C.L. Polk is joining us today to talk about her novel, The Midnight Bargain. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.
In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.
The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?
What’s C.L. Polk’s favorite bit?
The Midnight Bargain literally started when I declared that what I really wanted to do was write a fantasy story with beautiful and ostentatious dresses. I had been thinking about the flat-fronted, big skirted gowns and trends of the 18th century, and after filling my head with images of beautiful gowns preserved in museums, I started thinking about what my world’s fashions look like. There’s one important thing you need to know about the lovely gowns and charming attire found in this story’s pages and it’s this: None of the fashion in The Midnight Bargain is historically accurate.
I designed the fashion by combining two principles: One, I wanted to reflect how the worldbuilding in TMB is different from Earth’s. Two, I wanted to indulge my own sartorial fantasies on the page.
That’s why I’ve combined the flat-fronted, decolletage showcasing bodice of 18th century stays with the wasp-waisted ideal of the mid 19th century – I saw an example of exactly this corset style in an early catalog from Dark Garden, and it resided in my heart ever since. (They still sell this model – it’s called the Alexandra and you can view it here.)
It’s why the skirts of Beatrice and Ysbeta’s gowns are conical and stop at the ankle, while they wear gowns in the mantua and underskirt style (no farthingales here!) with shallow-crowned, wide-brimmed cartwheel hats one knows from the milkmaid fad of the late 18th century–oh readers, it’s not authentic, it’s not even a little bit _accurate_. It’s chaos.
And it ought to be.
I don’t know if this is a hot take or not, but while we’re here, worldbuilding your fantasy novel’s fashion should be about satisfying and indulging your whims as much as it ought to a thoughtful reflection of international trade, diplomacy, technology, the presence of imperialist attitudes, or the prevalence of one economic system over another, in the context of the secondary world you are inventing. Drawing inspiration from our world’s history or regional fashion shouldn’t restrict the writer to faithfully producing the fashions of earth’s history and regional aesthetic.
Fashion in The Midnight Bargain is just like fashion in our world. It’s a communication to the people around you, delivered in a single look. You are what you wear, and what most people want is to be wealthy, powerful, tasteful, and beautiful. Ornament, silhouette, color, and accessories all join together to brand the wearer and display exactly who they are – or who they want to be.
But the fashion in The Midnight Bargain reflects a fantasy world where people trade eagerly with each other, bartering anything of value for luxury or commodities. Nations trade raw goods alongside exquisite mechanical or magical creations. They exchange music, art, and ideas about what is beautiful. They rarely go to war. They don’t invade each other’s nations. And they don’t commit atrocities on each other to seize wealth or power.
So fashion in the nation of Chasland is showing off your ability to acquire materials from faraway places. Long-staple, fine-spun cotton rules summer fashion, produced and imported at incredible expense. It’s a luxury fabric on par with silk and cashmere goat fiber – and it comes in fantastical colors, whimsical prints, and intricate woven jacquards.
It doesn’t stop there. Locally made lace is a prized trimming, measured in complexity, construction method, and depth. Embroidery is popular and costly: A single hand embroidered gown nets enough profit to house and feed a family of six, and every woman of fashion plans her daughter’s bargaining season wardrobe as if their futures depended on it.
The gowns are coral. They are azure and mauve. And if you know a little bit about historical fashion you know that mauve isn’t a colour you find on clothes until the late 1850’s. But the textile manufacturers of the traded world have alchemists, and so the palette of colors available are more dramatic than one would normally expect.
Why such bright, ostentatious colour? Because the center of the fashion world revolves around the tropical nation of Llanandras, the wealthiest country in the traded world. Llanandari beauty showcases vibrant colours that bring gleaming depth to umber brown skin and to the sunny golden shades of those who work hard to tan themselves into a more desirable darkness.
Hairstyles are high, studded all over with decorative pins, and scaffolded by thin braids. Hats are secured with corkscrew-spiral pins. Two feathers are jaunty, but three is a risk, and a well turned out lady matches her shoes, gloves, and hat to each other, but her parasol and reticule should match her gown.
Men’s fashion tends toward the colourful and ostentatious. Men will deck themselves out in wide-skirted frock coats and coordinating waistcoats, with lace ruffled at the neck and cuffs, embroidery gracing the hems and fronts, but it’s just as inauthentic as the ladies’ fashion, being a fusion of the styles of different periods. Men wear cosmetics in the evening, favoring kohl and blushing powder and a shiny, naturally pink-tinted lip.
Daytime fashion might be simpler, but it’s by no means casual. The opportunities to be judged on your attire during bargaining season come at all hours of the day. And if you dare to innovate, you’re walking a high wire. The crowd might decide you’ve stepped out of bounds. Or they might stampede to their modistes as fast as possible to copy what you’ve done….and then watch avidly for your next outfit, to see if you’ve topped yourself or gone over the top.
So no, it’s not accurate to earth fashion. But I hope the fashion in The Midnight Bargain delights you regardless.
C.L. Polk is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Witchmark, which was also nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Aurora, and Lambda Literary Awards. It was named one of the best books of 2018 according to NPR, Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Review, BookPage, and the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. She lives in Alberta, Canada.