These features as a way for the Ministry to highlight artists, musicians, writers, and makers of all variety. With so many talented individuals to choose from, we know it is a challenge to feature every clever creative worthy of note, but perhaps we might endeavour to introduce to you a new name in our community of steam and cog, or perhaps remind you of one artisan’s successful efforts to bring the past that never was to the here and now.
In this week’s Æther Feature brought to you by KT Bryski we look at some of the challenges of Victorian dress.
Hi! My name is KT Bryski—I’m a Canadian author and podcaster. My dark fantasy novel Heartstealer was just released. It’s set a little earlier than the Ministry (think 1860s, rather than 1890s), but certain…ahem, inconveniences of Victorian dress hold across the board.
Ah, the 1800s. So stylish. So elegant.
Heartstealer is set in a world analogous to our own nineteenth century. As my protagonist Sara knows, it’s not all ladies in pretty dresses. She doesn’t just have to fight angry wraiths and little gods—there are some dreadful inconveniences lurking in her wardrobe!
Let’s dive right in with a delicate topic: underwear. Specifically, let’s talk drawers—underpants, for us in 2015.
Drawers are comprised of two legs joined independently to one waistband. Which means, that…ah, you see…
There’s no crotch, all right? Makes going to the bathroom easier, but if a wind goes up your petticoats wrong…let’s just say that things can get pretty chilly.
2. Hearth Death
While Sara is investigating her husband’s death, she gets taken in by a nice local family. Such a domestic scene: Mrs. Brae cooking over the open hearth, perhaps leaning in to check the contents of a bubbling pot…
Remember those long skirts? Remember how they are usually made of wool, cotton, or linen— all highly flammable fabrics? Long, flammable fabric + fire = hearth death. Open hearth cooking risked skirts catching on fire, resulting in burns that could severely injure or kill women.
3. Crushing Corsets
“Of course,” you say. “Of course you’ve included corsets. Everyone knows that Victorian women never breathed.”
Overly-tight corsets could result in injury and death, but mostly, people weren’t doing the Scarlett O’Hara foot-on-the-back style of lacing. Corsets were used to train the waist to a specific shape, and also to create a smooth line under the dress. Tied correctly, they weren’t too bad.
But even a properly-tied corset feels snug after a meal. Heck, drinking too much water can make you uncomfortably aware of the fabric laced around your middle. Something for Sara to think about every time she sits down at the table.
I’ll admit, I’ve deviated from history here. But hey, HEATSTEALER is set in a secondary world that’s very much like magic Victorian Ireland…but not actually. So I can.
When Sara gets news that her husband died in a remote northern village, she goes into mourning clothes, but the mourning costume isn’t as intense as it was for the Victorians. Bear in mind, this is the ideal, and there was some variation, but… ideally, for a year and a day after a woman’s husband died, she wore full mourning: all black, usually crape specifically because crape doesn’t look good with anything, a veil, gloves, the works.
Next comes second mourning: still all black, but losing the veil, maybe some jet jewellery and white collars/cuffs (for the record, this is pretty much what Sara gets). This lasts six to nine months.
Then, she moves into half or light mourning: drab colours, greys, browns, mauves. Not the bright colours Victorians loved. That’s another three to six months.
So, as a widow, you could potentially spend over two years wearing different mourning outfits. Here’s hoping your old clothes weren’t too dated afterwards….
5. Hot stuff
Think about the last time you were really, really hot. A humid summer day, perhaps, when it’s pushing 95 degrees in the shade. Humidex of 110 or so. You know how it just feels like you’ve been flattened, how your skin feels too tight, and sweat is streaming between your shoulder blades and down your neck, plastering your clothes to your skin?
Not fun. Now imagine this. Full-length skirt. Full-length sleeves. High neckline.
It’s like wearing several wet blankets. You can practically feel yourself withering, your head pounding with dehydration and high core body temperatures. It’s a wonder we survived to invent air conditioning.
6. Bumper Hoops
And to round things off, let’s look at that most iconic piece of Victorian fashion: the crinoline. Fashioned from steel hoops, it gives skirts that voluminous, bell shape we associate with the 1800s. They’re actually pretty comfortable—nice and light, which is why they were adopted so eagerly.
They’re still inconvenient.
Running? Good luck. Brush too close to a low table, or something set on the floor? Well, now it’s knocked over. Two ladies trying to pass each other in a tight space? You get to play that wonderful Victorian game…
And these are just some of the inconveniences of Victorian dress. Good thing they were a forbearing, stoic lot…well, most of them, anyway. Sara definitely is. Although with everything I’m throwing at her, fashion is probably the furthest thing from her mind… 😉
Until next time!
K.T. Bryski is a Canadian author and podcaster. Her new novel Heartstealer is a historical dark fantasy available here. She made her podcasting and publishing debut with Hapax, an apocalyptic fantasy (Dragon Moon Press) and she has stories in Black Treacle Horror Magazine, When the Hero Comes Home Vol. II (Dragon Moon Press), Tales of a Tesla Ranger, and Tales from the Archives. Her podcast Coxwood History Fun Park is available wherever fine podcasts are found, and she is currently at work on her next novel. As you may have guessed, she also has a mild caffeine addiction. Visit her at www.ktbryski.com.