Your Slip is Showing

I just abandoned a Historical Romance novel set in the mid-1800s because of its underwear. In some cases of underwear missteps, I’ll limp on if the underwear is the only problematic part of the story. But one of the things that I’ve noticed is that if the underwear is a problem, there are almost inevitably other flaws that will render the book unreadable for me.

1830s gown

Woman’s 1830s sleeve plumper, muslin dress and straw bonnet, via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the thing about Historical Romance. It has to walk a fine line between authenticity and fantasy to work as a story that ‘s going to entertain a modern reader. A lot of Historical Romance depends on characters behaving badly (for their time). That’s part of the fun, really. Will they get caught alone in the summerhouse? Will he be forced to offer marriage because her maid found those racy notes and gave them to her father? Will she fend off his advances, or find a way to encourage him?

So why the big deal about underwear? Clothing, even intimate clothing that most people don’t see, shapes not only our figures but our behavior. If you consider the photo, there is no way a woman is going to be that particular shape unless she’s wearing underwear that makes her that shape. The clothing will dictate a great deal of her body language by the movements it allows and disallows.

In the novel in question, the heroine decides to go underwear free at the suggestion of her suitor. It’s a character motivation breaking moment. No lady in straitened circumstances would risk sweating all over one of her few good gowns in an age where laundry was difficult even with a dedicated lady’s maid. Also, even if you ignore the impossibilities of fit, which the author tries to hand-wave away with a reference to the heroine’s preternaturally small waist, everybody at dinner would know. Her bodice would be lumpy and strange, her skirts and sleeves wouldn’t hang correctly. Sweat stains generated by the summer heat referred to in the story would spread on the “thin, sensuous, delicate silk” like the frustrated tears of costume junkies on our modern paper tissues.

You could argue that I’m just grumpy, and these sorts of missteps don’t bother that many readers. Do a little internet searching on the subject and you will find that grumpy historical readers are legion. It’s lazy not to do your research. You might think that you might deserve a free pass because you think the rest of your book is so sexy and so good, you don’t and it isn’t.

If you want to write a story with a heroine who daringly goes to dinner with no underwear, pick a time period (there are LOTS AND LOTS) when that would actually be physically possible. Otherwise, your heroine is nothing but a hot mess inside and out.

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