What is Justy Flanagan wearing?

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One of the most absorbing parts of writing historical fiction is the deep dive you make into the small stuff. What did people eat? What kinds of houses did they live in? What did they wear?

The last is a particularly tricky type of research to do because the only points of reference we have about what people wore in the late 1700s are paintings. And while there are plenty of paintings of rich and important people from back then, there aren’t many of ordinary folk, or even middle class people. Young lawyers like Justy Flanagan couldn’t afford to get their portraits done, after all, and there weren’t many artists painting or sketching street scenes. Or if there were, not many of those scenes appear to have survived.

Which means people trying to describe the way people dressed back then have to make some leaps, and some educated guesses. Workers would have dressed for comfort more than anything else, but middle class people would likely have dressed similarly to the upper classes, because fashion worked back then in the same way it works today: people want to copy the wealthy. Poorer people would likely have worn cheap imitations and cast-offs, as clothes wore out or fashion changed.

And fashion did change quite quickly back then. Women’s fashion changed quite radically around that period, going from dresses that covered everything to near-negligees that covered hardly anything. But mens’ fashion saw some fairly radical changes, too. The cut and length of coats, the discarding of wigs, changes in headgear, the adoption of shoes rather than boots and, later, the shift from breeches and hose to full-length trousers. All of that happened in about fifty years, so there was a distinct difference between the way a dandy dressed in 1800 and what a swell wore in 1850.

Thankfully, a lot of people have done a lot of work figuring this stuff out already. Principally people who work on period TV shows and movies. One of my go-tos for clothing ideas for characters in The Devil’s Half Mile was Poldark, which is set just after the Revolutionary War. In the picture top left, you can see Ross Poldark’s tricorn hat, breeches and his boots. Also his coat. All common for the time. Now look at Bill the Butcher, from Gangs of New York, around 1860. Quite a contrast!

I like to think Justy would have dressed a bit like Ross Poldark. I’ve described him in the book as wearing good quality, but relatively plain clothes. Dark browns, dark greens, and either black or cream breeches. A good pair of boots, with a colourful history. But that’s the only extravagance. No pink coats and gilt frogging for Justy. He’s the kind of man who doesn’t waste his money on fripperies, and he looks after his togs, in the expectation that they’ll last a long time. Which makes him a smart lad, as anyone who’s ever had something made bespoke by a tailor can attest.

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