone is said to have originated at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, when a waffle vendor and ice cream vendor were stationed side-by-side; this is unlikely, but cotton candy was indeed introduced at the Exhibition.
Obviously the fine fabrics of delicate hand-made clothing, the corsets, and the fancy food were all standard in high society, and required the aid of multiple servants. The lower classes emulated their employers in fashion and food, though with simpler materials and fare. More on the social norms of the early twentieth century in my next post.