‘Mabels’, they used to be called, at least when (as Caroline Martin) I was being published by Mills and Boon back in the late 70s/early 80s. That stood for ‘Mills and Boon in a Long Skirt’, which was the publishers’ name for romances that were set in the past but had little actual historical detail in them. Mostly these were imitative Regency romances, latching on to the popularity of Georgette Heyer’s lively stories. The romances I wrote, on the other hand, were set in a distinct historical context, around actual historical events, and involved a good deal more research than did the ‘Mabels’.
Because that long skirt isn’t the end of the story. For a historical novel to work it isn’t enough just to dress your characters in the sort of long skirt you yourself might wear. Georgette Heyer knew that even if many of her imitators didn’t. What we wear makes a difference to how we behave— up to a point, at least. I guess most of us know that good feeling when we are dressed up and wearing exactly the right clothes for a special occasion, giving us the confidence to enjoy ourselves thoroughly. Or, alternatively, the horrible sensation when faced with the creeping realisation that we’ve got it terribly wrong; and all we want to do is skulk in a corner until we can steal softly home, hopefully unnoticed.
What we wear underneath those long (or short) skirts also tells a story about what we are. When I was growing up in the Forties and Fifties, women habitually wore corsets and children the inaptly named ‘liberty bodice’, which was a sort of reinforced vest, soft enough, but a bit on the rigid side. Gradually, elasticised girdles replaced corsets— more flexible, but still constricting enough. It was only the liberation of the Sixties that threw aside all constricting clothing for women (though anxiety about showing one’s stocking tops in a mini skirt was a painful experience for a shy teenager, relieved at last by the blissful invention of tights). Our pants— knickers— shrank from the navy bloomers of my schooldays, to briefs and thongs. The most ardent feminists wore no bras (though I can’t actually recall anyone I knew burning theirs). Morality, the spirit of the age, was reflected in our underwear.
That’s just a small example. Go further back in time, to the early seventeenth century, the period I’m currently exploring, and the clothes are a good bit more challenging. Corsets— stays— yes, they were worn, often to damaging effect. The trim waist was designed to draw the eye to the bosom, which was often scarcely covered at all, to the occasional scandalised comments of Puritan observers.
On the other hand, only the very wealthy owned enough clothes to change them often, so they must have been a bit stinky. Wearing clean linen next to the skin was seen as important at a time when people rarely took baths at all (Queen Elizabeth First is said to have ‘bathed once a year, whether she needed it or no.’)
But underwear did not, in England at least, include knickers. They were a naughty continental invention. Half a century after the period of which I’m currently writing, the diarist Samuel Pepys suspected his French wife might be having an affair (and who could blame her, considering how he behaved?). So he set himself to spy on her ‘to see whether my wife did wear drawers today as she used to do, and other things to raise my suspicion of her, but I found no true cause of doing it.’
Uncovered breasts? No knickers? It sounds like a recipe for the indulgence of unbridled lust. Maybe; though no hands below the waist was the stern rule for unmarried country girls. And what about those starched and reinforced ruffs that anyone reasonably well-to-do wore in the early 1600s? Wouldn’t that make getting close up and personal a pretty tricky proposition?
It’s often said that human nature is the same in every age. It’s true, but only up to a point. The clothes we wear, the clothes our ancestors wore, tell us something about the limitations of that saying. They have to be a part of what a historical novelist considers as she writes.