Guest post – M.K. Tod: Weaving fashion into The Admiral’s Wife

I am thrilled to have M.K. Tod on my blog today to talk about her new novel, The Admiral’s Wife. Take it away, Mary!

Many thanks to Char Newcomb for her kind offer to guest post on her blog. Char and I have connected many times over the years both in person and online. In addition to the wonderful novels she writes, Char is a very generous woman with an upbeat, can-do personality!

One of the story lines in The Admiral’s Wife occurs in 1912-1914 Hong Kong. If you’ve visited that part of the world, you will know that the heat and humidity are relentless for much of the year, and that sudden downpours are a frequent occurrence. And yet, the fashions of that time weren’t very different from those worn in cooler places like London or Paris.

How did women climb into a rickshaw while wearing a long dress? Did their hands sweat when encased in the kind of gloves fashion dictated? How uncomfortable was a corset in temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius)? What fabrics might suit such a tropical climate? What did Chinese women wear?

During my research, I came across many photos to spark the imagination. While I don’t tend to write lengthy descriptions of what my characters are wearing – I prefer to leave that to the reader’s imagination – I do like to have an image in mind from which I can offer one or two details in the narrative. Like this scene where Isabel Taylor and her husband Henry are at a reception given in their honor by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Francis May.

Mindful that they were the evening’s honored guests, she had dressed in a pale green gown with cap sleeves, the waistline slightly raised, and the skirt layered with chiffon. The color suited her. The fitted bodice accented her figure but was otherwise modest, and she wore a double strand of pearls—Henry’s wedding gift—around her neck. Isabel hoped she’d achieved a look of understated elegance.

Isabel is fortunate to meet Myrna Symington at the evening reception referred to above. As time goes along, Myrna takes Isabel under her wing and on one outing shows Isabel her favorite shops.

As the rickshaw traveled along the main streets, Myrna identified several places: the Hong Kong Club (“Miles lunches there most days.”); St. George’s Club (“It has a well-stocked library.”); Lane, Crawford & Co (“A grand department store. You’ll find it much like Harrods.)”; the post office; the telegraph office; City Hall; a bookshop; a tobacconist; a chemist; the Paris Toilet Company for perfume and hair dressing; and Murphy’s Fine Silks & Linens. Isabel’s head was soon spinning.

A little later, after passing some of the main businesses and clubs for men:

Isabel smiled. “I’d be pleased to help with Lady May’s project [Helena May was the wife of Hong Kong’s governor, Sir Francis May.]. It will be of great assistance to women of limited means. English woman, of course. It wasn’t lost on me that Lady May has no intention of allowing Chinese women to participate. I said nothing, of course. However, I do find such attitudes galling.” In the silence that followed, Isabel wondered if she had given offense. “My hands are ridiculously hot.”

Myrna displayed a hand encased in a glove that looked almost as fine as a spider’s web. “You need some of these,” she said. “Lane, Crawford carries them. I have dozens. Black, white, all sorts of colors. Almost like wearing no gloves at all.”

“I’ll get some tomorrow.” Isabel fanned her face. They were in the shade now, which provided a little relief.

“You’re right about Lady May,” Myrna said. “The British feel superior to everyone, most particularly those who aren’t white. However, you’d be wise to keep your opinions to yourself.”

The Chinese had their own traditions and fashions and a parallel society of wealthy, influential men as well as a large population that lived in poverty. At that same reception Isabel meets Li Tao-Kai and his wife Wen Lee Chu.

The governor’s garden beckoned with a lush blend of familiar flowers like rhododendrons and roses as well as local varieties unknown to Isabel. She ambled along a path leading to wide steps and a distant fountain, then stopped in front of a bush covered in white blossoms. Isabel leaned close to inhale the sweet aroma.

“You must be Admiral Taylor’s wife.”

Startled, she turned and was surprised to discover a Chinese couple arm in arm. The man’s dark brown eyes gazed at her with interest. He was taller than most Chinese men she’d seen on the streets, his shoulders wide rather than narrow. Like most of the men in attendance, he wore a tuxedo, but the woman’s floor-length gown was clearly a Chinese style, a fitted design with a high neck and slits up both sides of the skirt so that her steps were not too restricted. The pattern—rich blue with delicate pink flowers—flattered the woman’s slender figure and enhanced her black hair and pale skin.

Of course, fashion plays a role in the present-day timeline of The Admiral’s Wife. However, I didn’t have to do much research to decide what my characters would wear. This paragraph has Patricia Findlay, the protagonist, visiting her mother to discover more about her ancestors:

The following week, Patricia arranged to visit her mother. She dressed in a black cheongsam, a form-fitting dress with slits on each side. Then she twisted her hair into a chignon secured with a rhinestone hairpin and slipped on the jade bracelet her father had given her when she and Andrew returned to Hong Kong. The bracelet had belonged to her paternal grandmother and was beautifully carved. Having it on her arm felt like being repossessed by her parents—as if they were trying to erase her American upbringing. Ah Ma [mother] would notice these choices.

While writing an earlier novel titled Paris In Ruins (released in 2021), I had a wonderful time exploring the fashions of the 1870s. Forty years later, the time setting of The Admiral’s Wife, the styles have changed: slimmer lines, no bustles, higher waistlines, fewer undergarments, the occasional peek at an ankle. World War One and the 1920s would bring more change – perhaps I’ll have to write another story.

About The Admiral’s Wife

The lives of two women living in Hong Kong more than a century apart are unexpectedly linked by forbidden love and financial scandal.

The lives of two women living in Hong Kong more than a century apart are unexpectedly linked by forbidden love and financial scandal.

In 2014, Patricia Findlay leaves a high-powered career to move to Hong Kong, where she hopes to rekindle the bonds of family and embrace the city of her ancestors. Instead, she is overwhelmed by feelings of displacement and depression. To make matters worse, her father, CEO of the family bank, insists that Patricia’s duty is to produce an heir, even though she has suffered three miscarriages.

In 1912, when Isabel Taylor moves to Hong Kong with her husband, Henry, and their young daughter, she struggles to find her place in such a different world and to meet the demands of being the admiral’s wife. At a reception hosted by the governor of Hong Kong, she meets Li Tao-Kai, an influential member of the Chinese community and a man she met a decade earlier when he was a student at Cambridge.

As the story unfolds, each woman must consider where her loyalties lie and what she is prepared to risk for love.

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About M.K. Tod

M.K. (Mary) Tod has been writing historical fiction since 2009. The Admiral’s Wife is her fifth novel. She is also the author behind the award-winning blog,, where Mary and guest writers explore the reading and writing of historical fiction. Mary can be reached on her author website, or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at MKTodAuthor.

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