In Defying the Duke, my recent book for Totally Bound, the modern-day American heroine is visited by the spirit of an English Regency-era duke. Briefly, the plot revolves around Amelia’s research into the duke’s mysterious disappearance almost two hundred years earlier. She is joined in this research by the hero, Jack, who also begins receiving the unwanted attentions of a spirit from the past.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with fashion? Well, because the duke’s spirit doesn’t realize he’s visiting someone who is living so many years after his era, he sees her wearing jeans and thinks they’re the “drawers” that both men and women were beginning to wear around 1800.
Obviously, to the duke’s way of thinking, any female who would allow herself to be seen in this ugly undergarment must be a courtesan, or a woman of “ill repute” and he treats her accordingly. Throughout the story, his judgment of Amelia as a person and his subsequent treatment of her as a courtesan is based almost solely on the clothes she wears.
In writing a story with characters that lived in such different eras, I realized that fashions in clothing would be critical. The heroine, Amelia, is a historian and has been researching the duke, so she immediately recognizes the clothing of a nobleman from the early 1800s. However, since the duke had never seen fashions resembling those of the twenty-first century, he misjudges Amelia based on his best guess as to what segment of society she hails from.
I especially enjoyed writing this story from the duke’s viewpoint because of his reactions to the differences in fashion. But we in the present don’t have to look back two hundred years to see how fashions are a reflection of the times in which we live.
For example, barely half a century ago, women were not allowed to wear any sort of trousers, not even dressy pant suits, to their jobs. And universities did not allow their female students to wear shorts or pants of any kind into on-campus buildings except for dormitories and the gymnasium. All of that began to change with the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s.
As women began to rebel against dress code restrictions in the 1960s, they also moved on to more and more revealing fashions. Ironically, upper-class women in the early nineteenth century also tended to wear very revealing fashions, some of which might bring a blush to the cheeks of a modern-day female. Their Empire dress style with its high waistline often featured very low necklines and small cap sleeves for evening wear. The Empire style has continued, off and on, in popularity and can still be purchased today.
The fashions of the Regency era were in part a result of the upheaval caused by the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. In the words of James Laver, an authority on English fashions, “Women found themselves suddenly emancipated, and their first reaction was to cut their hair short and to take off most of their clothes” (as quoted in Katie Hickman’s Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century, HarperCollins, 2003). I can’t help but reflect on the similarity of this emancipation of women in the early 1800s to the changes wrought by the women’s liberation movement a hundred and fifty years later.
In many ways, researching Defying the Duke was a lesson for me in the societal differences between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries, but the more I read, the more I was impressed by the similarities. In other words, I came to appreciate that old saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”