Researching ‘The Sentinel’: Colonial dress

“You can tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear”.

So begins the article (below) by Damian McIntyre reporting for ABC Tasmania on the National Trusts’ treasure trove of gowns from the colonial era.

When researching my novel, ‘The Sentinel’, I knew that understanding the clothing in which my characters dressed was significant because ‘you can tell a lot about a person by the clothes they wear’. By revealing descriptions of dresses, aprons, bonnets, caps and footwear (or lack thereof), I would also be describing social status, occupation and personality traits. It’s a way of showing character without actually saying, ‘this person is poor or vain or rich or slovenly’.

While lighthouse keepers needed clothes that were hardy enough to withstand hours of physical labour, their clothes also needed to last a long time – visits by the lighthouse supply ships were few and far between, and shore leave even rarer.

Women and children too, needed clothes that would stand up to daily chores and women had to know how to sew because dressmakers were a luxury few could afford.

Clothes revealed much about the characters’ status and class. Kathleen for instance, has the means to purchase ‘frivolous’ bonnets with accessories that accentuate her social standing. Rosie Brown however, does not have the wherewithal to afford anything fancy. She can barely keep her family fed, let alone clothed, and anything frivolous is far out of reach for her.

Astrid Dawson on the other hand, was once in the same social class as Kathleen. By the way she tends her faded but once-glorious clothes, it’s clear she hankers for the missed opportunities of her life.

The gowns in the collection from the National Trust would have been worn by someone like Kathleen and her sister, Cassandra. I imagine them reveling in the fine silks and lace, drawing on their long gloves and buttoning the clasps on their boots as they make their way out to a dinner or a ball.

People like the Browns might gape in awe as the sisters pass by, catching a glimpse of them in their hansom cab as they’re whisked away to a sumptuous event somewhere in the city.

The Browns could never hope to emulate such wealth. They would stay on the periphery, attired forever in their working clothes; their breeches, aprons and dull bonnets.

Kathleen might notice them, in the blur of a crowded street, but she’d forget them in a moment, lost in the excitement of the ball. Only by taking up the Head Teacher position on The Sentinel does she begin to understand the stories of the people marooned on the lighthouse station with her.

Only then can she look past the clothes to the people behind them and uncover their secrets, and their stories.

Until next time, happy writing!


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