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Fashion for Champions

AN-Style-Alex-Stephanie1You learn a lot when you moderate writing panels. While I was appearing as a guest at the Toronto Trek convention around ten years ago, I chaired an author panel about writing female characters. It was there that I picked up a piece of advice from one of my colleagues, which I remember to this day. It had to do with fashion.

“Female readers really appreciate the women I write,” he explained to our audience. “Because I keep lots of copies of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and I use those clothes for my characters. I make sure the clothes my women are wearing are in style.”

Believe you me, I wrote that down and underlined it. As someone with very little grasp of what’s fashionable, I figured this was my only chance to win over a female audience — I had to make sure Karen McMaster’s outfit didn’t clash. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I never followed through… and actually, I may have gone the opposite direction.

People who know me — work with me day to day — known my personal style could charitably be called Edwardian. I wear suits. All. The. Time. The hot Edmonton sun has forced me to give up my beloved tie and waistcoat this summer, but even so, I’m always working in at least two pieces. It’s very convenient. For instance, when I went to Halifax in 2013 to see my beloved lady, HMCS Sackville, all I needed to pack was a trio of tweed three-pieces. Each day, the only clothes decision to make was between blue, grey, and brown.

These days, such suits are dismissed by many men as uncomfortable and unnecessary. The latter is undoubtedly true, but when you get the right fabrics, and — vitally — get them made to your measurements, suits are honestly about as comfortable as sweatpants and a t-shirt. But they have more pockets, are well-engineered for layering against temperature changes, and you can wear them doing almost anything. For instance, after the Iceberg Tenth Anniversary Gala in 2012, I helped break down the entire event without changing. I even did the ice bucket challenge in an admittedly old, ill-fitting suit.

AN-LadyLee It’s worth remembering that, prior to the Second World War (and for some time after), men wore suits in all circumstances. These garments are designed to work, so long as you’ve invested in one that wasn’t crudely built just to get you to prom and back. Or that’s what I think, anyway. You probably think I’m insane, and fair enough… but the reason I explain this now is because, frankly, my twisted perspective on clothes has rubbed off on the characters I spend time with. Nowhere is this more evident than in Champions.

Dressing Alex and Stephanie — two young, dynamic women at the start of exciting careers in the 1940s — would be the dream of many costumers. Big hair, retro dresses, polkadots, lots of lipstick… the pinup look of the 40s seems to be coveted by many, because it hails from a time when women were women, and men were happy to explain what that meant.

Fortunately, one of the benefits of writing an alternate history — complete with another planet, alien dragons, and genetically-enhanced Champions — is that you get to come up with your own style. And as a guy who like suits, I didn’t bother looking up the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (from 1939?) for inspiration.

Why do Champions wear button-up shirts with breeches, tall boots, and coats? If you read Whitecoat, it’ll tell you that their style evolved from what Lady Emily wore in 1919-20, during the His Majesty’s New World novels. That’s true. But it’s also because I think this look suits both men and women.

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Lady Alex: always ready for a press conference, or a gunfight.

Considering the civilization-defending that Champions must do, and the fact that they’re also quasi-celebrities thanks to the PR machines of the British Empire and United States, they have to look dignified while also being able to work in the field. I’d say Alex’s wardrobe strikes that balance quite nicely… aside from her ongoing problems trying to keep her white coat clean. She really should have chosen green…

Meanwhile, because Stephanie joined the Special Service Regiment, you might think there were fewer choices for her wardrobe. Not necessarily. In our real history, World War Two offered numerous opportunities for women in the armed forces… though admittedly, none of those ‘girls’ was trained to be as capable with a pistol as our Lieutenant Shylock. No matter, their uniforms worked well in the field, and I like them even better from a style standpoint.

British Battle dress coming out of the 1930s was really quite sharp. Because warfare was moving into an era of mechanization, when men were expected to get in and out of small vehicles on a regular basis, the army needed a battlefield uniform that wasn’t going to get caught in doors, snag gear shifts, or hitch on equipment. Facing this challenge, someone seized upon a brilliant idea: base the new uniform on the latest fashions in European ski wear.

The result was very handsome. As Stephanie and Mike Strong prove, British battle dress works for both men and for women, and can be customized to meet different needs –– a shirt and tie underneath the battle dress blouse for Stephanie (because she’s an officer), just a crew-neck shirt for Sergeant Strong. Both look pretty snappy.

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Lieutenant Shylock and her trusty Sergeant Strong. They appear to be wondering what someone else is wearing.

Realizing this style on the page is a lot of fun… though when it came to putting together a wardrobe for shooting covers, it proved somewhat complicated. That challenge has previously been touched upon here and here, but suffice to say that Stephanie’s battle dress was actually easy, and Alex’s coat wasn’t too difficult to source from China.

The surprising difficulty came with the more ordinary things: trousers for Alex, and shirts for both Alex and Stephanie. Apparently, getting practical, utilitarian clothes for women isn’t as easy as it is for us boorish guys. We ended up with multiple sources — Sears, Land’s End, and even (ironically) Victoria’s Secret for Alex’s trousers. The searching around was worth it, though — as the covers of the last few years demonstrate. And there are still four years of books to come…

On a few occasions, I’ve been asked whether I would opt for a more ‘provocative’ look for future covers. My answer: how? In Alex and Stephanie, you have two dynamic young leaders, sharply-dressed in clothes that work for their jobs. Call me an Edwardian, but that seems pretty provocative to me.

Personally, I’d love it if everyone (male and female) started wearing buttoned shirts and suits all the time. Maybe even bowler hats and umbrellas… ahem. But for now I can console myself by spending time on the page with Stephanie and Alex, as well as some of the other ladies who are joining the roster for this year’s five Champions novellas.

Stay tuned –– they’re all launching in November.