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Writing Historical Fiction: Appearance

Updated: Sep 14, 2022

Hello, my fellow eggs!

Before reviewing this, please make sure you have read the prior lessons. This fourth lesson is designed to get you thinking about beauty standards and how that ties into one’s status. These elements help make up a character's appearance and may provide you with a detailed method of describing characters in your story.

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Table of Contents

➵ Beauty and Time

➵ Clothing

➵ Makeup

➵ Appearance and Cultural Stigma

➵ "Perfect" Beauty

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↠ Beauty and Time ↞


As time goes by, our idea of beauty and what it means to be beautiful evolves. Beauty has been seen as power, high status, wealth, and purity.

Beauty can also be classified in two different ways: (1) physical beauty and (2) emotional beauty or internal beauty.

1) Physical Beauty: A lot of factors go into what makes an individual physically beauty. However, the greatest influencers would be clothing, make-up, and natural beauty. Each culture has their own idea of what is beautiful. In Asian cultures, it may be the Westernized look of lighter skin tones, blue eyes, and blonde hair. In the United States, it may be a perfectly proportionate body and make-up.

For example, in the 1600s, overweight women were considered attractive. It demonstrated that they had a significant amount of money to eat more than enough.

A person with natural beauty doesn't need any sort of embellishments like make-up or fancy

clothing because they're considered beautiful in anything, they decide to appear in. Similarly, to

physical beauty, each culture has their own idea of what is considered natural beauty. The focus

can be any part of the body -- hair, eyes, bone structure, etc.

2) Emotional or Internal Beauty: Emotional beauty, or compassion and empathy, can be seen as something beautiful because it shows that the person is capable of feeling emotions. They can be someone that another person depends on as a confidant or they could be a stranger that is willing to help someone they don't know that needs assistance.

If a person were apathetic, they may seem distant or unapproachable, thus making it difficult for anyone to make claims about who they are as a person.


↠ Clothing ↞


Similarly to art and architecture, the quality and style of clothes depends on the cultural

influences of the time as well as any resources that are available to them.

(1) Seasonal: If your story takes place during a certain time of the year, you should consider your selected location's climate and culture's seasonal clothing. Some places may be able to access fabrics and other materials that allow them to adapt to the environment's temperatures and weather, whereas others may end up wearing something like a wool shirt under the heat of the sun. If this is the case, it's important to explain how this affects the character.

Your character isn't immune to everything, so always make sure you're offering explanation in

any form (exposition, narrative, etc.) when you can.

2) Traditional and Celebratory: Another aspect of clothing are outfits that are reserved for special events such as weddings, funerals, holidays, family events, business dinners, etc. Lack of appropriate attire can send the wrong message about an individual--that they don't respect centuries old traditions or even their family to uphold the culture's values.

Please note that everyone may not necessarily wear the same exact outfit for events. It may differ

based on status and even region within a nation. For example, a high class individual may have

more jewels or intricate embroidery on their fabrics.

3) Armor: If you're writing a story that takes place during a war or battle, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the various types of armor. You may want to equip your character with the strongest material, but before you do so, you'll want to think about whether that material is common in their area or if it's possible for it to be exported to them.

It's also important to consider how that clothing will impact a character's mobility. The heavier

the armor, the more sluggish they may move in battle. Additionally, depending on the time in

which your story takes place, the style in which armor is created will differ from place to place.

Every country has their own way of crafting various items.

Example (excerpt from Chapter 18 of Dance of the Dragons)

Dressed in a silk red jacket and skirt that fell to the ground and a set of flat red shoes that were absconded by the bright red skirt, the golden embroidery designs positively popped from the ensemble. It was customary for the bride to have symbols of the dragon, phoenix, and crane on their wedding gown, it brought good luck and longevity to the engaged couple.

The fengguan weighed down on my head as I adjusted it to make it more comfortable. The phoenix crown was decorated with a fresh set of rubies, emeralds, and pearls. A total of six dragons and three phoenixes appeared around the headpiece. My lips were painted in a bright scarlet red to match my clothes. Lined with black paint, Shuren had drawn the brush slightly back to generate a winged effect. A soft red powder was applied to the top of my eyelids after Shuren dusted my skin with white powder.

"You look beautiful," she remarked. "Are you ready to become Wuzhen's Empress?"

"As ready as I'll ever be."

Shuren picked up an elegant red veil and draped it over my headpiece, to cover my face.

From this first example, I'm sure you can understand our wedding customs differ from culture to culture as Dance of the Dragons is inspired by Tang Dynasty China.

Example (excerpt from Chapter 6 of A Celestial Requiem)

My eyes traveled up to see her heart-shaped face. She looked so delicate, my fingers twitched, wanting to touch her soft skin. She had silky ebony hair done in a simple braid that fell down to her hips. The way it glinted in the light was alluring. Like her face, I wanted to reach out and run my fingers through the wispy strands. Despite being dressed in a plain gray hemp tunic, she still appeared elegant and bright as a full moon in a clear night sky.

From this second example, you see Liwei's thoughts about Mingxia's appearance. A person's perception of beauty may be impacted by their love for that person.


↠ Makeup ↞


In the past, makeup was used to augment features that were considered attractive. In the 1600s,

women sought to achieve the perfect porcelain skin with lead-based paints. Despite the danger

that lead-based paints posed, it was disregarded if it yielded favorable results. In a way, it

worked out in a way that the people of that time were happy with because the lead-based paints

resulted in facial hair removal. Lack of facial hair was another thing that was highly coveted in

that time.

Makeup is an incredibly expensive resource. The possession of makeup can be considered a

symbol of status and wealth because it is not easily obtainable to those of lower class.

Here's a site that briefly explains the history of makeup, if you decide to reference existing makeup or use it as a foundation to create your own standards of beauty.


↠ Appearance and Cultural Stigma ↞


One's appearance says a lot about their origins and prospects. Typically if a person has access to

makeup or the latest fashion, they have access to a variety of sources. This can often be equated

with wealth and social connections. Individuals that don't have accessibility to certain products

or even choose not to use it may be misunderstood and seen as a poor individual.

Appearance has often been equated with success as well. Individuals with less than desirable

features may be thought to experience more hardships due to: (1) fewer suitors, (2) fewer

opportunities, (3) exclusion from society.


In A Celestial Requiem, Mingxia is bullied because she is crippled and it doesn't fit within her bullies' idea of "beauty."


↠ "Perfect" Beauty ↞


When we discuss the "perfect" beauty, I am referring to some of the dangerous practices that

individuals went through in the past to enhance their appearance. There are many different

dangers that come with using certain products, particularly the underdeveloped ones of the past,

and they should not be limited to makeup. Here are some common traditions/customs used in the past.

1) Foot Binding: Foot binding was a common practice in China, in which women would bind their feet with gauze so that they could wear lotus shoes. Having small feet, though deformed, was considered beautiful for women. However, it poses various risks such as infection and necrosis. Although this act was dangerous, it was considered attractive and high class to do so. Foot binding is now banned due to the health risks it poses.

2) Radioactive Products: In the 1900s, products such as toothpaste or facial cream contained radium and thorium. Many women utilized this because of its apparent whitening effect. It was considered beautiful and also high class if one were able to obtain any. However, considering that these products were highly radioactive, they experienced some debilitating symptoms, which is why those products aren't used today.

3) Corsets: Corsets were once used to train a torso into the desired shape of its wearer. It was once a very important aspect of women's fashion but can be seen as something incredibly

uncomfortable. It can make the wearer have difficulty breathing and constrict internal organs.

Thank you for reading! I hope you find this helpful!

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