Fashion and Fiction: Don’t Forget The Missing Thread

If you’re a writer and you have no real interest in fabric or fashion, you might gloss over that footnote. After all, arms and armor are a bit flashier, not to mention the allure of foodstuffs.
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History tells us that the English monarch, Richard II, expressed the desire that his body be wrapped in velvet upon his death. I can’t say for certain, but judging by the illuminated manuscript depiction of his funeral below, it appears that his wish may have been granted. Richard met a terrible end, likely starving to death and later given a scathing treatment by Shakespeare–part of the long, often horrific sequence of medieval English kings. But what his request says about him, and his status, means a great deal.

If you’re a writer and you have no real interest in fabric or fashion, you might gloss over that footnote. After all, arms and armor are a bit flashier, not to mention the allure of foodstuffs.

But velvet in 1400 would have been an exceptionally costly affair. Unlike your great-aunt’s sofa from the late 70s, this velvet would have been made of silk. At that point, velvet was only in Europe for a little over 100 years, coming by way of Baghdad and Cairo via Venice or Paris. We’ve got records that say Edward I’s tailor bought 100 pounds sterling worth of velvet cloth for the head of the king’s bed. Though velvet was not fashion, yet, in terms of vestments, it gives us a good idea of that value. 100 pounds sterling in today’s figures would be well over $130,000.

According to Pamela Furnidge at Nerdalicious, when Richard III married his wife Anne Neville (yes, another Richard who married another Anne), “He gave her four yards of purple cloth of gold, twenty yards of the same wrought with garters and a further seven yards of purple velvet. She gave him a gift of enough purple velvet with garters and roses to make a long gown, lined with eight yards of white damask.”

That’s a wild, wild gift. Like, even taking into consideration the fluctuations from the above calculations–that’s like HOUSES worth of velvet. By contrast, a peasant’s entire dowry would have been somewhere between 13 and 16 shillings.

You couldn’t get silk made in England–it’s primary fabric export was wool. Silk velvet in at court wouldn’t have been possible without trade routes to the Middle East. And Middle Eastern textile weavers wouldn’t have been able to make their fabrics without the influence of China. And the Byzantines wouldn’t have cracked the code on Chinese silk if they hadn’t sent spies. The silk production alone, on this scale, to adorn a bed or be given in marriage is a detail you might easily overlook in world-building.

Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms that eat mulberry leaves, and the process is detailed, exhausting, and ancient. It’s a fabric that has helped the rise and fall of kingdoms across the world, and to make it so densely that it can be cut and thickened to velvet is a mark of status so high it’s hardly measurable in today’s economies.

I’m telling you this because we now live in a highly disposable culture in terms of a lot of things, and particularly in the way of fashion. And it’s easy for us to value what matters to us in terms of the worlds we write. I love cheese, for instance. I like thinking about the cheese my characters would eat. However, if I did not like cheese (who would I be, even?) it may be a detail I’d miss. So it goes with world-building. We cling to what impacts us the most. And that can be lovely. You know, write what you know ad nauseum. Except in world building we have to write what we don’t know, or at least should sincerely consider it, to truly inhabit the worlds we make.

If you zoom out in the history of fashion, you can see that industrialization has really only been with us a short time. Our grandparents, generally speaking, had to know how to mend and repurpose clothing, shoes, and household items–and not just because it was hard to afford to just go and buy a new one, but because you couldn’t even necessarily Prime anything to your house that you wanted right away. If your shoes had holes, you’d be better off repairing them than getting measured for them and having them made for you.

Whether you’re writing genre or not, fashion and peoples’ access and attitudes toward fashion help shape the world. And if you are writing historical or genre work, you’re missing out if you’re not think about fashion. I think one of the reasons it’s often sidelined in the world-building conversation is that clothing is viewed still, by many, as indulgent. But it is art that grew from necessity. And in the age of the medieval kings of England and beyond, every scrap of fabric, every bauble, and every stitch had a reason to be there: it meant something.

Power is coded into clothing. The huge panniers of the 17th and 18th centuries are a big middle finger to anyone who couldn’t afford to make their clothes even bigger to display more cloth. The Elizabethan ruffs spoke to the incredible privilege of lacework, built on the backs of working women willing to go blind to provide this lavish item for the ultra-rich.

And every fiber begins somewhere, whether on the back of a sheep, the cocoon of a silkworm, or in the fronds of a palm. Those fibers speak to agriculture, to class and culture, and to the modes of power within our world and the worlds we haven’t yet imagined.

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