Packing for a Trip to the Past

Anna Belfrage

What would you pack if you regularly visited the seventeenth century? On this occasion, you really wouldn’t have anything to wear. Our staple of jeans and a t-shirt would be provocative in the seventeenth century.  Author, Anna Belfrage, regularly sends her characters back in time, and I was intrigued to discover how she helps her heroine, Alex, to pack for another era.  Where does a writer start when dressing characters for another era? Alas, I would have to begin by abandoning my handbags as they didn’t exist.

I am handing over to Anna Belfrage, author of The Graham Saga, and her costume department.  Anna’s novels have allowed her to fulfil her dream of becoming a professional time traveller.

Dressed for Success in the Seventeenth Century

Frans Hals

One of my series, The Graham Saga, is set in the seventeenth century for a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the prevailing fashions of the time. While others may go “ooh” and “aaah” at the paintings of dashing cavaliers adorned with lace and ribbon, I like my men in breeches and a simple linen shirt, a no-nonsense coat worn atop, which is probably why my hero, Matthew Graham, dresses like that. Well, it may have something to do with his convictions as well. After all, Matthew is a devout member of the Scottish Kirk, and he and his brethren have little liking for fripperies.

Where Matthew was born and bred in the 17th century, his beloved wife, Alex(andra) Lind, grew up in our time. In difference to many of us, she never had a hankering for living in the past, but sometimes impossible things happen, which is how she ended up in the 17th century, wearing jeans.

Cook with a Hare

“I like her djeens,” Matthew says, his gaze lingering on her legs. “But, aye, you’re right: she can’t wear them here. Seeing her thus revealed is only for me to see.” (He has a certain amount of cave-man tendencies does our Matthew. Blame it on the times…)

So instead, Alex has to start by donning a shift. This is a long linen garment that reaches halfway between knees and ankles, it has long sleeves and a neckline with a drawstring. It serves as a combined nightie and underwear. (Forget about a silky negligee when in the mood for some action which is why I recommend nudity for seduction). This shift is worn until it can almost stand on its own – laundry is a heavy task.

On top of the shift Alex wears stays. Okay, so they’re not as bad as those sported by Scarlett O’Hara but once they’re laced they have a somewhat inhibiting effect on her movements. Stockings in scratchy wool are rolled up the legs to thigh-level and gartered into place. Petticoats help keep Alex somewhat warm, ending just above the ankle. A bum roll, heavy woollen skirts, a bodice and an apron complete the outfit. Let me tell you, this weighs a lot. It is difficult to run in full skirts. Or climb a tree (which is a bad idea anyway, as women shouldn’t do something as indecorous as climb a tree).

At this point Alex stops to inspect herself – she has a small looking glass, lucky her. The collar is tied into place, the hair is braided back and coiled into a tight bun before being covered by a linen cap. A woman without a cap is a sinful thing indeed! By the door are the shoes – they might be a pair of latchet shoes, but they might just as well be clogs. Actually, maybe using clogs is the better choice – at least they keep the feet dry!

“I’m not wearing all that,” Alex told me the first time I presented her new wardrobe for her. “I’ll stick to my jeans—and my underwear.”

“No, you won’t.” Matthew shakes his head. “To go around dressed like that is to attract unwanted attention. And should anyone find out you’re from the future…” he mimes a sliced throat. Too right: either you conform, or you risk sticking out like a sore thumb and potential witch. Not good in a time and age where witches are still being executed.

Alex sighs. “Fine,” she says, throwing me an angry look. (She blames me for throwing her back in time. She rarely thanks me for gifting her with the rather wonderful Matthew.) “But just so you know, the moment I get back, I’ll be in jeans again.”
Back? I share a look with Matthew. Alex isn’t going back. After all, while time travelling is a rare occurrence, time travelling with a return ticket is even rarer!


Sir Anthony van Dyck and Lord Bernard Stuart

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, chances are she’ll be visiting in the 17th century, more specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This series is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. A ninth instalment has just been published, despite Anna having thought eight books were enough. Turns out her 17th century dreamboat and his time travelling wife didn’t agree…

Anna can be found on her website, on Facebook and on her blog. Or on twitter and Amazon.


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