What in the World are They Wearing? Costume Research & Practice for Fiction Writers: Jennifer McGrew, FYRECON Workshop 2017





Things we did in our hands-on Costume Research & Practice Workshop
Saturday, June 10, 2017:


These are some of my general outline notes, summarizing things we did and talked about and why.  They should help make sense of the combined materials, especially if you’re seeing all this for the first time and want to try some of these techniques.  Please feel encouraged to share your costume research/writing goals, strategies, challenges and triumphs in the comments. Happy writing, everyone!


1.       We read and analyzed excerpts from several pieces of fiction featuring wearables (I removed the authors’ names as well as the book or story titles so you wouldn’t be distracted by them). We summarized your thoughts on the whiteboard, then discussed your ideas. I’ve added scans of these plus the authors’ and publishers info at the end of this material.


2.     We summarized general costume research strategies and goals. Much of this material (pasted further down) is from Cunningham’s, The Magic Garment. We didn’t add too much to it, as her summaries are pretty comprehensive. The overlap in purpose for research seems to be equally important for both verbal and visual designers!


3.     We talked briefly about how critics and theorists define genres in fiction that features costume. Hopefully, a big takeaway for you here is György Lukács’ eventual assessment that the “historical novel” doesn’t actually belong in its own genre, but instead in the genre of “realism.” Perhaps knowing this can alleviate some anxiety whenever you encounter those heated debates about facile, poorly-researched “costume dramas” or “bodice rippers” vs. more esteemed “historical fiction.” Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how to present your book to publishers and/or your public, (though they may take issue with your definition).


4.    You created some new sample paragraphs by combining a few (randomly chosen) costume periods and terms from sections in Wilcox’ book with descriptions of visual and psychological costume attributes in Cunningham’s book. Your sample paragraphs were so creative and awesome in response to the prompts!


Each paragraph was a great new synthesis of visual content and meaning, shall we say, things from column A plus things from column B, driven by an both an emotional perspective and an action. Our first one was “surprise,” when you had your character from the French Revolutionary period surprise a group of others. The second asked you to work with the emotion of “jealousy,” using some clothes from 1930’s France that names designers who created them (in Wilcox’ book). Really fun and productive.


5.     We discussed some strengths and weaknesses of analogy, the operating principle underlying many of the choices writers make when building their characters’ worlds as well as their wardrobe. We read an excerpt about caricature and analogies from Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. In your writing, you, too, are also borrowing existing systems of wearables, technology and culture, as well as perhaps inventing new systems that will have analogues with objects and systems already in existence. Your whole mental process requires equal amounts of creativity and consistency.


6.     Finally, you generated a list of ten new fantasy/alien words which we used to fill out a mad-lib that I made for us. This was to underscore the importance of analogy- – in getting around to getting the words you really want in your work. If the fast technique works for you, you can write your ideas out fast, then later edit and swap placeholder words with new ones you invent, or specific terms you discover while researching specific historical periods!



First, the Research: What is it that you’re actually searching for?



Factual info: History, current events, science, craft. Diligent effort required.




Evocative info: You need to have an open mind so you can free associate among sources that share, illuminate and project the essence of your plot, characters and theme.


Cunningham lists the following in The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design, 49-51. We didn’t add much to this list.



Social mores of the time and how these affect dress and manners.

Views on courtship and roles of men and women.

Erogenous zones of the body and areas considered sexually provocative.

What colors were used and why?

What materials and dyes were available?

What kinds of work were performed?

What leisure activities were enjoyed? Permitted?

Were special garments worn for work or play?

What differences were established between age groups, married and unmarried, rich and poor?

What was the political system under which the characters lived?

What religious beliefs were held?

How did these beliefs affect dress and manners?

What assumptions were made about people based on their dress?

How did they view themselves in relationship to the world?


My Thoughts on Fruitful Sources for Fiction Writers (in some ways, this reverses the typical hierarchy, or prioritization of “sources”that designers usually draw from when they create live, staged or visual performances).


1.     Illustrations based on period paintings.

The ones in costume history books and textbooks, etc. These books generally include good basic historical outlines of wearables, great starting points for period research, plus definitions of clothing parts and pieces. Often in black and white drawings (these won’t prejudice you with any use of color because ultimately YOU are the definer of color). Gives you some basic vocabulary and a great lexicon of terms you can play around with as you write. (I’ve brought along R. Turner Wilcox’ The Mode in Costume and James Peacock’s The Chronicle of Western Fashion to show.)

2.     Writers discussing what people are wearing in their own time periods.

Especially opinion-pieces, editorial style writing and political cartoons! These give you interesting insights into partisan points-of view plus how language and terms get used rhetorically, especially when a writer has an ax to grind. We looked at a political cartoon from the late Victorian era in which tightly corseted women appeared in caricature as ‘silly geese.”

3.     Actual costumes in archival or museum collections.

(costume designers often consider period paintings to belong to this “primary source” category, too). Find yourself stunned and awestruck at the beauty and history in front of you when you’re looking at real period costumes. Great for evocative inspiration.

4.     Specific histories written by real scholars about particular subjects.

(I’ve brought along Charles Henry Ashdown’s History of Arms & Armour, Reay Tannahill’s Sex in History, and Valerie Smith’s The Corset: A Cultural History as examples of these).  Important features of books like these include historians’ disagreements about terminolgy and/or how and why certain fashions prevailed, how items were worn, by whom and why.  Also important to note is that these types of reliable authors always historicize their subjects. In other words, they don’t (or at least try not to) impose current sensibilities, customs or opinions on their historical subjects or periods of interest.





Some charts from Cunningham’s The Magic Garment.


In our workshop, we had you experiment with a few of these charts in several writing prompts. We asked you to initiate an emotion and an action using several costume pieces and parts you selected (ones we pulled at random from Wilcox’ The Mode in Costume). The workshop idea here is that sources such as these, used together, can give you great ingredients and ideas for invention.


Cunningham: Expressing personality and character traits with costume




Cunningham: Major color associations of western European and American Cultures



Cunningham: Historical color symbolism



Cunningham: Effects of texture


Cunningham: Expressing age and rank in costume features



Cunningham: Advancing and receding effects of design elements and principles


Try them all- use your delicious wordsmithing!


Describe how the light and its direction illuminates your characters and makes them emotionally “look” to others. Use shapes and textures of clothing and its parts to define your characters’ personalities, motives and inner conflicts. Use colors to make groups of your characters aware of the ‘otherness’ of other groups! Use all these and have fun playing with them (Don’t forget, there are many more interesting charts in Cunningham’s book and you can pick up a copy through Amazon for about eight dollars…. It didn’t seem proper to scan tooo many of her pages, even though we are using them for educational purposes here!).




Don’t. Forget. Your. Synonyms.


If you’re drawn to a word or concept in Cunningham’s charts, consider expressing it with analogous words! For example, check out all these synonyms for the word, ‘silky’.


Next, we’re talking more about analogies.



If your characters are hominid-like, they’ll likely need clothing to fit two arms, two legs, etc.  If their biology is more alien, you’re going to need to create a new system of clothing for them and their world.  This next excerpt from Surfaces and Essences is funny and demonstrates the use of analogy in caricature or in its extreme forms.  You can use this method along whatever exaggerated sliding-scale you wish when you apply borrowed historical systems you’re researching, or inventing some brand new ones for your characters and their worlds:



Next, I’ve written us a little mad lib.  

We’re going to play with analogies some more by swapping words with new ones you invent for us:


  1. Swear word or curse phrase in an alien or fantasy language
  2. Alien or fantasy male first name
  3. Male clothing item in an alien or fantasy language
  4. Name of an alien or fantasy tribe
  5. Name of another alien or fantasy tribe
  6. Alien or fantasy female first name
  7. Alien or fantasy female article of clothing
  8. Name of alien or fantasy female’s tribe
  9. Name of alien or fantasy deity
  10. Name of an alien or fantasy yearly holiday


(I’ll search for the one we filled out in class- it’s great. If I can find it I will definitely update this post).







     “__________!”, ________ spat in pain and disgust.


     His newly bartered for _____________ was completely ruined. Blood, inextricably mixed with some sort of mysterious looking green slime oozed fast from his cut, then kept right on bleeding through the jagged rip in his clothing.


     “I’ll never pass for a ___________ now,” he moaned.


     Sweating and cursing more, he unfastened and took it off as quickly as he could, then scrabbled through his napsack for something to stop the bleeding. Looking around wildly, he ducked at a sudden noise. The ___________ might still be in this area, and they were hungry for revenge. They’d shoot more arrows at him again, enjoying any occasion they had to do so. He kept his head down. Hastily, grabbing ____________’s __________ out of his bag, he pressed it, wincing, hard against his wound.


     “Oh the levels of irony,” he muttered to himself. “This hurts like hell, but nothing’s ever hurt me like that stupid ___________ female. I was an idiot to think she’d ever stay true. Or that she’d ever even tell the truth about one single damn subject. I nicked her lacy girl thing once when she wasn’t looking and have been carrying it around for two years ever since, for this?? This?? I’m an idiot.”


     He sighed as he remembered how her naked skin looked without it on, luminescent but still somehow rather like a shark’s under the moonlight . Tying it, finally, around his wounded limb, he knew he needed to move. He knew he’d better get back to the outpost quickly and find a good tailor. And probably a doctor. He’d bled before, that’s for certain, from minor skirmish wounds and clumsy accidents, but this greenish-oozy blood put the fear of _________ in him and his deadline for passing as a _______________ at the  ________________  was approaching fast.






We’re getting near the end, so What are some of YOUR costume writing challenges, triumphs and payoffs? Would love you to share these by keeping in touch with me and posting comments!


Below are four different writing samples (truncated ones) that we read at the beginning of the session. The idea was for you to get your mind working to identify operations and principles the writers used in creating their systems of wearables. In most of these cases, there’s an analogous Earth antecedent or origin.






Here’s the first one: It’s

Hartmann, Gregor. “What the Hands Know.” Fantasy & Science Fiction.  May/June 2017, pp. 145-162.

This was on the Free Stuff Table downstairs at FyreCon registration! I love free stuff. I picked it up, started thumbing through it, and found this part containing wearables that seemed quite interesting to talk about. Makes me want to run this by a physics professor and ask how a non-Newtonian thing could operate in another context.




This next exerpt is from Starship Troopers and you can read this whole novel online! In fact, I URGE you read it. An important, important book and NOTHING like Verhoeven’s film (even though the movie is kinda fun in its own way). This book is actually a study in civics and moral philosophy, and I wonder if it’s more relevant than ever, given our current political and social climate. If you like, let’s read it together and discuss! It’s been a long time since I’ve really sat down and read the whole thing.




The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the “Fourth”), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War” if we call it anything, which we usually don’t, and in any case the historians date the beginning of “war” after the time I joined my first outfit and ship. Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy a farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war.


But, to tell the truth, a soldier doesn’t notice a war much more than a civilian does, except his own tiny piece of it and that just on the days it is happening. The rest of the time he is much more concerned with sack time, the vagaries of sergeants, and the chances of wheedling the cook between meals. However, when Kitten Smith and Al Jenkins and I joined them at Luna Base, each of Willie’s Wildcats had made more than one combat drop; they were soldiers and we were not. We weren’t hazed for it — at least I was not — and the sergeants and corporals were amazingly easy to deal with after the calculated frightfulness of instructors.


It took a little while to discover that this comparatively gentle treatment simply meant that we were nobody, hardly worth chewing out, until we had proved in a drop — a real drop — that we might possibly replace real Wildcats who had fought and bought it and whose bunks we now occupied.


Let me tell you how green I was. While the Valley Forge was still at Luna Base, I happened to come across my section leader just as he was about to hit dirt, all slicked up in dress uniform. He was wearing in his left ear lobe a rather small earring, a tiny gold skull beautifully made and under it, instead of the conventional crossed bones of the ancient Jolly Roger design, was a whole bundle of little gold bones, almost too small to see.


Back home, I had always worn earrings and other jewelry when I went out on a date — I had some beautiful ear clips, rubies as big as the end of my little finger which had belonged to my mother’s grandfather. I like jewelry and had rather resented being required to leave it all behind when I went to Basic… but here was a type of jewelry which was apparently okay to wear with uniform. My ears weren’t pierced — my mother didn’t approve of it, for boys — but I could have the jeweler mount it on a clip… and I still had some money left from pay call at graduation and was anxious to spend it before it mildewed. “Unh, Sergeant? Where do you get earrings like that one? Pretty neat.”


He didn’t look scornful, he didn’t even smile. He just said, “You like it?”


“I certainly do!” The plain raw gold pointed up the gold braid and piping of the uniform even better than gems would have done. I was thinking that a pair would be still handsomer, with just crossbones instead of all that confusion at the bottom. “Does the base PX carry them?”


“No, the PX here never sells them.” He added, “At least I don’t think you’ll ever be able to buy one here — I hope. But I tell you what — when we reach a place where you can buy one of your own, I’ll see to it you know about it. That’s a promise.”


“Uh, thanks!”


“Don’t mention it.”


I saw several of the tiny skulls thereafter, some with more “bones,” some with fewer; my guess had been correct, this was jewelry permitted with uniform, when on pass at least. Then I got my own chance to “buy” one almost immediately thereafter and discovered that the prices were unreasonably high, for such plain ornaments.


It was Operation Bughouse, the First Battle of Klendathu in the history books, soon after Buenos Aires was smeared. It took the loss of B. A. to make the groundhogs realize that anything was going on, because people who haven’t been out don’t really believe in other planets, not down deep where it counts. I know I hadn’t and I had been space-happy since I was a pup.




The next text is from “Custom Fitting” by James White (a novella I’ve been grappling with for a long, long time now in my life as well as in my profession as a tailor and costume designer. I have a lengthy essay about it– and related things– a text that’s been through many changes and might even get published somewhere, someday). I’m somewhat stuck at the moment.

But I scanned the whole text of White’s novella and it’s here:




It is the ONLY assigned reading I ever give our costume shop interns. I’ll discuss this with you if you contact me and want to have a serious chat about it:)






This next one is from Stephen R. Lawhead’s Taliesin (The Pendragon Cycle, Book 1). New York, EOS, 1987. Print.

It’s from one of our shop’s interns, Nathan. In prepping for this workshop, I asked him, “Hey so what are you reading right now, and does it have parts detailing what characters are wearing?”  He was kind enough to make these scans for me!






Ashdown, Charles Henry. An Illustrated History of Arms & Armour. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1988. Print.


Cunningham, Rebecca. The Magic Garment: Principles of Costume Design. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press Inc., 1989. Print.


Hartmann, Gregor. “What the Hands Know.” Fantasy & Science Fiction.  May/June 2017, pp. 145-162.


Hofstadter, Douglas R, and Emmanuel Sander. Surfaces And Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. 1st ed. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2013. Print.

Lawhead, Stephen R. Taliesin (The Pendragon Cycle, Book 1). New York, EOS, 1987. Print.


Peacock, John. The Chronicle of Western Fashion from Ancient Times to the Present Day. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991. Print.


Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 2007. Print.


Tannahill, Reay. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980. Print.


Vincent, W.D.F, and R.L Shep. Tailoring Of The Belle Epoque. 1st ed. Mendocino: R.L. Shep, 1991. Print.


White, James. “Custom Fitting.” 1976 in Stellar #2, a science fiction anthology published by Random House division Ballantine Books.


Wilcox, R. Turner. The Mode in Costume. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958. Print.


Williamson, Gordon, and Darko Pavlovic. German U-Boat Crews 1914-45. 1st ed. London: Osprey, 1999. Print.


NOTES and Outtakes


-mostly notes to myself in prepping for this workshop-


Remind attendees about György Lukács’ views regarding the “historical novel” actually not being its own genre, but belonging to “realism.” Should make them heave a sigh of relief. Maybe?


Soooo much anxiety about “historical fiction” vs “costume romances” or “bodice rippers”. Do we talk about this?


Novel vs. the short story form. The latter more archetypal in nature. Theory and criticism re: these forms. Probably more interesting to me because of what I’m grappling with at the moment. Save discussion of this for another time.


LOTS of interesting articles about genre, critical theory, costume and apeshit hair-splitting. These are indeed interesting but it seems a better choice to abstain from too much academic stuff and just really focus on workshopping some useful tools instead. Yes. Do not include all these links. Too esoteric for this setting.


Workshop Overview



In this interactive workshop we’ll be analyzing excerpts from several pieces of fiction, discussing strategies and challenges involved in doing costume research, summarizing how critics and theorists define genres in fiction that features costume, plus we’ll discuss some strengths and weaknesses of analogy, the operating principle underlying many of the choices writers make when building their characters’ worlds as well as their wardrobe. If you’re creating fiction, you can use many of the same costume research strategies used by performing arts designers when you develop your characters and what they’re wearing. To encapsulate all these topics in our final conversation, we want to talk about your specific questions, challenges and triumphs with your own fictional characters and their wearables.

early mad-lib draft


“Dammit!”, Horatio spat in pain and disgust. His pants leg was completely ruined. Blood, inextricably mixed with some sort of mysterious looking green slime oozed fast from his cut, then kept on bleeding through the jagged rip in his clothing. “I’ll never pass for a scroundling now,” he moaned. Sweating and cursing more, he unfastened and took it off as quickly as he could then scrabbled through his napsack for something to stop the bleeding. Looking around wildly, he ducked at a sudden noise. The armadillos might still be in this area, and they were hungry for revenge. They’d shoot more arrows at him again, on any occasion they had. He kept his head down. Hastily, grabbing Svetlana’s blouse out of his bag, he pressed it hard against his wound.  “Oh the levels of irony,” he muttered to himself. “This fucking hurts like hell, but no one’s ever hurt me like that stupid Tanzanian female. I was an idiot to think she’d ever stay true. Or that she’d even tell the truth about one single thing, ever. I stole her lacy girl thing and have been carrying it around for two years for this?? This”?  Looking at the weird blood now clotting it and tying it finally around his limb, he knew he should move, and fast. Determined, he knew he needed to get back to the outpost and find a good tailor. And probably a doctor, too. He’d bled before, from minor skirmish wounds and stupid accidents, but this greenish-oozy blood put the fear of Ralph in him and his deadline for showing up at the christmas party was approaching fast.




My pic and bio- from https://www.fyrecon.com/presenters/