What Not to Wear When Mountain Climbing
The premise of my new novella, Improper Arrangements, is straightforward enough: Lady Alice Cathcart-Ross hires a guide to escort her along the walking route between Chamonix and Zermatt in the High Alps. The guide, Elijah Philemon Keating, is a fiendishly attractive man. Hijinks ensue.
When I began to write Improper Arrangements, I knew where my story would be set. I knew what would happen between the characters. I could see every aspect of it in my mind…and then I tripped over the date. Since this book was connected to Improper Relations (Lady Alice is the rejected almost-fiancée of its hero), I had to set it no earlier than 1858 and no later than the late 1860s.
And that was a problem. Why? Well, when you think of what women were wearing in the middle years of the 19th century, what springs to mind? By any chance, might it be something like this?
Of course this is an exaggeration, as are the costumes we often think of in conjunction with this era—the gigantic crinolines worn by Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” for example. But it’s true that women’s skirts had, by mid-century, achieved a volume and circumference that, even in their most restrained incarnations, was truly impressive. How on earth would anyone be able to hike through the mountains in such a get-up?
Although Alice wouldn’t be scaling any rock faces, she would be hiking along rough trails and covering distances of as much as ten miles a day. It was clear she wouldn’t be able to wear conventionally fashionable clothes, but neither would it make sense for her to simply abandon all social niceties and throw on a pair of trousers. And that made me wonder: what did female climbers of the period wear?
Although their names are all but forgotten now, a handful of women became known for their achievements as mountaineers in the middle decades of the 19th century, a period that later became known as the Golden Age of alpinism. Among them were Lucy Walker, Isabella Charlet-Straton and Meta Brevoort. Walker was the first woman to climb the Matterhorn; Charlet-Straton made the first winter ascent of Mont Blanc; and Brevoort, who climbed the Matterhorn shortly after Lucy Walker, was the first woman to climb the Dent Blanche.
There are relatively few photographs of these remarkable women, and hardly any at all of them dressed for climbing. But I was able to unearth some contemporary descriptions of their attire, and while Miss Walker was known for making few concessions to practicality in her dress—she wore a “white sprigged frock” for her ascent of the Matterhorn—other female climbers of the period were less inhibited by notions of propriety. I learned that some of them wore tweed bloomers under their skirts, and once out of sight of the nearest town or village would either hitch up the skirts or cast them off. Others simply shortened their hems and wore wide-legged pantaloons (similar to those worn by young girls) to cover their lower legs.
In the end, I decided to dress Alice in a plain woolen gown that, at Elijah’s suggestion, has its skirts reduced in volume, its hem shortened to mid-calf, and its shoulder seams and sleeves loosened. When she protests, he asks, “You weren’t planning on walking through the Alps looking like an upended teacup, were you?”
As much as I enjoyed my research into Alice’s traveling attire, I couldn’t resist giving her the chance to dress up at least once. The gown she wears, purchased in Paris en route to the Alps, is fit for a queen: “It was made of aquamarine silk taffeta trimmed with Alençon lace, it was prettier than anything I’d ever owned, and it had been shockingly expensive.” It also makes a lasting impression on our hero—but that is a story for another day.
To learn more about Lady Alice and her journey through the High Alps with famed mountaineer Elijah Philemon Keating, please pick up your copy of Improper Arrangements, available now from all e-book retailers.
If you’d like to learn more about my work, please visit my website: www.julianaross.com
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