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A scene in “Betrothed to the Red Dragon” has my heroine getting dolled up for an important visitor. This is not a date. Rather, she is conveying her respect and her status.

In 5th century Britain, Gwenhwyfar has her maid braid her hair and secure the plaits with glass beads. Combs were essential for men and women, and were carried in a special pouch.

Dye from elderberry reddens Gwenhwyfar’s cheeks, lips, and nails. Dye from another berry darkens her eyebrows. Women (and men) could check their looks in mirrors made of polished bronze or silver.

Celtic mirror

Photographed in the British Museum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Perfume, made from steeping flowers in oils or wine, was applied to skin, combed in hair, and sometimes sprinkled on clothing. Gwenhwyfar opts for lavender, an herb to increase ardor. She doesn’t want to marry, but she will use every weapon she can.

Her male guest, Artorius, is also aware of his appearance and uses it to convey his rank. His cheeks are shaved, and he wears a torc, a silver collar.

Both of them choose clothing with the most expensive dye: red. The color flatters them but not in the way you may think. It is proof they have wealth.

Fussing over appearance is universal thing. We’re making ourselves attractive, sometimes for romance, sometimes to show we’re professional.

For Gwenhwyfar and Artorius, it’s a bit of both.


Early Gaelic Dress: An Introduction by Scott Barrett