Many historical romance novels of the Georgian period (and before) make use of swordplay, one of several reasons I am drawn to the earlier periods. In Only Scandal Will Do, I set up my heroine, Lady Katarina Fitzwilliam, to be an excellent swordswoman. One, because I wanted her to be feisty and a bit different from most period ladies and, two, because I took fencing lessons in high school and loved the “romance” of the weapon and wanted to share that affection with my readers.
To that end, I gave Kat something of a “tomboy” background that lends credence to her penchant for a sword. And during the course of the novel, she takes sword in hand to defend herself several times. I loved writing these sequences because I could endow my heroine with all the skill I never had myself. She’s quite National Championship material and beyond, able to hold her own against the hero and various other opponents.
The most challenging part of writing these scenes, however, was figuring out what exactly Kat would wear to fence. Eighteenth century women’s fashion hardly allowed for the free movement necessary for such exercise. Men usually wore breeches and a loose shirt to afford them a wide range of motion. I thought Kat didn’t deserve a handicap, and so I came up with her “fencing costume,” and a justification for her wearing it. (Having her father be a colonel in the British Army was a great help!)
Then I went looking for a model for this outfit, never thinking that I would run across the exact thing I was looking for. On Sharon Ann Burnston’s website, “At Home” in the 18th Century, I found the perfect model for Lady Katarina’s fencing garb. Ms. Burnston regularly costumes 18th century re-enactors and happened to have created a fencing costume for a young woman. So Ms. Burnston came up with the very outfit I needed. If you are at all interested in authentic period clothing, you should check out her website. It is truly remarkable.
Having found this picture of a woman dressed in men’s clothing, I decided to have a little fun at Duncan’s expense. Here’s the excerpt where he and Katarina are about to fence for the first time:
“Will you come meet my opponent?” Duncan grinned and led the way across the floor to where Manning stood beside Matthews, talking to a young man he did not recognize.
Duncan bowed to the men, as did Lord Trevor, but he darted glances about, looking for Katarina. Perhaps she was in another room with her maid, making last-minute preparations. “Lord Manning, may I make known to you Viscount Trevor, my second. Lord Trevor, you have already met Mr. Matthews. Good of you to come. But will you be so kind as to introduce me to your friend here, Manning?” He gestured to the young man he had come up behind, but who had not turned to greet him. “I did not know you were bringing another witness.”
“I would say we have already been introduced several times, Lord Dalbury,” said the youth, finally turning. “Do you not recognize me, my lord?” Katarina smiled merrily as she tugged on her shirtsleeves, easing them down under the coat sleeves.
Duncan’s mouth slackened with shock. The well-fitting garments that, from the back, had hidden her form showed absolutely every one of Lady Katarina’s lovely curves. His attention kept straying to the fawn colored breeches. Neatly buckled below the knee, thank God. What would he have done if she had shown her knees? The breeches hugged her hips–her hips!–defining the curvaceous body he remembered so vividly.
He forced his eyes up, relaxing somewhat at the coat that resembled a lady’s riding costume. It was, however, a man’s garment, a sleeved waistcoat, in cherry-red worsted with silver buttons down the front, over a plain linen shirt. No evidence of stays. Sweet Christ, her breasts would be unconfined during the duel. What if he injured them?
Her magnificent auburn hair was pulled back from her face, but he’d seen no evidence of locks down her back when he approached her. “What have you done to your hair?” His uneasiness at her costume became full-blown panic. God, had she cut her hair for the duel?
“It’s braided and tucked under her jacket, my lord.” Jack’s voice broke Duncan’s stupefying horror. “She does that when she fences.”
She continued her unhurried toilette, checking buttons, straightening the jacket’s shoulders, adjusting her breeches, paying him no mind. Then she dipped her fingers to her stocking and smoothed it along her calf. Like steel to a magnet, mouth slightly open, he stood enthralled by the soft, sensual look of legs he had only glimpsed before. He could no more tear his eyes away from her than a fish could walk on dry land.
My description of Katarina’s waistcoat is based directly on a photograph of a “1750’s youth’s or small man’s sleeved waistcoat in the collection of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities” and on the recreated garment. This jacket was Ms. Burnston’s inspiration for the re-enactor’s garment.
I always picture Lady Katarina in this clothing, advancing on Duncan down the ballroom floor, cheeks rivaling her jacket in color and her eyes bright with excitement at having a blade in her hand once more. Her passion for the sword was one of several that made Only Scandal Will Do a pure pleasure to create.
Have you used a particular piece of clothing as inspiration for part of your story? Has clothing or the need for specific clothing played a major role in your research? And for readers, how much attention do you pay to the description of clothing in romance novels? Would you rather we paint it with a broad brush, or a fine tip? Thanks so much for visiting my blog today!