Of Practical Matters

I’m quite sure everyone here has managed to stumble across an anachronism so horrific it leaves you wondering what kind of idiot would write such tosh. It’s like the Regency lady being divested of her bra and panties (yes, I have seen this. I promptly tried to eliminate the memory via a large quantity of brain bleach).

Frankly, it’s more than a little bit important that any kind of SF or fantasy that’s not using present day as its time period gets the clothes at least partly right. After all, who would want to see Space Pirate Dashing Hero saving the universe while wearing a farthingale? Unless he’s into period crossdressing or some kind of bizarre bet went wrong, of course.

Hell, you can sink your historical by neglecting to have cotton as a highly prized, expensive fabric in the years before the American south got into cotton farming in a big way. Just as in the early parts of the 20th century, asbestos paneling was the expensive, prestigious way to cover your walls and ceilings.

For futuristic purposes inventing new synthetic materials with names that sound like the effect you’re after can work, as long as you don’t overdo it and start mentioning things like “glassite” that just happens to look and act exactly like plain old glass (I’m not going near nylonite and don’t even think about kryptonite unless you want a nasty lawsuit).

As for matters of what people will wear, there’s always going to be a combination of a few factors: what’s available in your characters price range, what’s comfortable and practical, and what’s fashionable. The latter will affect what can be bought when, the former what can be bought, period, and the middle what the character actually wants to buy.

Clothing repair matters too – it’s… challenging to expect your characters to go through massive trials and have their clothes remain intact and undamaged. Let’s face it, modern clothing lasts a few years before it starts to fall apart. All fabrics rot at different speeds, with different results. By the time your character has invaded hell and fought his way to the infernal throne, he’s going to be down to maybe one change of clothes that’s half-decent or he’s scavenging from the demons he’s taken down along the way.

Which leads to the… ahem… underpinnings of the whole business, namely underwear. Getting the right names to the assorted unmentionables matters, especially in something historical (and a lot of fantasy – you throw modern undies into your Tolkienian adventure and you will lose readers. Unless you’ve got a damn solid, properly Heinleined reason to have modern undies sharing a world with swords and sorcery and medievalish mayhem).

There’s also the reason for certain undergarments. Women have often provided themselves with a certain amount of buttressing to prevent excessive bounce. This has become a kind of fashion item, leading to a rich and fascinating history of corsetry (and I can say from experience that a well-fitted corset is a lot more comfortable than a bra. The weight is carried by the core body instead of the shoulders). Men have, as a rule, opted for underwear that allows them to do what they need when they need it, with the minimal amount of fuss. If they wore any in the first place, which is not guaranteed (the same with the women, I might add. As little as 200 years ago, a middle class person did well to own three sets of clothes: the Sunday best, and two every day outfits. That included the small clothes (aka undies).

Your future epic could well need interesting attachments to deal with issues like needing to wear environment suits or spacesuits for days on end. And possibly a whole range of recycling plumbing that minimizes the amount of waste that gets out. Kind of like the camelback on steroids. And maybe you need to deal with issues caused by having to repair the things. Something that protects against unbreathable air is not going to take well to a needle and thread.

All of this matters – but it doesn’t need to be laid out in excruciating detail (that’s what the Heinleining is for). It just has to be there so that when your Love Interest’s chemise is ripped during her escape from the Antagonist, it’s pretty clear that Antagonist either caught her when she was in a state of partial undress, or caused said state of partial undress. And of course, so she’s not wearing her chemise over ceramite body armor. Because that will get your book walled as soon as I stop laughing hysterically.



  1. The simplest solution is to just go generic–e.g. “underthings” or “smallclothes,” or, if you want to go for a more humorous effect, “unmentionables.”
    Of course, this can present its own set of problems, but unless you’re planning on writing fairly detailed erotica those are unlikely to occur.

  2. Not clothing, but architecture. Yesterday I was reading a rather silly book about a zombie apocalypse set in Fairbanks, Alaska. There was a furious one star review left because the author had the characters hiding in their cellar at one point, and later in the woods. Only problem is the permafrost is so severe no homes in that area have cellars. Or so the reviewer claimed.

    Reader/reviewer also claimed there’s no woods thick enough to hide in that far north, which I’m not sure I believe. (At any rate, Google images kind of suggests there might be enough trees around to dodge a few zombies. Yeah, I was curious.)

    1. Absolutely! It would be similar to a book set in Queensland that had houses with basements. Nuh-uh.

      Although luring the zombies into a crocodile-infested river definitely has possibilities…

    2. Um. There are definitely thick forests. Thick enough, as a matter of fact, that they are difficult to push through – spruce branches (aka twigs anywhere else) don’t fall off when they die. So you have a thicket of scratchy dead vegetation to push through. Or plushy moss underfoot that can be several inches thick. Or in the muskeg, brush that is tall enough to totally conceal a moose, who is certainly taller than zombies.

      Also, cellars are possible. Might not be real comfortable, but we cut through permafrost for a cellar, and several outhouses.

  3. This is an area where archaeology is your friend. In the past decade or so, there have been some fascinating discoveries that push the date of bra-like garments in northern Europe back to about the 1300s. Now, these were found in castle middens, so you can be pretty certain that the ordinary women were not wearing such tailored and carefully crafted support garments, but the idea was around.

    I walled a book that conflated “drawers” with petticoats. On the first page. Book set in 1810.

    1. In the past decade or so, there have been some fascinating discoveries that push the date of bra-like garments in northern Europe back to about the 1300s.

      This may be a case where you have a “Tiffany problem”: you’re on solid grounds historically, but most of your readers aren’t going to believe you about that.

      I’ll also say that even if I could accept a “bra-like garment” on a character from the Middle Ages, I’m fairly certain that I couldn’t accept it if the author used the word “bra.” It may be petty of me, but I think the word would be enough to pull me out of the time period.

      1. I just call her Tiphanie. 0:)

        I also have characters talking about Epiphany and that name first to situate.

      2. I have to agree – it would more likely be called something like a support chemise or possibly support bodice. Although given medieval German dialect, who knows?

    2. Oh, yes – I ran across the blog of a historical costume fan who carefully reconstructed the ‘bra-like’ undergarment found in that castle (in Germany, was it?) It came out rather like a tailored chemise and petticoat combination, laced up the side. The costume fan found it rather comfortable to wear, as it provided support and reduced “bounce”.

      1. I suspect that there were many, many no longer known innovations in the area of ladies support to reduce bounce. Some would have been rather more elaborate than others – I can certainly see farmers wives using whatever scraps they had to hand to provide themselves with a bit of extra support.

  4. I’ve seen a number of fantasies use “breastband” as a way of avoiding saying bra but getting the idea across. The Star Wars EU use(d) plasteel and transparisteel which worked.

    My favorite mysteries are the Marcus Corvinus series by David Wishart, set in imperial Rome, and I think the author manages anachronisms very well. The weirdness of Roman civilization is there but it’s introduced in a way that feels almost modern without jolting you out of the book. He even manages to imply togas without saying the word, using mantle instead, preventing the wrong connotations. Wishart did a lot of research that makes Rome real, relatable, and alien all at once. That’s my ideal when it comes to historical fiction.

    1. Good historical fiction does work well when you can make the culture real, relatable, and as alien as it undoubtedly was. I remember my own angsting over making 15th century Eastern Europe something a modern reader could follow.

      Breastband can work, although for me it brings up mental images of wrappings to flatten and conceal rather than support – although a binder would definitely limit bounce issues.

      Plasteel is one I’ve seen before, and works fairly well. It gives the impression of formed material that’s got the hardness and durability of steel.

        1. Which, unless the thing starts around waist level or includes shoulder support, is not going to provide a great deal of support – unless, of course, there is magic involved.

          1. Good point. I’ve worn a corset and I’ve worn body armor and both were very supportive in similar ways, so maybe lady knights should just go for battle corset undergarments.

    1. Ah, yes. The great war between the German Otto von Titzling and his French rival Monsieur Brassiere. Immortalized in (I think) a Bette Middler song that finishes with “Do you wear a Titzling, or do you wear a Brassiere?”

  5. Bolt action rifles before 1860. Brass cases before 1870. Swing out cylinders on revolvers before they were invented. Et cetera.

    Here’s a free one for time travelers: S&W Chief’s Special snubbie in the 1930s. Except Mr. Time Traveler has the scandium alloy aluminum frame AirWeight model. It would look utterly normal, and arouse no suspicion until a cop or a gumshoe detective picked it up.

    Then scientists would be baffled by the aluminum alloy, and declare it outside Known Science.

    1. Perhaps slightly more subtle, Mr. Time Traveler could be using a Colt 1911A1 before 1926. At a casual glance, it would look close enough to the 1911 to be overlooked. The fun would start when someone took a closer look.

      I donated a bit of blood when I had a 1911. That hammer bites!

    2. All of these, yes. Not to mention Mr Time Traveler in modern boxers is going to cause the laundry service a great deal of consternation. If he’s wearing nylon socks and goes back far enough, his socks will cause trouble. And his microfiber shirt will be seen as something impossibly fine.

    3. I was trying to explain to a cosplayer streaming the other night on Twitch that she couldn’t figure out how to swing open the cylinder on her replica single-action because they didn’t do that….

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