Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Clothes make the man - and woman

The importance of wearing the right thing appears to be as old and clothing itself, and so it is always important for a novelist to keep the reader informed about what characters are wearing. When writing historical fiction, however, the problem becomes complicated by the fact that the reader may not be able to visualize a certain item simply by referring to it -- and by the fact that the reader may not be familiar with the social implications of one kind of clothing vs another. For example, in a novel set in the present it is enough to say “he was wearing a three-piece, pin-striped suit” to conjure up not only an image but convey something about the social status of the character. In a historical novel that may not be so obvious.

Accessories and grooming fall into the same category as dress. In a modern novel, whether a woman is wearing cheap “fashion” jewelry, an antique ring or a flashy diamond has significance that the reader instantly understands. A hairstyle can be described with a word or two – a crew cut, a ponytail, an afro. The significance of a man with a shaved head or a woman whose hair has been cut may not be so obvious to the reader of a historical novel.

This makes descriptions of clothing, accessories and grooming all the more important in a historical novel. Let me site a few examples from my own novels.

My first example comes from An Obsolete Honor. It not only introduces a key character, but tells a bit about the historical context to help the reader relate to later descriptions of women.

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerThe receptionist for the Commander of the AHA was a particularly pleasant surprise. She was not objectively prettier than half a dozen other young women working in the building, but whereas the others competed with one another within the narrow confines of Third Reich ideology on feminine beauty, Philip hadn’t seen a young lady like this since he’d left Paris. She wore long, dangling earrings, for a start, something one almost never saw in Nazi Germany. Even more unusual, she wore makeup – not heavy makeup (Philip wouldn’t have liked that) – just enough not to look tired and bland. Although she wore a simple silk blouse, it had that indefinable extra elegance that could only have come from a Paris designer. Most distinctively, rather than wearing her hair long in back, but pulled or coiled away from her face, she had cut it very short and severe at the base of her neck while leaving it long in front. It fell forward, blond and delightfully casual – when she didn’t negligently tuck it behind her ears.

The next example, from The Lady in the Spitfire, contrasts styles of the period.

Jay changed into his dress uniform and Emily appeared in a stunning evening gown – like nothing Jay had ever seen. No off-the-shoulder-low-décolleté-and-puffy skirt affair as Kathy would have worn. It was a modest yet elegant, burgundy gown with one bare arm and one arm encased in sheer silk.

The Lady in the SpitfireThe paragraph above is quite short because the fashions of the Second World War are still familiar to most readers today from films, documentaries, and history books with photos. Likewise, when writing about the Second World War it is enough to refer, for example, to a “navy uniform,” a “flight jacket” or “dress blues” without actually describing them. When writing about ancient Greece, however, the situation is very different and much more challenging. The issue is to create an image the reader can visualize, provide information about status and character – and all without boring the reader with a lecture or a fashion lesson.

In this example from Are They Singing in Sparta? The primary objective of this particular scene was to tell the reader about how women of the period groomed and dressed so that thereafter in the novel lengthy descriptions would not be necessary. The hope was that after this one scene, the reader would be able to visual items based on short references.

Are They Singing in Sparta?Naked, she poured the water into the laver that stood in the adjoining nursery. She also poured from a pottery vial extract of rosemary. With a sponge she wiped herself with this warm, fresh-smelling water and dabbed off the dampness with a linen towel. Already Sybil was waiting with her breast-bind and she held out her arms, so Sybil could pass the bands around her expertly, confining and supporting her breasts firmly.

“I have decided to apologize to the Supreme Polemarch personally for what Sandy did,” she announced as Sybil went to the clothes trunk to fetch her something to wear.

Sybil dug deeper into the trunk and pulled out a full-length, long-sleeved chiton. “You’ll be wanting this then,” she said simply. “It’s warmer anyway.”

The chiton was of soft, dark green wool and was shirred along the seams from neck to wrist. Along this seam bronze balls had been sewn at intervals, and there were two bands of embroidery in gold thread, one at knee height and one at the hem itself. Alethea donned the chiton, while Sybil selected a himation to go with it. “The purple himation, Mistress?”

“No, not that!” Alethea rejected her best himation sharply. The last time she’d worn it had been so unlucky.

“But you’ll want to wear your amethyst collar, surely? Athenian wives always laden themselves with jewels.”

“No,” Alethea answered firmly. “My chain of gold rosettes and the rosette earrings will be fine. And I’ll wear the dark blue himation… and the lion-head pin to hold the himation at the shoulder, but first help me put up my hair.”

“Yes, mistress.”

Alethea seated herself upon a low stool before her dressing table, and Sybil took up the carved ivory comb. Alethea’s curly hair snarled easily, which was shy she wore it bound at night. Sybil released the hair from its bonds, and set about combing it expertly. “You still have such lovely, thick hair, Mistress,” Sybil assured her without jealousy, although her own hair was so thin and sparse that she kept her head covered with a snood at all times.

Alethea did not respond. Sybil was always making her compliments, insinuating that she was still an attractive – marriageable – woman. She had let Sybil’s flattery go to her head and paid dearly for it. She told herself to stop listening.

Sybil expertly bound up Alethea’s thick hair in a ribbon that held the curls bunched at the back of her head. On her forehead she set a gold diadem. Then she teased a few curls back to hang in front of her ears. She gave Alethea a polished bronze mirror in which to inspect her work with a smile of pride and the remark, “no one would think you were a day over 30.”

Alethea looked at herself critically…Her eyelids were starting to sag and her neck was wrinkled. She was 38. What could ever have induced her to think a young man would find her attractive enough to be interested in her? She had made an absolute fool of herself! She put the mirror face-down on the dresser and with a sigh got to her feet.

Sybil expertly doubled the himation over so that it hung in two, unequal layers. She wrapped it around Alethea so that the longer layer hung to mid-calf. This left just a foot of the chiton with its border exposed, while the shorter, upper layer of the himation fell to just below her hip. For inside, it was draped from under her left arm to over right shoulder, where it was pinned, leaving both arms free to move. But when she went outside, she could pull the upper flap up over her head and encase her left arm for added warmth.

By weaving Alethea’s thoughts and worries into scene of her dressing, I have broken up the pure description of what a wealthy Spartan lady of this period (the archaic, before Spartan customs restricted women’s freedom to adorn themselves) would have worn.

In the excerpt below from The Olympic Charioteer the description of a stranger and his dress is sufficient to tell the protagonist he is dealing with a wealthy man, and so the reader is also taught what to look for.

The Olympic CharioteerHe was a handsome blond man with an aquiline nose and penetrating blue eyes. He wore a long white chiton over which he had wrapped a maroon himation with casual elegance around his waist and then over his shoulders. He had good sandals on his feet and smelled of bay leaves.

In contrast, a few pages later the protagonist is at pains to prevent a misconception that could also be caused by Spartan dress.

“No—that is, he is my driver, but he is no slave! He’s a Spartan eirene, if you know what that is.” Teleklos was over-reacting to the slight, but he did not want any mistake about Nikandros’ status. Because eirenes were not yet citizens, they did not yet have the right to wear Spartan scarlet. They wore unbleached chitons and coarse black himations. There were many slaves of rich masters who went about better dressed, and this made it all the more imperative to clarify things.

I’d like to close with a description of men’s dress in ancient Sparta that contrasts three men. The excerpt is taken from Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen.
Spartan Slave, Spartan Queen: A Tale of Four Women in SpartaA tall man in plain armor and a black-crested helmet emerged into the atrium flanked by two younger men. One of these was in the most splendid armor, while the other was in worn leather armor and holding a torch, apparently low born….

Here, without going into detail, I inform the reader that a man’s status could be seen from his armor and that the poorest could not necessarily afford bronze, useful information that can be referred back to in the rest of the novel.



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