When I wrote A Muse to Live For, I spent more time doing historical research than actually writing. It is normal with historical fiction especially if it is your first! I became quite fascinated with Victorian clothes, and I am delighted to have discovered the beautiful art of Nicole Rubio, and to have her permission to use it on my blog as I ramble on a little about the Victorians and their apparel. I hope this post stirs your interest not just in my book, and Victorian fashion, but also in this artist's amazing talent and her deeply moving journey.
"When I could see my work I was too much of a perfectionist and severely blocked. It was only when it became real that it was now or never that I was willing to try. Somehow it felt like I had less to lose if I was starting with a handicap."
Pastel Drawing on Paper
"What bothers me most is losing color, which I can still see some, but not with the subtlety I could before. I am legally blind, due to a degenerative retinal disease."
One of the things I had to figure out for this story, where Gabriel/le, my main character does quite a lot of dress-making, dressing up and, ahem, undressing, is how on earth these cmplex outfit were put together, and worn.
Man outfits of the time were not so very different from modern suits, but Victorian women clothes are… well, there was such a bloody lot of them, to begin with! There is no doubt that getting dressed was a bit of a hassle, although much less than one would think. It would take about fifteen minutes to get ready to go out, from drawers to hat-and-parasol, with a bustle dress of the kind worn by the middle-class woman (or the better dressed lower class, too) in the 1880s. I did choose this decade because bustle dresses are definitely more attractive (at least to me) than the cumbrous bell-shaped crinoline gowns that preceded them, and they seemed to fit my main character’s style much better.
So how would you wear one of these? They look so incredibly complex, that it’s difficult to understand how one can get in or out of them. So I ventured into a journey of discovery, and tried to understand each element of these complicated outfits.
First, a chemise, to go under the corset, and drawers, if you were so inclined. My MC does not believe in drawers, much, and it must be said that a knee-length ruffled, flouncy things lacks a certain sex-appeal to the modern eye. Victorian drawers were not completely boring though. They were crotchless, to begin with, for ease of uh… chamber pot use. That might explain why the can-can was considered such a scandalous dance. Try throwing your leg and skirts far up in the air with a pair of crotchless panties… well, you get the picture. But, if you thought that the love-slit was a modern kinky twist on lingerie, think again…
Then stockings and boots. What? They wore their boots before getting dressed? Why, yes. Before the invention of the zipper, boots were fiddly. Lots of laces and/or tiny buttons. Not easy to work those while wearing a stiff corset that makes it impossible to bend forward with any ease. But you can see that this opens quite some doors to the fetish-inclined mind. Because after the boots one would put on the corset (which contrary to common opinion, a moderately limber woman could well tie by herself, at least after the invention of the hook and eye fastening for the front), and there you have a very pretty image, of a stockinged, booted wo/man in a tight corset… well, mind out of the gutter, Wyvern.
Pastel and Ink on Paper
Ⓒ Nicole Rubio
"As I have gotten older and my eyesight worse, my work is less about seduction and increasingly about the fear and vulnerability, I feel in facing new situations."
Add a bustle. The bustle is of course the crucial point of the bustle dress, and the signature element of the fashion of the time. The cheaper ones were basically horse-hair-stuffed pillows one tied over one’s butt to give the skirts a lift behind, and that typical high-rear profile, but the expensive ones were complicated bits of work, including hoops and tabs, and tapes, and complex cages with springs, and even musical boxes, sometimes. I kid you not. All these strange contraptions had to be fastened to one’s waist, and shaped the back of the skirts when one was walking, and folded like a concertina when one was sitting. I am not sure how easy it was to go about one’s business with such a complicated apparatus hanging from one’s ass. But it was certainly easier that the far more enormous gowns worn in former decades.
Over the bustle, a petticoat (underskirt), and a blouse. And then a skirt, and an apron overskirt (the ruffly, draped, upper part of those complex multi-layered skirts). Over these a taille (basically a tight jacket, matching the skirt), and then all the necessary accessories (collar, gloves, shawl, or a coat, if one could afford it, muff, reticule, parasol/umbrella, bonnet/hat).
It was a lot, and new clothes were expensive. Those were the days when much work was still hand-made and time-consuming. Sewing machines did exist (since about 1846), but they were still slow and they could do little more than “plain work” (straight simple seams), and although the labor force (read: lower classes) were plentiful and paid barely enough to survive (if at all), the complex, highly embellished garments of Victorian fashion were expensive. The middle and upper classes could afford new clothes, but the poorer people most often bought second hand, adapting and fixing them as best they could. Darning is a lost art now, but very much an endless chore at the time. The interesting part of this is that a handy lower-class girl could very well wear very pretty clothes, if a bit faded. Even boots were sold and worn again until each owner found them too disreputable, and resold them to someone less picky or more desperate.
“Tuffet in the Rain”
Pastel and Graphite Pencil on Paper
Ⓒ Nicole Rubio
“For an artist capturing the outer world, what matters most is the light. For an artist capturing the inner world, what matters most is honesty.”
And when clothes became really unwearable? There was still a lot that could be done with them. Even the poorest rag was valued and could be bought and sold and put to use. Sometimes in fascinating ways. For example the front of a gentleman’s vest, with all those time-consuming button-holes (if you have ever hand-sewn a button-hole, you will know that those are represent real value) could be reused to fashion the top of buttoned boots. At the very least old fabric could always be taken apart for making new yarn, which in turn was used to make a new fabric called “shoddy”.