When I was a child, I was told that women wore dresses, skirts, and various kinds of things that I called trousers but that women called by magical names depending on the styles and fabrics. From snippets of conversation, I learned that dresses and skirts are not generic, that they had names/uses/purposes, that they came from different designers, factories, stores, were either last year’s fashion (no longer in use) or current fashion (in use).
The bottom line is this: I know that the women in my novels have to wear something, but I don’t know what it is. That is, I can’t just say, “Alice wore a dress.” If it’s a high-scale dress, then I’ll need to know a designer. I’ll need to know what kind of dress it is and under what circumstances it’s worn. I always assume that the kind of dress suitable for a PTA meeting isn’t suitable for a New Year’s Eve party aboard a royal yacht.
The NSA comes into play because not knowing anything about anything, dress-wise, I’m online a lot. Multiple clothing searches. The plot thickens, dress-wise, when I’m working on a novel (as I am now) set in the 1950s. Unless some kind of a retro fad is going on, dresses from the 1950s aren’t being worn today, even to a PTA meeting.
The good thing about searching on, say, women’s clothing of the 1950s, you not only come across articles discussing how fabrics/styles changed from the war years (if you’re young, I should tell you World War II on the homefront meant utilitarian clothes, rationing, etc.) to the 1950s. (For example, the Vintage Dancer site was a nice place to start. So was Fashion History Timeline.)
This gives me a general picture–including what the clothing was called. Moving on, I can then search on the names of the clothing, finding vintage ads, catalogue pictures, and even Etsy shops that specialize in retro clothing from certain eras. So, while Brad Thor, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and other black ops novels are keeping up with weapons and tactics, I’m desperately trying to find out what my characters should wear and when.
People always ask why research takes longer than writing. It all comes down to the fact that I learned only the difference between a dress and a skirt, but none of the thousand styles or accessories. It was, I suppose, a lapse in my education and/or upbringing.
P. S. – My older woman character named Sparrow wears a Kitty Foyle dress that was popular in the 1940s. If you’re not sure what the dress looks like, you can watch Ginger Rogers in the film “Kitty Foyle.” Rogers won an academy award and the dress she wore in the film endured.