Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fact and Fiction: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Two

Suffrage vs. Dress Reform

Given that the members of the women's rights movement lived at a time when there was no scientific evidence against the intensely negative health claims, it is no wonder that they might regard the corset as a death-trap. However, early feminist opposition to the corset is vastly overstated today. To illustrate, see the fashionable photograph of Susan B. Anthony at the end of the 19th century:

Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1895
Based on the smoothness of her bodice and the curve of her waist, we can say that she was clearly wearing a corset even late in her successful career. (Other photographs of Anthony show corsetry as well, as do photographs of other proto-feminists.)

The Dress Reform movement associated with the women's rights movement began in the 1850s, promoting the "freedom suit" or "Bloomer costume" consisting of a loose dress over full trousers, worn without a corset. The suit attracted ridicule from the public instead of praise, and faded into obscurity. Several decades later, the Rational Dress Society (and the Aesthetic/Artistic movement whose clothing derived from the pseudo-medieval pre-Raphaelite costume; it was not overly concerned with woman's position as a whole, mostly remaining the province of the wealthy and bohemian) took up the cause - and even they were more focused on tight-lacing than the corset itself, and tried to distance themselves from the accusations of cross-gender dressing that had been leveled at Bloomers. The idea that women were trying to dress as men had been more of a problem than their getting rid of the corset specifically.

Satire of Frances Power Cobbe, a women's rights reformer, in Punch, 1877: a common stereotype of feminists has always been that instead of insisting on equality, they intend to subjugate men
During this time, most of the people involved with the women's rights movement were occupied with the legal rights of women and the progress of female suffrage. There was not - as there still is not today - a united community composed of all the people working to champion women, and the suffragists did not always cross over with the dress reformers. In fact, women in the suffrage movement frequently used fashionable dress, including the more difficult s-bend corset of the 1900s, to emphasize their respectability and attractiveness and to show their opponents as old-fashioned.

Whenever an inaccuracy is as widespread as this, one has to ask what purpose it serves to the people who eagerly repeat it. Why do we want to perceive early feminism as being tied up with dress reform? And the main answer that occurs to me is: because the popular narratives of women's history and twentieth century history require broad stereotypes. In both, there is the idea that the 1920s were a revolutionary decade, with women winning the right to vote and outdated social mores being flung to the winds after World War I, one of those mores being the necessity of wearing corsets.

In actuality, there was no sudden moment of change. The fashionable figure had changed from a voluptuous hourglass into a shapely column by 1910, requiring a similar change in corsetry; the new corsets did not exert much force on the waistline, and do not fit in with the idea that corsets were meant to force the body into an exaggeratedly sexual shape. From the beginning of the century, the top edge of the corset descended until it was just above the waist during the war years, and rubber and elastic panels were used to increase the garment's flexibility. After the term "corset" fell into disuse, both girdles and corselets (foundation garments that supported the bust as well as the hips, usually fitted with straps) were used as different figures became fashionable: they flattened out curves in the 1920s, slimmed the hips in the 1930s, and created a more hourglass figure in the 1940s and 1950s. It was not until the 1960s and the style revolution of that era that shapewear really became unfashionable.

"A new Thompson Glove-Fitting Corset ...", Corset and Underwear Review, 1920
Another part of this mythology is the idea that women suddenly entered the workforce during World War I and stopped wearing corsets, either because their jobs required more flexibility or to give up the steel to be used in the war effort. Well, women had been working as teachers, clerks, doctors (see also), dentists, journalists, and factory hands for decades before this period - WWI may have opened new doors for women who had not previously needed to work, but it did not create a female workforce. During the war years, corset factories were declared an "essential industry", while men in steel complained that women were buying too many corsets and depleting the raw iron they needed. (Corsets were apparently later declared an inessential industry on the advice of Alice Roosevelt , which has led some to say that she killed the corset - but all this means is that new corsets would have been in shorter supply during that time.)

One reason for the distilled narrative of women's liberation is that it is easier - the story is simple, made up of distinct steps, with obvious cause-and-effect and clear correlations between fashion and women's position in society. However, the idea of a direct progression is also important to many in terms of self-perception: that is, it feels better to see oneself as being at the end of a chain of improvements. Seeing the Victorian and Edwardian eras as a mass of female oppression, followed by women proving themselves and seizing independence during the war, then celebrating and finding more personal freedom during the 1920s, followed by more seized independence during WWII and the clear political gains of the 1960s and 1970s can give one a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that women today have much better lives and more opportunities than ever before. And that is true! But acknowledging that women had more control over their lives and more opportunities during the 19th century can bring the feeling that we haven't come as far as we'd like and are not as free as we think we are.

I have digressed. But to move onto my next sub-point: because the popular narrative of women gaining jobs and suffrage lines up with the popular narrative around dress, they are elided together and it is assumed that the women who fought for suffrage also fought for the abolition of the corset.

That the suffragists were not fighting against the corset despite its general reputation as a health hazard suggests several things. One interpretation is that women may have been relying on their own feelings and experiences in wearing corsets, deciding independently that they were not in pain and did not succumb more easily to illness. The extreme claims from doctors and anatomists of the period would have been easily ignored by women who did not suffer from and knew nobody who suffered from tuberculosis, cancer, or circulatory and digestive problems.

Another is that the women who worked for a reform in the legal and social oppression of women - difficulty in procuring a divorce, inequal pay, fewer property rights, the expectation that they were passive and weak - may not have generally viewed the corset itself as an instrument or symbol of that oppression. Scientifically-minded feminist Lydia Becker was in fact reported in the Rational Dress Society Gazette as telling women to "stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the other sex"; even many of the few female doctors practicing in the 19th century did not speak out against corsets. While some activists did eschew corsets from an early period, most others apparently did not see themselves as needing to get rid of their corsets to achieve equality. That corsets were a manifestation of the societal repression of Victorian women is a later interpretation, not a fact.

Male and female suffragists, the women in corsets and fashionable dress, 1913; Library of Congress LC-B2- 2810-14
Modern scholars and non-academics routinely describe corsets in this way and ascribe their use only to social pressure, falling into the same bent as the scholarship in the Victorian era in characterizing the majority of women as stupid or frivolous fashion-followers, or painting them all as victims. While these scholars see themselves as following in the footsteps of the proto-feminists, the lack of feminist support for the dress reformers means that, in effect, they are actually aligning themselves with Victorian moralizers and misogynists, and are patronizing the very women they intend to support.

And More Fictional

Another part of this misreading of the history of the women's rights movement is our present-day obsession with unconventional heroines in historical fiction. We have much more contact with historical fiction than historical fact, especially if myths perpetrated by docents and fiction are weighted on the former side. We see our current dress as the most acceptable, we value the individual's ability to change society very highly, and we have these popular narratives embedded in our culture: these are layered onto our perception of history and reinforce the inaccuracy. When confronted with facts, people generally insist that the perception they have is correct instead.

Fictional women oppose the corset as individuals who personally dislike it, usually because they find them uncomfortable; their bodies often conform to a more modern, slimmer ideal and they do not benefit from them. (The ideal example of this is of course Elizabeth Swann, of Pirates of the Caribbean - who can forget her fainting into the ocean, or the line, "You like pain? Try wearing a corset"?) They represent the modern woman's publicly stated feeling on restrictive shapewear - it's unnecessary and worn to attract men at the cost of one's comfort.


One heroine who has influenced a great many people's opinion on corsets is Scarlett O'Hara. The iconic book and film scene where she is laced down to a 17" waist is commonly cited in popular articles on the practice by horrified writers. Perhaps Gone With the Wind has achieved something near to the place of a primary source because it was written decades ago ... but, of course, it is not a primary source. It is a work of fiction that was written by a woman who most likely never wore a traditional hourglass corset; moreover, early 20th century commentary frequently mythologized the Victorian era as a far more repressive time than it was in order to play up the new mores and speed of life in the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course, few would actually state that they believe all fiction is objectively true. But historical fiction has a tendency to stick in the mind through its vividness and its ability to set out the thoughts and motivations of people who did not leave much of a record of their personalities. In the case of Shakespeare's Richard III, for example, the fiction was accepted as historical fact for centuries due to its position in the literary canon.

Some vivid fiction is historic, rather than historical: there is a myth, spread by fictional letters written to mainstream Victorian magazines, that young girls were ruthlessly squeezed by sadistic headmistresses in order to get waists many inches smaller than their natural ones. By looking at advertisements, we can see that young girls (of a particular class background) were actually gradually shaped into the fashionable figure, just as modern adult tight-lacers recommend working very, very slowly to reshape the ribcage. Rather than having a ribcage just like ours suddenly pushed into more of a cone, they were molded at a time when their bones were more flexible. Thus, as adults, they would be able, if they wished, to achieve a figure that appears even more extreme to our eyes by reducing only a few more inches.

Another reason for historical fiction's effect is that it can often resonate more with the present than a straight, factual narrative would. A novel about a past war can give its hero an attitude more common to those surrounding a present war; rather than seeing a shapely corset as a desirable symbol of beauty and adulthood, a young woman can display the modern reaction of disgust and distaste. It does not seem a stretch to speculate that historical fiction with more modern attitudes could seem more vibrant and accessible to the modern reader and therefore become more popular than the truth.

I have no scholarly sources or studies to prove that. But it goes a way toward explaining how certain ideas are so frequently ascribed to Victorian women and proto-feminists when they did not actually express these ideas that often, and when modern corset-wearers can and do give their impressions of living regular life in a corset.

(For more on modern corset-wearers, see next Wednesday's post, "It's My Body: Corsetry and Feminism, Part Three".)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Difficult History: Corsetry and Feminism, Part One

Recently, I began following a couple of Tumblr blogs focusing on waist training and daily corset wear. Daily wear is not for me, waist training even less so, but I find it an interesting practice. It is also a controversial one. For example, a recent Huffington Post article, "Corset Queen Penny Brown Loves Getting 'Waisted'," drew comments which were nearly all extremely negative, as do most articles that bring the practice to mainstream attention. Usually, the mental states of the women who waist-train are called into question, and there are numerous references to feminism as incompatible with corsets. The general idea is that the first wave feminists of the late 19th and early 20th century would be horrified by women today wearing them, and that their assumed reaction is an objective statement on the practice.

My feeling is that the subject is complex, and cannot be simply declared feminist or unfeminist. There are far more factors than the average internet commenter allows for.

Historical Context

Prior to the 1870s, the discourse around corseting was overwhelmingly centered on men's disapproval of the practice, with few if any published women's opinions on the matter. Doctors - all male - attributed numerous physical and mental ailments to it; moralists disliked the heightened sexuality it gave the body as well as the vanity it implied; satirists simply saw it as an excellent target, something essentially fashionable that women appeared to be addicted to. This addiction to a garment that the doctors had claimed was fatal allowed them to portray women as frivolous morons: in 1858, Punch baldly stated that "a narrowness of waist betrays a narrowness of mind." Despite the lack of peer-reviewed studies to ensure that a doctor's report was accurate and based on solid data, it was considered appropriate to refer to women "for [the] want of medical knowledge in the sex - clasp[ing] the fatal, idiotic corset on their [daughters'] growing bodies ... so the girl grows up, crippled in the ribs and lungs by her own mother."

"Fiend of Fashion, from an Ancient Manuscript", The Corset and Crinoline, 1868, p. 43
Neither women nor men are immune to socialization. Living in this atmosphere, it makes sense that many women would accept the medical knowledge and hearsay as correct and agree that women who wore corsets - or at least wore corsets the wrong way - were valuing fashion over their very lives, with corsets considered as bad for the health as opium or tobacco. It was taken as a given that tight-lacing while young would result in being "bedridden, anxious, desponding, and wretched; oppressed by the recollection of her early habits [of tight-lacing] ... broken down with suffering", even among women who otherwise approved of well-fitted corsets as beneficial. (Health and Beauty, 1864)

But in looking at the specific health claims made about both tight-lacing and corsetry in general - as well as the unsourced, anonymous reports of corset-caused suffering that are frequently taken as factual today - a modern reader must be critical. For one thing, many of the detractors of corsets were equally concerned about heavy skirts with tight waistbands and tight clothing in general: something nobody today would connect to liver deformity, tuberculosis, or overall ill health.

For another, extant historical corsets do not show extreme reduction. A study of the 18th century stays in the Colonial Williamsburg collection show a range of 24" to 30+" waist circumferences (a range completely ordinary among uncorseted women today). Examining the patterns of extant 19th and early 20th century corsets in Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines, most have waist measurements around 20", at the larger end of the measurements that disgust modern people; however, they also show bust and hip measurements that appear extremely small from a modern perspective. Altogether, they present a picture of women who were generally slimmer than today, lacing tightly enough to achieve a figure more curved than it would naturally have been, but not to any kind of extreme.

The pattern company McCall's sizing chart does not go down to a 20" waist, but the dimensions for a modern, uncorseted woman can be extrapolated from the smallest size to be about 27.5-20-29.5, with a 68% waist:hip ratio and 73% waist:bust ratio. (Please bear in mind that a smaller ratio means a larger difference in measurement.) Meanwhile, Waugh's corsets have waist:hip ratios from 62.5% to 70.5% and waist:bust ratios from 59% to 71% - generally more curvacious than someone with a natural twenty-inch waist, obviously, but not by that much. The examples in Jill Salen's Corsets are generally more workaday and less fashionable, with waist:bust ratios of 66.7% to 87.2% and waist:hip ratios of 73.3% to 84%.

Comparing the numbers, these corsets show little more curviness than would be expected from a comparable woman today. A 20" waist sounds sensational to us, because we pair it with "normal" modern bust and hip measurements: according to the CDC, the average American woman has a 37.5" waist - according to McCall, this would give her a bust of about 44.5" (84.3%) and hips of about 46.5" (80.6%); a roughly size 10 woman with a 30" waist likely has a bust of 38" (78.9%) and hips of 40" (75%). The women who laced to 20" were simply smaller than we are overall, with bust measurements that resemble our underbust measurements. Given this, the potential of even slimmer teenagers lacing without much difficulty to 18" or even 16" does not seem so implausible.

I am assuming for the purposes of simplicity that all corsets were laced fully closed, but this is not necessarily how they were worn. An extra inch or three may have been open. It also must be remembered that the smallest of all garments are what tends to be preserved and that these do not represent average sizes, and also that adding ease to the hip and bust of a corset allows the waist to be cinched tighter by displacing the fatty tissue more easily, meaning that the bust and hip measurements of antique corsets may even be larger than the actual measurements of the women who wore them.

For reference, the dimensions of the corsets in Corsets & Crinolines are: 30-20-30 (late 1820s), 34-24-34 (1844), 28-19-22* (1860), 28-20-32 (1873), 30-18-26 (late 1880s), 30-19-33 (mid 1890s), 34-20-30 (1901), 22**-20-26 (1911), 35**-28-32* (1904), 22-34 (1918), 33-31-37 (1925). Dimensions of corsets in Corsets: 33-22-31 (1830s), 38-26-32 (1840s), 33-22-30 (1860), 31-24-30 (1885), 26**-21-26* (1890), 31-22-28 (1890), 30-21-32 (1890s), 39-34-48 (1890s-1900s), 34-27-32 (1890s), 32-22-28* (1890), 24**-22-26* (1900s), 28**-24-31* (1900s), 24**-21-25 (1914), 30-23-31 (1917).

* above-hip measurement
** underbust measurement
From Golden Thoughts on Chastity and Procreation, 1903, p. 107; Library of Congress - a frequently-cited illustration based on conjecture
Ruinous to the Health

- "[A good female doctor] will tell you that the little belle who laced herself into organic disease of the heart, and lies at death's door ... is no mournful exception ..." (What to Wear?, 1873) It is difficult to prove a negative, but Valerie Steele points out in Corsets: A Cultural History that there is no conclusive evidence tying corsetry to heart disease; additionally, we now know that risk factors for heart disease (still prevalent today, despite our lack of corsets) include many different things, such as age, genetics, blood pressure, smoking, lack of exercise, and other habits.

- "The friction thus produced [by breathing in a corset] occasions a constant irritation of the upper portion of the lung, which induces a deposit of tuberculous matter, and the individual becomes a prey to that dread disease, consumption - a sacrifice to a practice as absurd as pernicious." (Good Health, 1876) Consumption, now known as tuberculosis, is a disease caused by bacteria and spread through the air. Smokers and those suffering from malnutrition have higher risk factors; rather than killing fashionable women, it was primarily a disease of the urban poor. (Good Health also claims that the corset reverses the flow of blood in the heart to cause heart disease. It then goes on to say that women do not naturally have defined waists - there was an obsession with presenting the Venus de Milo as the ideal female figure in contrast to the fashionable corseted woman.)
Fashion in Deformity, 1881, p. 80
- "The lower and stronger parts of the lungs, being thus impeded in their work, the act of breathing - if carried on at all ... must be transferred to the upper and weaker part. ... Everything, therefore, which in any way restricts the free use of all the muscles of the waist and chest, interferes the function of breathing and throws duty upon the weakest part of them, obliging them finally to succumb to the unnatural and self imposed strain." (Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, "The Breath of Life", 1878) The lungs are actually full of alveoli, top and bottom, to take in air and exchange it with carbon dioxide from the blood. Additionally, the average woman has 5.6 times more space in her lungs than is used in an ordinary breath, indicating that a corseted woman not involved in strenuous exercise would likely not have had her breathing significantly obstructed.

- "When post mortem examinations have been made upon the bodies of confirmed corset wearers, a deep furrow has been found crossing the right lobe of the liver. This deformity is so obviously the result of tight corset wearing, that a liver so affected has come to be called a "corset liver." It has been observed in a large number of necropsies upon the bodies of both sexes that gall stones occur three times as frequently in females as in the males. While we cannot assert that improper habits in dress are the cause of this great dissimilarity, yet it is a significant fact that forty per cent of the women so affected were corset wearers." (New England Medical Gazette, "The Diseases of Women Induced by the Prevailing Mode of Dress", 1890) Deformities of the liver are one of the most common problems with corsets cited today, now that some of the more ridiculous claims have been forgotten. And it appears to be true that corsets cause changes to the shape of the liver. However, like the lungs, the liver has a very high reserve capacity: the body does not suffer ill effects if only a small portion of the organ is functioning. It also can regenerate itself when cut into or injured, which is why liver transplants are possible. "Corset liver" is still attested in medical textbooks, but as a condition without symptoms, and it is treated as a relic of the 19th century.

Regarding gallstones, they are still found more frequently in women, despite our lack of corsets. (Note that most of the women with gallstones did not regularly wear corsets; I also find it interesting that 40% of the women being corset-wearers is more significant to the writer than 60% of them not.)

- "The preponderating elongation of the right lobe in corset liver is of value in differentiating the two conditions. ... If the separation is very marked the lobe will appear like a tumor that has no connection with the liver but seems to be connected with some other organ such as the intestine, the kidney, the ovary or the mesentery." (Diseases of the Liver, Pancreas, and Suprarenal Capsules, 1903) It is now known that Riedel's lobe is simply an extra lobe on the right side of the liver that has a higher incidence in women, with no malignancy or association with a decrease in liver function.

- "Now what are the effective causes of cancer? ... Second. - Local irritation of an epithelial surface, as the pressure for a great length of time against the breast of the point of a corset." (Cancer, 1885) (See also Philosophy of Tumour-Disease, 1890, in which corsets cause depressed nipples which cause cancer; AMA Journal, 1894) I believe that today the causes of cancer - genetic and environmental - are sufficiently accepted without citations. Corsets were also connected to abscesses and mastitis: mastitis is usually caused by a blocked milk duct or an infection during lactation, which can and do occur without corsets but was likely contributed to by corset-wearing.

In the late 18th century, the corset's potential use as an agent of miscarriage or abortion was a primary cause of concern from the medical establishment; this was eventually supplanted by the issues above, but did continue in medical discourse in the 19th century. A large part of the outrage surrounding corset-caused miscarriage was that it (theoretically) enabled women to control their reproductive systems or accidentally caused the loss of the children that women were meant to produce in marriage. The corset was supposed to deform women to the point of increasing the difficulty of childbirth, causing birth defects, or of causing the distended abdominal muscles after the birth. A study of tight-laced remains has shown, however, that the pelvis was not deformed to the point of causing problems in childbirth. And even in the late 19th century, writers noted that Native American women without corsets died as a result of childbirth just as frequently as white women, and that a corset could relieve the back pain of late pregnancy. (It should here be noted that women did not, as is popularly supposed today, wear ordinary corsets throughout the pregnancy in order to conceal their bodies: specially designed gestational or maternity corsets curved around the belly to support the growing fetus, with added lacing in front of the hips to increase its girth.)

advertisement, 1913
While opponents of tight-lacing today will sometimes protest that they don't believe that corsets caused breast cancer or TB, it should be noted that the Wikipedia page on "Effects of Tight Lacing on the Body," as created in 2009, was built entirely on these outdated and generally baseless claims. It was not until April 2013 that the article was edited (by myself) to reflect modern sources rather than Victorian ones. I came across the page during a discussion on corsetry in the comments to a post on Jezebel - in fact, I was directed to it as an unbiased source on the damage that corsets did to women's health.

Given that people today have a hard time divorcing corsets from these looming claims of death and disease, it is hardly surprising that many people of the 19th and early 20th centuries believed them implicitly. (Though many more women clearly did not - their own experiences taught them that corsets did not cause disease, and that they did provide necessary back and bust support.) But because we have a more scientific perspective on the matter, we should not appeal to the authority of Susan B. Anthony and her contemporary activists as having an objective view of corsets.

For another reason we should avoid appealing to that authority, see my post on next Wednesday: "Fact and Fiction".

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Latest Patterning Visit

Hello, all! I have a series of meaty posts in the works, but they're not quite ready yet, so let me tell you about the most recent visit I made for patterning at the Albany Institute.


I've really been concentrating on outerwear, as there are so many extant gowns with interesting construction or trims or sleeves or cuts, but because I had the opportunity I took patterns from two chemises. They appeared to be on opposite ends of the book's era: one is very geometric, cut with shoulder straps forming a square neckline, while the other has body and sleeves gathered into a band to form a wide neckline. (Pictured above is the latter.) I'm not sure if they will actually appear in the finished book - it depends on how many gowns I want to include, and probably how much leeway there will be for adding more patterns than expected ... wouldn't a book of shifts/chemises, corsets, petticoats, and drawers be great? Hmm.


One of the things that really attracted me to this project was the prospect of making available garments that are just too delicate or damaged to display - like this bodice. The skirt was removed at some point, perhaps so the fabric could be used in something else, the satin has faded to a dingy pale pink, and the gauze of the sleeves has been flattened and creased. When the gown was actually worn, it would have looked so different! I'm thinking of making a mockup of the sleeves so that my illustrator/mother can get a better idea of how they would have been shaped originally. But they're in the tradition of elaborate, layered and puffed early 1820s evening dress sleeves, and very interesting for those Jane Austen balls.


The above cotton print was used for a day or morning dress that I think will also be very interesting. It's a departure from the usual white muslin day dress, obviously, and it's decorated with a great many self-fabric ruffles. It's also a great example of a dress for a more buxom woman, with fairly wide bust darts.


And last, let me show you (the back of) a usual white muslin day dress. Though of course it's anything but usual - when you look at antique garments up close, you start to realize that nothing is actually "ordinary": there's always something that sets them apart. In the case of this gown, which may have been remade from an earlier Neoclassical dress, there is a strange side-front opening which, according to some notes in the file, only appears on a few other gowns in this country. So not representative of a usual mode of dress construction, but if you've already made several Regency dresses and are looking for a new variation ... (The belt is quite short, probably being pinned in front with a brooch.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wedding Dress, 1905

Wedding photo of Grace Louise Fenton Ross, 1983.15.7
(Dress itself is 1983.15.4a-b, pattern at link.)

It's possible that a lot of lingerie dresses in collections were worn as wedding dresses - around the turn of the century, they were very popular for that use. Being white, they fit into the already-established but mainly upper-class wedding dress tradition, but being cotton, they were more affordable. Additionally, these white cotton dresses were fashionable and could be worn after the wedding, just as most women had done in earlier decades with colored gowns.

The belt from this one is gone, but the rest of the dress is in wonderful shape, apart from some yellowing. It is full of time-consuming details - lace insertion, pintucks - but because the fitting is achieved through the waistband and large pleats on either side of the back (the bodice is very loose and tucks into the skirt), it was a style ideal for the dawning of the age of ready-to-wear.

Judging by the photograph, the dress seems to have had drapey oversleeves that were later removed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Drawers, 1930s

CHM 1992.5.4 (pattern available at link)
These drawers - tap pants, they're more commonly called now - were made by a Mrs. Shattuck who ran a "sewing room" in downtown Glens Falls. (The information came from the donor; there's nothing at all about Mrs. Shattuck that I can find online, although there was a local Shattuck family.) Made of a slippery silk or rayon, they're entirely hand-sewn with grey silk thread.

I've actually used this pattern twice now to make tap pants for myself as part of my new home sewing regimen. The first time, I used a very nice, heavily patterned rayon charmeuse and I sewed them by hand. The only changes I made were to widen them a bit, leave off the lace, and hem the edges instead of binding them. And I used snaps instead of buttons. Some of these were bad choices! The pants are meant to sit at the waist, not on the hips, so I shouldn't have widened them so much; the snaps have a tendency to pop when I move, although that might not happen if they were won over a girdle the way they were intended. For the second pair, I fixed these issues - using buttons instead of snaps and only widening them about an inch - but also sewed them on the machine (much, much better on my wrist, and faster) and used a blue cotton lawn from a past bustle dress. I'm pretty happy with them so far!

Although I still couldn't make the automatic buttonholer work. Has anyone ever? Is there a trick to it?

If you like the look but aren't comfortable scaling up the pattern, Mrs. Depew has a couple of similar patterns from the 1930s and 1940s.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Jeanne Adèle Bernard (1872-1962)

Maison Jenny is one of the hardest couture firms to learn about - but if you look through fashion plates and magazines, she is all over.

According to a blog, Jeanne Adèle began working under Jeanne Paquin, and then under Béchoff David (another little-known master). Her own house opened sometime between 1908 and 1910; the sources I've found disagree, but the earliest mention of Jenny that I can find is from 1910, in the caption of a photograph. There is no other text.
"Dainty afternoon costume", Theatre Magazine, October 1910
But her star soon rose. In a 1912 trade magazine, specific Jenny models are noted several times, and in one case she is described as a style arbiter. In a tariff hearing in January 1913, in the testimony regarding a man accused of importing Paris labels for fraudulent purposes, all of the labels are listed - they're listed generally in order of importance, and Jenny's name rests right in the middle, between the geniuses and the unknowns. And, most significantly, a few years later Jenny's designs appeared in the Gazette du Bon Ton alongside Worth, Chéruit, Paquin, and others.
from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1915
from Gazette du Bon Ton, 1915
From that point on, Jenny was solidly a member of the couture elite, constantly being reported on in trade magazines and the public's fashion press.

This fame lasted at least through the early 1920s. (In the 1922 volume of Harper's Bazar, she may be the most written-about of all the couturiers.) Unfortunately, after this point copyright laws kick in and fashion magazines and plates are more difficult to find: one has to rely on secondary sources by people who've been able to read through the periodicals in person, but in the case of Jenny, nobody has cared to.

According to the internet, Jenny went into decline during the 1930s. A number of fashion houses struggled then, in part because of the economic climate, but by this point Jeanne herself was in her 60s - an age when many retire. In 1938, the house was merged with Lucile Paray, a designer who was apparently more successful during the decade. (Of course, as usual, there is little-to-no information about Paray.)

Friday, August 1, 2014

In Defense of Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Since my Gatsby post was so successful, I thought I'd follow up with my equally controversial thoughts on Pride & Prejudice (2005). No, much more controversial. Sorry! But my overall opinion of the costuming is positive for a number of reasons.

I have to start off with a disclaimer: I'm just talking about the costuming - my friend Rose wrote a very good post about issues with the writing, although I didn't entirely agree with her - and I'm not saying it's better in costuming or as a whole than the 1995 version. Frankly, the two are so far apart that I hardly see them as the same thing and don't really compare them. One is a faithful, longer form adaptation and one is a more romanticized retelling in shorter form. Though I do think it's odd that the more sexual additions with Colin Firth don't get the same treatment as some of the changes with Knightley and MacFadyen MOVING ON!

The main trouble with the costuming in P&P2005 is that the designer, Jacqueline Durran, mixed the artistic and the accurate without committing enough to either aspect. In short, the more accurate costumes come off as unattractive and the more artistic costumes come off as inaccurate. It's really too bad, because the accurate costumes are decently accurate, and the artistic costumes combine modernity and history in a visually pleasing way.