In my free time (ha ha), when I am not writing or working on home improvement projects, one of my other hobbies is costuming. I’ve done quite a bit of costuming in my time, first as a cosplayer, and most recently as a member of the SCA. My favorite costumes have always been historical in nature. I love the giant side-pocket hoops of the Marie Antoinette era, the big fur sleeves of the Tudors, the graceful lines of a Victorian corset.
And a big part of all this costuming stuff is the research. It takes hours of searching for the right books and online resources, trying to decipher the so-old-fashioned-it’s-barely-recognizable English language of period texts, and pouring over galleries of museum photos, zooming in on all the details. In the process, one learns a lot of very useful things that come in handy as a writer… The types of fabrics and clothing styles most likely to be worn in a medieval or pirate-based story, for example.
The problem is, the terms used for fashion have changed so much over the years that the correct term for an item of clothing back then means something completely different now. For example, in a scene I was working on over the weekend for the new Ithyria book, I needed to describe a character’s clothing and ended up using the words “tunic” and “leggings.” Now, “tunic” is an acceptable word, since most modern readers know it as a simple shirt-like garment. But “leggings” bothers me. It’s very much a modern word, and describes a modern article of clothing that essentially looks like footless tights made of stretchy fabric. The correct word for the medieval equivalent, a fitted garment for the legs that is made from wool or linen cut on the bias so that it will stretch, is “hose.” Or “hosen,” perhaps.
But using that word, the modern reader is more likely to suddenly picture the character running about in a pair of decidedly non-medieval lycra pantyhose. I am already certain that my editor will not permit it. It’s too jarring–even if it IS the correct word. So “leggings” it is. And it’s really a small concession, in the grand scheme of things, but it annoys my research-obsessed costumer’s sensibilities.
I’ll give you another example. In Branded Ann, there’s a scene in which I had originally described a “pair of bodies.” This was a term used for the very early corsets, or precursors to corsets, and the garment is a stiffened bodice that usually did not contain the heavy boning or rigid structure of the corset as we know it today. A pair of bodies was a supportive piece of clothing (well, really it was two pieces laced together, hence the “pair”) worn by women to support the bust and perhaps provide some soft shaping. In edits, though, the phrase was altered to “pair of bodices.” Which is not incorrect either… It’s just not the same thing. I think the reasoning was that readers might be more than a little confused as to why Violet would be charmed by a gift of dead bodies in a clothing trunk… so the term needed to be modernized a little. I get it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t wince a bit.
Or how about the term “cotehardie,” which is one of the most prevalent fashions of the middle ages, for both men and women? Can’t use it without a careful description, because it’s not a word we use in contemporary fashion vocabulary. Sigh.
Granted, I don’t make it a point to be obsessively historically accurate in any other part of my books. You’ll never hear me claim that my pirate story is a good resource for historical study… Writing is storytelling, and when there isn’t enough information out there about a detail that the story needs, I get to make it up. Hopefully believably, but still… And fantasy stories are, at best, historically inspired. With a wide, wide margin for imagination. So I probably ought to take a deep breath and let it go.
Which I will.
Right after I blog about it. ;)