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Today’s guest is fantasy author Melissa Caruso! Her Venetian-inspired debut novel, The Tethered Mage, is the story of a young noblewoman who accidentally breaks the rules to save her city—and accidentally binds herself to a fire mage while doing so. It was one of my favorite books of 2017, largely due to these two women and the fantastic world, and I ended up staying up until 2:00 one morning finishing it since I could not put it down. The second book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Defiant Heir, will be released on April 24 (one week from today!) in the US and on April 26 in the UK—and it is absolutely wonderful!

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso

Fighting in Ballgowns

The first time I fought in a fancy gown was an accident. My larp (live action roleplaying) character had just gotten married, and I hadn’t had time to change out of my wedding dress when undead attacked. I scooped up my sword and shield and leaped into the fray, and I made an incredible discovery: I could do battle in my gown just fine. It was so much fun that I fought in that dress all night, until it got too cold and I had to go put on something warmer.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that you could fight in a dress. After all, if you look at the warrior garb of various cultures and time periods throughout history, you see an awful lot of robes, skirts, long tunics, and big swishy pants. But I’d devoured fantasy stories with warrior heroines all through my childhood and teen years, and they’d pretty much all fought in trousers. Some of those characters had to disguise themselves as boys to be allowed to fight at all; some shunned dresses and traditionally girly things across the board. Others had nothing in particular against fancy gowns, but donned breeches for practical reasons.

I can think of only a few exceptions from that era. Princess Leia didn’t hesitate to wield her blaster in a dress, and She-Ra had that kind of Romanesque tennis skirt thing going on. But overwhelmingly, any female characters who were serious about fighting put away their dresses and pulled on the most boring-looking men’s clothes they could find—either that, or steel underwear.

I loved (and still love!) those characters, but as a kid I wanted to have it all. I drew women in gorgeous, flowing gowns with flaming swords. I dressed up my Barbies in their fanciest evening dresses and put them through imaginary adventures. The ongoing story I told myself at night before falling asleep featured a unicorn-riding, sword-wielding princess, and I assure you she was fabulously gowned throughout her various feats of daring and heroism. I didn’t care if it was realistic, because it was awesome.

And then I discovered it actually could be realistic, with the right dress.

Twenty years after that first time fighting in a dress, with much more experience in the subject, I posted a Twitter thread on what I’d found worked and what didn’t, using Disney princess dresses as examples. I fired off that thread on a whim, just for fun, since I’m the sort of person who spends time thinking about things like which Disney princess dresses are the most and least fightable. I didn’t expect it to go viral. But it did, because apparently I’m not the only one who thinks the idea of swordfights in ballgowns is pretty cool.

The fact is, there’s nothing about a dress that makes it inimical to badassery. Skirts can be a problem if they’re long enough to trip on, sure, but plenty aren’t. Despite what you might think from watching Pirates of the Caribbean, corsets are also fine, so long as you don’t lace them too tightly. The real key in battle gown selection is to avoid problematic sleeves: nothing too tight, too dangly, or off the shoulder, so you can have a free and full range of motion.

Okoye’s dress that she wears undercover at the club in Black Panther is a fantastic example of a gown that is both fabulous and fightable, and I’m sure it will surprise no one that I absolutely love that scene. Seeing her kicking butt in all that gorgeous, flowing fabric was just what I always wanted ever since I drew all those warrior princesses as a little girl. There are some other great examples of heroines who do battle in fancy dresses now that weren’t around when I was a kid, too, from Vin in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books to Celaena Sardothien in Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series. I love that we’re seeing more characters who fight without rejecting everything feminine, and I hope their numbers continue to grow.

Even in some of these stories, however, I’m struck by the difference between the often solitary heroines and my experience as one of a large and ever-growing number of female and nonbinary fighters in my larp community. I’ve often sat in a room with friends chatting about what to wear to the upcoming ball, with all the exclaiming over embroidery and fabrics that might evoke scorn in a certain type of stereotypical warrior woman—except that we also discuss whether a sword belt will spoil the waistline, or if a skirt might need hemming to be combat-ready, or whether a bulky sleeve style will fit through a shield strap. I’d love to see more of that kind of scene in stories, where a combination of traditionally feminine things and adventure draws women together, instead of setting them apart from “other girls.”

There was never any reason we couldn’t have both. James Bond dresses up in a tux and gets into all kinds of scrapes; we can do the same in evening gowns. We can dance into the night in fabulous princess dresses and then, when the clock strikes twelve, fend off assassins with a rapier rather than taking the carriage home. You don’t have to dress like a boy to be the best knight in the land—though you can, of course, if you want to.

After all, I like a good badass pants-wearing heroine, too. In THE TETHERED MAGE and its sequels, one of my main characters prefers breeches and the other prefers skirts (though of course I couldn’t resist an action scene or two where they’re both in gowns for fancy occasions). Sometimes your character does need to dress like a man to break out of gender roles in a patriarchal society, or simply finds pants more comfortable. Heck, I wear them most of the time myself.

But other times, there is absolutely no reason not to have swordfights in ballgowns. Because Kid Me was right, and that’s awesome.