Late last spring, I was inspired to do a little more, sartorially speaking, when I appeared at a book event. I had always tried to dress up a little, half-heartedly doing a sort of Dale Evans/cowgirl/Santa Fe western style as a means of at least looking the part. A member of the old on-line writers’ group who had written several historicals set in 19th century China had a magnificent set of mandarin robes, with accessories, which he wore to book events, to wild acclaim – so I seemed to have been on the right track, if not with the right selection of my chosen ‘author drag.’
The inspiration last spring came from my daughter insisting on a trip to the nearest Handcock Fabric store, as it was announced they were going out of business within months. My daughter wanted to check out their assortment of embroidery threads, both for hand and by machine embroidery. And I went off to flip through the pattern books in a desultory manner, more or less to kill time. However – in the Butterick catalog, there was a section for ‘costumes’ – a market for providing such to reenactors and cosplayers must have become significant in the last couple of years. Only logical, when you think on it. People are still sewing, but not for making every-day clothing as it was when my mother made all my school clothes, and I made the same for my daughter. Every-day wear is cheaper to purchase ready-made; those sewing garments today are more likely to be making special occasion outfits; prom and bridal dresses … and costumes.
Among the costume patterns was one for an Edwardian-era walking suit, which I liked the look of, the more I contemplated it. Tailored jacket, ankle-length skirt – not very much removed from what I wore when I worked in an office for various enterprises which required standard women’s business attire. The Edwardian suit wasn’t from the era in which most of my books are set – but I nixed the idea of going full corset-crinoline and bonnet to a book event, not least because stuffing me and all that into the front seat of my daughter’s Montero and then helping to set up the pavilion and the tables of goods in that get-up was simply out of the question. But an Edwardian, or even late Victorian outfit, with a narrow, ankle-length skirt or perhaps a slightly fuller skirt and modest bustle; that was doable, and potentially very eye-catching. I bought the pattern and a length of marked-down suiting and lining materiel, and went to work. That first outfit came out OK, but I did another one in even more marked-down brown tweed suiting which came out very, very well (it’s my favorite, actually) … and then I got ambitious, once I had my long-disused Singer sewing machine tuned up.
I bought a Butterick pattern for making various vintage-style hats. Millinery is just a special sort of sewing and requires an ability to follow written directions and nothing in the way of raw materials that is not readily available from places like Joann’s or Hobby Lobby. The hats and bonnets, bashed from various patterns available here and there all came out so well that by fall I had a different outfit for every day of a three-day event; something to wear for every book event over the Christmas season. My ambition now is for a wardrobe of six or eight different 1880-1910 period outfits with all the appropriate accessories – an evening gown, a couple of lightweight cotton day dresses in cotton or lawn, plus the walking suits. Hats, gloves, reticule, whatever …
The eye-catching thing worked out, which is why I decided to expanded the wardrobe of author drag in the first place. All attention is good, when it’s a lead-in to talking about books: “Hi – I write historical fiction, so why not dress the part?” is a fantastic ice-breaker, and a lot more dignified than a bald, “Hey, wanna buy my books?” There is another very curious effect, too – the effect that the whole thing has on males of a certain age – say, older than forty, or so. And let me put it out there right away – I am not movie-star spectacularly attractive, and never was, really. I am sixty-plus, overweight, and in the bloom of youth might at best be described as “cute,” or “not bad looking.” But when I am in one of my full author drag outfits – hat, gloves, reticule, and all, it absolutely astounds me how courtly and full of gentlemanly deference certain men become. It’s almost as if they are channeling manners from a more courteous era than this present one. It’s quite charming, actually. And another good reason to go full out with the period wardrobe and accessories.