Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Historical Clothing and Book Cover Pet Peeve Part Deux

Last year I ran a post where I kvetched about the inaccuracy of art on historical fiction book covers. A year has passed and another crop of "what were they thinking" has arrived.

As I mentioned in the first post, this is not at all meant to bash the writers--who often have little to no say over the choice of art selected for their covers. Which may be half the problem--an educated reader *ought* to be able to tell from the cover if the book is well-researched, but (dare I say uneducated?) art departments make that difficult. It's a disservice to the writers who spend tons of time researching when poor art choices make the first impression of the book a sorely inaccurate one.

All images are from Please note--I have not read any of these books (yet) so all comments are purely on the cover art.

First up, a book that looks like an interesting read about a well-known name but little-discussed historical figure, Mme. Tussaud. And to be honest, I like the concept of the cover--it's not a decapitated head, which is nice (ever notice *how many* book covers feature headless women?). But yet again, we have a costume that lacks understanding of eighteenth century underpinnings.

Please, artists, if you learn nothing else about historical clothing, learn this--women did not wear bras in the 18th century. Or the 19th. Stop putting fascimiles of historical clothing on top of modern underwear. It does not work.

A warning--I am going to briefly discuss female anatomy. If you don't like to read about that, please skip down.

OK, here's the thing--Mme Tussaud's breasts should not be protruding into the center front of her gown. They should be riding high, supported by a pair of stays that, well, lift and compress. This makes the front of the gown bodice flat.

Anatomy discussion complete, there's one other irking issue with the lack of stays--she's got something akin to an hourglass, rather than a cone figure going on. Wrongsies, folks. And don't get me started on the weird faux-stomacher thing with the goshdarn ubiquitious bows. Why bows? Why ALWAYS bows?

And finally. Her neckline is Urkeling. That's what I call the annoying thing that happens when an 18th century neckline is too high. It looks as absurd as Urkel's pants. Did I do that? Yes, yes, you did.

Ok, moving on.

Another book I really want to like, even though I don't read much Christian fiction--because it's loosely based on George Rogers Clark (GRC is my Rev War hero), and the author says she got her inspiration after visiting The Happiest Place on Earth (ok, it's only the happiest place on earth to me--historic Locust Grove).

And the dress is actually quite lovely.

I just never would have guessed it's 18th century. The shape is, as above, not properly stayed, and moreover, the construction reminds me more of a 1950s cockatil dress than an 18th century gown. Tacking engageantes on three-quarter sleeves does not an 18th century ensemble make.

There seems to be a general trend of nondescript but pretty clothes on historical fiction covers, especially in young adult works. This makes me particularly sad, because it a) assumes young adult readers aren't savvy enough to notice or care and b) does a disservice to the YA writers who I'm sure are researching just as much as their adult histfic counterparts.

I had no idea that the following two books were historicals until I read reviews of them.

The first, now that I *know* it's set in the 1920s, I kind of get.

I mean, that's kind of like a bob, even though it's clear the artist didn't feel inclined to go 100% 1920s on it (I mean, that would, like, make the girl look less attractive, right?). The dress has some flapper vibes--the slip-like cut, perhaps--but it should be cut with a boyish figure, not a gown that follows her slim waistline and shows off her figure (which, honestly, gives it a sort of 930s vibe).

What I think threw me entirely was the makeup--1920s makeup looks pretty different from this, and speaks to a deeper issue: What was considered aesthetically pleasing 100 years ago is different from today. The hair would be a less natural, less "sexy" wave, and more structured. Lillian Gish (1920s actress and absolute beauty) once said that you weren't considered photogenic in "her day" unless one of your eyes looked larger than your lips--an homage, perhaps to silent film where facial expression, not digalogue, carried the scene--and makeup helped to create that illusion. I'd like to see more art of today intended to look historical take the aesthetics of the time into account instead of time-warping modern sensibilities into (somewhat) historical clothing.

Props on the Art Deco-ish lettering, though.

Unlike our previous example, this next one has absolutely no excuses.

Let's have a few guesses when this historical young adult novel might be set, shall we?

Did you guess 19th century? You'd be right! But you're also a genius, because I had no idea. I guess it's supposed to be a bustle gown. Yeeeaaah. Also--is she smuggling Snuffleupagus in that skirt?

One last one--again, this book looks like one I'd read. It's about campfollowers in the American Revolution, a subject I much enjoy.

I do not enjoy that...umm...what is she wearing? Ok, props on the cloak, it looks reasonable. But what the HECK is that dress supposed to be? Laura Ingalls circa the 1970s television program? The print? It looks like 1960s upholstery fabric--seriously, I have a friend with a vintage set that pretty much matches this. And though you might find something similar somewhere in the 18th century textile canon, it's hardly representative. The cut? Wrong. It's just a dress, and therein, again, lies the problem--it takes no account for the undergarments of the period. See above for stays discussion, and add in an addendum on needing proper petticoat-age. It also doesn't consider the construction of gowns at the time, doing that super-annoying thing where the bodice is just tacked on the skirt--not an open gown or a round gown, but, umm, a prairie dress?

It's shame, too, because Blevins discusses her research at length and makes note of the fact that it's a misnomer to assume that all campfollowers were prostitutes. Unfortunately, with her unstayed figure and hair blowing--capless--in the wind, her heroine looks like a loose woman.

Now that I've been negative for about ten paragraphs--read any good books lately?


Connie Keller said...

Loved your comment on the Snuffleupagus under the skirt. :) My first out-loud laugh today. Thanks!

Jillian said...

I love it when you critique covers. The Snuffleupagus crack made me chuckle. :D

(I just read A Tale of Two Cities.)

Hope you're well, Rowenna!

MrsC said...

Hear hear!!!! Mind you it's been going on forever, I have some Georgette Heyer paperbacks from the 60's and 70's and there's no mistaking the provenance...of when they were printed! Yet for all her cheesiness, she was very accurate. Unlike, as an aside, Victoria HOlt, who was my first foray into historical fiction..oh, ok, romance. I remember reading a line about a dress that had a "drapy collar of soft sage green material". In 1880, a 70s cowl neck would have been quite rare, I'd have thought! hehehe

Cassidy said...

It's a disservice to the writers who spend tons of time researching when poor art choices make the first impression of the book a sorely inaccurate one.

So true.

IIRC, The Luxe is set ca. 1900, which makes the cover even worse. Though the cover is fitting for the book, which is really a Gossip Girl/Private type of thing set at the turn of the century more than historical fiction, if you get my drift.

Libby Gohn said...

Great post! This has been a pet peeve of mine for so long. I know I'm speaking as a historical costumer - but can't they tell that it's totally wrong?

Stephsco said...

You make a great point how it's a disservice to authors when their book's cover art doesn't reflect the time period. In all of these examples, something looks off about the dress. I wouldn't have thought of the undergarment issue, but you're so right - some of those are historical-like dresses fitted to a model in a modern way.

I know a lot of book art is taken from stock photos - a specific shoot for the book isn't in the budget so it's a pre-selected picture. Still, you'd hope there are enough stock photos that are historically accurate!

I go to a local Ren Faire every year with some friends who own beautiful period gowns. Every year they want to know why I don't dress up with them, but Ren Faire is in the summer and it's HOT. I sense their pain when it's 90 degrees at the joust and they have on a corset and all those layers, but I'm not going to subject myself to that torture. Ok, maybe I will next summer. :)

Helen said...

I do so love these posts. The cover art is truly horrid, but it gives me some interesting ideas to add to my reading list. Happily, with the Kindle edition I am not forced to see the glaring inaccuracy every time I pick it up. Perhaps a small boon from the electronic age.

Rowenna said...

Connie and Jill--thanks!

MrsC--so true, I love how you can tell more about when a book was *published* than when it's set from covers!

Cassidy--thanks for the info on Luxe--I haven't read any of the series, but I wondered...

I know, Libby! I mean--it just looks *wrong*--right?

Steph--very true about stock photos. What I find funny is that some of the better historical covers use objects or landscape shots or period artwork--I guess the stock imagery is better when there isn't costuming involved!

Helen--so true! Thank goodness the pic on my Kindle is itty bitty lol!

Haley Whitehall said...

Another great post, Rowenna. I've secretly been irritated about this for a long time. But, I do not think that traditional publishers care about the accuracy of their covers. They just want it to be eye-catching so it will sell. I'm sure some of them realize it is wrong, but fixing it just isn't a priority,

Rowenna said...

So true, Haley--I just wish more of them would realize that many histfic readers are amateur historians who *do* care! And that most readers don't realize that the author doesn't chose the cover. :(