Author Mary Robinette Kowal played a huge role in designing the cover for her upcoming novel Of Noble Family—she hand-sewed the dress worn by the cover model! Below, Ms. Kowal shares her thoughts on the process, including in-progress photos and early alternate designs. And of course get a look at the full cover image.
The final book of Kowal’s acclaimed Glamourist Histories, Of Noble Family is the magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen walked on the darker side of the Regency—publishing April 2015 from Tor Books.
Back in February, as I was finishing Of Noble Family, my editor wrote to ask if I had suggestions for “any possible scenes in mind for a cover.” At this point, she hadn’t seen the novel yet, but the art department needed to get started on creating the cover.
I wrote back and said:
I would really, really, really, really like a woman of colour on the cover.
- Interesting images: A glamural of Anansi the Spider in front of wattle and & wattle slave huts (can provide visual reference)
- A ballroom glamoured to look like an ice palace, with palm trees and tropics outside.
- There’s a glamural that turns a bed into a bower of passion flower vines.
But the big thing, for me, is I really, really, really, really want a woman of colour on the cover. I’d prefer one who isn’t dressed like a slave. I can send descriptions of several women from the novel.
Also? I would love to make the dress that’s used in the photo. I mean, I probably already have made a dress from the book and the models that he’s been using are all in the size range that one of my dresses would fit, but it would give me great joy if I could make the actual dress.
Why make the dress?
In my case, I actually make Regency era dresses as a hobby. I made my first one as research for the books, and then discovered that I very much liked having a tangible project as a break from the intangiblity of fiction. With each of the books I’ve done additional “research” and handsewn a number of dresses. Fortunately, my editor and the art director knew that and had seen the dresses.
They still had to get it cleared with Larry Rostant, the artist, before they could say “yes.” Fortunately, he was also excited by the idea. The only real challenge was that Larry and the model were both in the UK. I live in the US.
I sent over descriptions of several of the characters and their clothing to Irene Gallo, art director at Tor, and to Larry. We decided on Mrs. Whitten, who is a neighbor of Jane’s in Antigua. She is described as:
“of not more than of the middle height, well made and with an air of healthy vigour. Her skin was very brown, but clear, smooth, and glowing, which, with a lively eye, a sweet smile, and an open countenance, gave beauty to attract, and expression to make that beauty improve on acquaintance.”
(Astute Austen readers will note that her description might sound a little familiar…)
Being a costume nerd, I mention a couple of her dresses, but her ball gown… That was the one that really captured my heart and fortunately, it caught Larry’s, too. It is based on a fashion plate from the period, pictured above:
“Elegant as always, she wore a round dress of India Sacarallie, trimmed at the skirt with six rows of white satin coquings forming a wave, in the hollow of each was placed a rich silver tassel, reminiscent of an icicle. Over the dress was an elegant quadrille robe of silver lama fastened on the left side, and sloped in front, trimmed with a full quilling of Vandyke muslin, edged with silver. With her white kid gloves and shoes, the whole was exactly calculated to work in harmony with the ice palace motif.”
My first challenge was figuring out what India Scarallie was, since that’s a term no longer used. It turns out that it’s a very fine, quite sheer cotton. No one makes it anymore.
So after experimenting with several different fabrics, I finally took a field trip up to Chicago’s Little India—we will skip past the part where Lynne Thomas and I had a misadventure with the car and a pothole suffice to say, Lynne deserves thanks—and look at saris. In the early 1800s, it wasn’t uncommon for a sari to be used to make a Regency gown. I knew that there were some beautiful very sheer cotton saris, so was hoping to find something that would work. Instead… Instead I found a sheer silk wedding sari, embroidered with silver and crystal that was so perfect I just sort of stared at it and knew that I’d regret it for years if I didn’t buy it.
Let me be clear—all of the things that make this dress beautiful are the result of the labor of some immensely talented anonymous person. The beading on the dress is gorgeous and I wish I could properly credit the person who did it.
The thing about an expensive sari is that it will come with a piece of fabric specifically designed to make the choli, the small snug blouse worn under a sari. This one was no exception, but because the sari proper was such sheer fabric, the choli piece was an opaque piece dyed to match. You can see the embroidery on the fabric and how it was intended to be cut.
I began by draping the fabric on my manikin, to try to figure out how to take advantage of the pattern on the fabric.
The original dress had a couple of properties I wanted to preserve.
- A very high waist
- Square neckline, with very little shoulder
- The “slope in front”
- The overlay and tiers.
With those in mind, I decided to use on of the sleeve pieces as the front of the bodice, because it already had a straight embroidered edge. I used La Mode Bagatelle’s faux bib front pattern as the base for the bodice. Here is where using an irreplaceable piece of fabric becomes truly nerve-wracking. I wound up making two full muslins for the dress to make certain I wasn’t going to screw anything up. I had one chance, and one chance only, to cut the fabric. I pinned everything out and stared at it for a good half hour before I made the first cut.
My sense of relief when it was all stitched together, and actually worked, was huge. You’ll note that I’m not using all of the embroidered sections. For the sleeves, I decided to create puff “ballroom” sleeves, to match the original dress, out of the sheer fabric of the sari. And I hand stitched the entire dress.
There were two reasons for this. One, appearance of handstitching up close really is different than machine stitching. Two, I was terrified that the machine would grab the fabric and eat it. Terrified.
After the dress was assembled, I took some of the sari scraps and unpicked beads from the fabric to reuse. With those, I beaded a line around the neck to tie the bodice of the dress in with the front and back.
For the sleeves, I reinforced them with “illusion” netting to get a nice puffy shape. Triva: The illusion netting is a piece leftover from my wedding veil.
The original dress had silver tassels, while I didn’t retain those and the six rows of coquings, I did keep a nod to them with the back closure. I took silver cord and twisted it into a silver rope, which I used at the waistline of the dress. It ties in back with a simple bow, adorned with two silver tassles.
Once it was finished, I packed it up and sent it to Larry. Now… since the model was in the UK that meant I wasn’t going to be able to do a final fitting for her. So I sent the dress with the back loosely stitched together and trusted his costumer to pin it closed on the model. I could get away with this because I knew that Larry didn’t tend to photograph his models with their backs to camera. Even so, I cleared it with him before making that call. (Also, to be clear, this meant that when the dress returned to me I’d be able to alter it so I could wear it.) Larry and his costumer handled all the other styling for the photo shoot, including hair, makeup, gloves and undergarments.
I wasn’t able to attend the photo shoot, but Grace Vincent, my publicist at Corsair (my UK publisher) went to the shoot and captured some behind the scenes photos, so you can see what the environment looks like while Larry is taking pictures.
And here… here is the final dress on the cover.
Does it look like the dress that described in the book? No, it does not. Fortunately, I know the author. In the final manuscript, Mrs. Whitten’s dress is described like this…
Elegant as always, Mrs. Whitten wore a round dress of translucent India silk, trimmed at the hem with a fortune of beads, reminiscent of a frosted leaves. Over the dress was an elegant quadrille robe fastened on the left side, and edged with still more silver beads. With her white gloves and shoes, the whole was exactly calculated to work in harmony with the ice palace motif.
And what about me? Will I get to wear it ever? Oh… I may have already worn it someplace. You know. As one does.
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass, Without a Summer, Valour and Vanity, the 2011 Hugo Award-winning short story “For Want of a Nail,” and the 2014 Hugo Award-winning novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” Mary lives in Portland, OR.