Bonnets that Deserve Better: A Dozen Ugly Ducklings in the Met’s Headwear Collection

I love a good bonnet, even if badly photographed. <3

Museum photography has come a long way in the past decade. I remember when the only way to explore a museum’s collection was to physically travel to view an exhibit in person, be buddies with a curator, or read about them in textbooks, sometimes with a blessed-but-grainy black and white picture the size of a domino. Now museums around the world have their collections photographed and available for free online!

We have gone from this:

To this:

Bonnet, circa 1870

Huzzah! Hooray! Oh, happy day!

And believe me, I am infinitely grateful. But, I am also infinitely concerned with systematic forward progression and implementing improved standards of quality (i.e. I am demanding and persnickety). Today, I am picking on the Met because the Met is one of my favorite museums. They seem open and honest about their collections– even candidly blogging about some drawings in their collection were massively mis-attributed! You can even give them feedback about their website, rating it and saying what you liked and what you didn’t. I appreciate their openness and make full use of it. MMoA, you asked for it!

In my many invested hours of research (i.e. PINTEREST), I have discovered many beautiful Met Museum objects with hideous photos, in particular, 19th century bonnets and hats. Granted, there are plenty of hideous objects with lovely pictures as well. There is clearly a miracle-working photographer in the costume department because they made this clunky sunbonnet look so lovely I kind of want it…which is saying something because I LOATHE 19th-century sunbonnets!

Cotton Sunbonnet, circa 1860
This photo makes it look good enough to actually wear!

Now, compare that picture with this one:

Sunbonnet, circa 1838
Ah, there’s the warm, familiar hatred again. If Jedi had to wear sunbonnets, I would instantly become a Sith. No questions! Sunbonnet Crusher duty? SIGN ME UP!

Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating a little. You see, that second bonnet isn’t terrible at all! In fact, it’s actually way more adorable than the photo lets on. It’s made of a spotted calico that’s kind of polka-dotty from a distance, it’s got pinked trim, a nifty straw brim, and a sweet bow perched on top. But that photo just does not do it justice when you compare it to other bonnet photographs in the collection:

Snedden Designer Bonnet with Pearls, circa 1883
(another bonnet that has benefited from the leap in photography technology)

Velvet Evening Bonnet, 1802

Bonnet, circa 1887

“But, Liz! Those are all fashionable, fancy-lady bonnets! You can’t compare a daytime 1850s sunbonnet to a 1880s millioneress’s bonnet!”

True: there are many bonnets of vastly different styles, decades, price-points and occasions, but being fancier doesn’t make them any less likely to be photographed poorly. The Met does not discriminate based on social class! Case in point:

Which of these two photos looks like a million bucks to you?

I started making note of all the bonnets I found that were begging for a better photo. The list was quite long! However, I narrowed it down to just a few.

MOST of the bonnets are this list were not picked just because I thought they needed a prettier photo–though, confession: some are on the list because they are OMGorgeous! There are so many pretty-but-not-artistically-photographed bonnets in the Met’s collection, like this early 19th century bonnet. However, many of them, despite their flash-blasted, yellow-tinged photographs, still shine through with clear detail. Instead, I chose bonnets that I thought were actively hampered by their photo– those with great texture that was lost, fit that was hard to judge, or colors that weren’t properly portrayed, all details that are actively explored and sought after by costume and textile researchers.

THE TOP 10 BONNETS AT THE MET THAT DESERVE BETTER PHOTOS!

#10: “Ye Old Bonnet?!” circa 1799-1810

Originally #10 was this straw bonnet that I loved the shape of, but there is no view of the front. However, I stumbled upon this bonnet/headdress just before publishing my list. I was so intrigued, I knew it had to be on the list! There is no other “bonnet” like it in the Met’s collection and if that date is correct (question: has anyone seen something like this from the era?), it would make it one of the earliest pieces in the bonnet sub-category. I want to know more!

#9: “Happy Spring Day in a Dust Storm” Bonnet, circa 1860

This is one of those “It’s just so pretty it needs to be shown off!” bonnets. The layers of trimmings are so lovely, but the dingy, grainy photo does its richness a great disservice.

#8: “Black Velvet Mystery” Bonnet, circa 1850

This bonnet already has a beautifully lit, crisp new photo, yet, it’s impossible to tell how it fits! It’s listed as a bonnet, but the shape and fit isn’t obvious. Does it perch on the back of the head? Is it a child-sized cap? Or is it bigger than it looks? This is a piece that would really benefit from a display head.

#7: “Snow Princess” Lace Bonnet, circa 1885-90

Another stunner suffering from bad lighting and graininess! This bonnet is mummified in lovely lace, has a velvet edge, and a feather on top! The interplay of textures and true color are lost, though, and the angle of the two photos almost look like two different hats! Click here to see the second photo of the back. You’ll see what I mean. Also, this hat has a photo of the designer’s label, but it’s not listed in the description (J. Pendlebury / Wigan). This was a very expensive hat during its day! It would be so lovely for a bride.

#6: “Scarlet’s Envy” Promenade Bonnet, circa 1851-1862

The vast majority of the Met’s mid-19th century bonnet collection suffers from small, badly-lit photos. I imagine they must have been doing them all in a  swift batch in order to give us, the demanding costuming community, visual references. The Met has worked hard to get photos for every object’s online catalogue page! They are getting closer to achieving that goal. I am so thankful for their hard work. However, this gal is beautiful, but the silk gathers and layers upon layers of delicate trimming aren’t very well portrayed. I also think it’s later in date than listed. Any bonnet experts have a firmer date for it?

#5: “Autumnal Delight” Bonnet, circa 1864-1867

This bonnet is just fabulous! At first I thought that it was a lovely example of straw work, but then I read the description…can you believe this bonnet is made of horsehair?! I would have never guessed!  Once again, the small, grainy photos erase this bonnet’s main draw: the unique materials and lush interplay of textures. Just look at those woven plumes and tiny tassels! This is probably my personal favorite bonnet on the list. I would wear it in a heartbeat.

#4: “The WAT?!” Bonnet, circa 1800-1925

I’m calling this one that “WAT?!” bonnet not because I find it poorly designed (though the display certainly makes it look odd), but because it is in desperate need of a cleaning, some context, and a more accurate date. 125 YEARS, MET?! REALLY?! This bonnet/hat is from around 1900 and would have been paired with a Gibson Girl hairstyle, hence the shallow back (to fit around a chignon) and large forward swoop (to go over the puffy pompadour front). It even has a designer label inside that they photographed, but the cataloger failed to note in the description. It’s not a show-stopping hat by any means, but it certainly deserves better basic cataloguing in addition to a fresh photo!

#3: “Cinderella” Bonnet/Cap, circa 1845-50

Just look at that lace and ribbon! Wow! Even in that terrible lighting, it looks amazing. However, the image is small and grainy, so you can’t see all the wonderful details. This one is just too pretty not to have a better photo!

#2: “Faceplant” Poke Bonnet, circa 1840-69

This bonnet is so sad! It looks like a jellyfish washed up on the shore or a snail trying to crawl away. I suppose if you were a nice “Sunday’s best” bonnet that got labelled as a poke bonnet, you’d be sad, too. This bonnet would be so much happier if its beautiful silk satin shirring and lace were properly photographed on a stand or mannequin!

#1: “Moping Mop” Ribbon Bonnet, circa 1841

The last bonnet  looked sad, but this poor bonnet is actively trying to hide. Perhaps it’s in such poor shape that this is the only way to display it (like this crumbling 1830s straw bonnet), but it’s completely impossible to tell that it’s even a cap/bonnet. What’s even odder is that unlike many of the bonnets in the collection which suffer from dating swathes that range from a generalized 20 year period to the egregious 125 YEAR RANGE OMG MET WTF, this bonnet has been dated precisely to 1841. In addition, it was purchased with donation money in 1982, apparently by choice. Either it was part of a lot that had other pieces in it the Met wanted and the cap just came with, or they purposefully bought it, possibly with provenance granting it such a firm date, like a letter or label. And yet, here it is, just flopped on a table like a mound of seaweed.

The more I looked at these bonnets with less-than-ideal photos, the more I realized how shallow and callous it was to judge a bonnet by its photo. In our massively visual online culture, objects with the prettiest images often get sharing priority, meaning that many perfectly fabulous fashions get ignored! This affects not only personal research, but can affect the quality of conservation, too. Many objects that receive well-made professional photographs often receive special cleaning and repairs in order for them to display and photograph to the object’s best advantage. In a collection like the Met’s–with over 300+ bonnets alone– such a large undertaking would involve not only lots of time, equipment, and effort from the photographer(s), but a large investment from the conservation department– and let’s face it: we may love bonnets, but there are probably more pressing conservation projects than cleaning a common straw sunbonnet, no matter how cute it is.

Interested in seeing more awesome bonnets with horrific pictures?
Click here to view the Met’s bonnet collection online

Let me know which one is your favorite! Is it a delicate straw bonnet from the 1840s? A sky-high feathered stunner from the 1880s? A tubular Regency poke bonnet? Post a link below so I can see it!

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Exploding Roosters, Cloches, and Nellie Mae: The Best Hats Currently for Sale from Augusta Auctions

This is one of those “fluff” posts I love to write when I find something that just tickles me to death.

Augusta Auctions is a vintage/antique textile seller that always has tons of gorgeous stuff up for grabs. I drool over their gowns all the time! However, in their October 25th catalogue, it wasn’t the gowns that caught my eye, but something else entirely.

This latest sale has a superb selection of super-sassy hats and bonnets!

There are plenty of totally fab-o 1880s and 1890s hats with to-die-for trimmings:

Feast your eyes on all that glorious texture! Mmmmmmm…..

1950s and 1960s class and quirk:

Bill Cunningham hat, 1950s

Bill Cunningham Beach Hat, circa 1960
I’ve fondly dubbed this the “Rooster Explosion” hat. I need it. I have the hat basket to make it…

There are also some low-key-cool 1920s hats (with model heads that seemed a little embarrassed to be listed next to the Rooster Explosion) that would fit right in on the later seasons of Downton Abbey:

Two Cloches, circa 1920
So tight lipped! Grandma’s hat mannequins do not approve!

Going back even further, you’ll find the same bedroom-eyed gals modelling another pair of hats, this time from around 1915:

Pair of Blue velvet hats, circa 1915
Matching your eyeshadow to your hat: yay or nay?

And while all those hats are glorious and some are even grand, they are still not what caught my eye when I was scrolling through the online auction catalogue! It was not the stunning straw weaving or the elegant embroidery or even the Rooster Explosion that spurred me to revive my blog after months of total silence. It wasn’t even the sourpuss Bouvier Sisters display heads that made my day.

It was this face that suddenly flashed onto my screen and into my heart:

BEHOLD! Nellie Mae, the antique wax hat model with No Hecks Left to Give!

This is the orange, waxy visage of a Victorian woman who just cannot process the utter hogwash she just heard and is giving you Ye Olde Internal Eyeroll.

These are the eyes of a woman who has survived everything from face-smothering balloon sleeves to monokinis and greets each fresh fashion faux pas with “That’s…..interesting.”

These are the tired eyes of a Victorian woman watching a modern “historical drama” where everyone is complaining about corsets, there isn’t a hairpin in sight, and NONE of the women are wearing hats, but since she was sculpted without hands, she is cruelly denied the ability to facepalm.

This is the expression every woman wears when she’s seen everything, done everything, and had it up to HERE with all that heckin’ ballyhoo, giving that curt little smile every woman knows is reserved for those times where you have to be polite but, golly you just wanna be left alone/punch someone!

Is she angry? Is she sad? Is she happy? NO! After 100 years, she has transcended the realm of emotion to the blissful plane of blasé ennui.

Nellie Mae is that friend that’s all sweet tea, quiet conversation, and floral arrangements until you push her just a little too hard and BAM! The Southerners can hear the “Bless your precious little heart” that’s waiting just behind those pert little lips.

Nellie Mae: My new Hat Heroine!

I love her so much! She’s got so much personality and, dang, she has great taste in hats! ;)
The rest of the auction catalogue can be viewed here (there’s a pair of 1920s marabou robes that you simply MUST see!).

 

Call the Fashion Police! I’m Wearing an Illegal Hatpin!

To keep my hats jaunty but secure at Edwardian events, I use one of my antique, pre-ban hatpins. Pre-ban? What’s that? Well, as silly as it may sound to us, in the 1910s, cities around the globe passed laws outlawing certain sizes of hatpins! Why would governments and police departments waste valuable time outlawing fashion accessories?
Until about 1970, hats were a major part of a woman’s wardrobe. They have varied in size, material, and decor, but one of the primary problems with hats is that, if caught by a gust of wind, it can easily escape from you! Ladies have employed a variety of methods to avert this: making the hat deep enough that it sit snugly on the head or using ribbons to tie them down, wire loops that grasp your head (many 1950s hats use this method), or clips and combs that grab onto your hair. One of the most popular antique methods we no longer use was the hatpin. Hatpins hold your hat on securely by attaching your hat to your hairstyle. That way, as long as your bun is secure, your hat can’t fall off or blow away in the wind! It also helps perch the hat high on your head so it’s not smashing your hairdo or hiding your face. To wear one, you position your hat as desired, thrust the pin through one side of the crown, carefully sliding it under a portion of your hair, and then pushing the pin back out the other side of the hat.

Sort of like this…
The closer yo can get the pin to your scalp, the better. But watch out! You don’t want to jab yourself!

Hatpins  started out as wimple pins used to hold women’s veils in place as far back as Roman times. Those pins were fairly small. However, as women’s headwear changed, so did the pins. It was during the late 18th century– when outrageous large hats perched on outrageously large hairdos–that hatpins first began to appear. Hatpins didn’t truly become common until the mid-to-late 19th century when hats overtook bonnets as the most fashionable form of headwear. A hatpin became an indispensable part of a well-dressed woman’s wardrobe. Victorian hats were fairly small for the most part, but as the turn of the century drew near, the hats grew larger and more elaborate…not unlike the giant hats of 100 years earlier.

Mary Boteler by John Hoppner, 1786

Publicity photo of performer Rhonda Ray, circa 1903-1907

Les Modes Hats, circa 1907

Hats and hairstyles in the Edwardian era were enormous, requiring equally enormous hatpins– often so long and sharp that they could not only jab you, but anyone that got too close to you. Indeed, at over a foot long and made of rigid steel, an Edwardian hatpin makes a formidable weapon! There are even poems, books, and songs written about women defending themselves with hatpins! Mugger trying to get your purse? STAB ‘EM! Pervert “mashing” (harassing) you on the train? EN GARDE!

Poke me, eh? I’LL POKE YOU!

Newspapers published many stories about women defending themselves with their hatpins– including in Chicago, one of the first cities to institute  hatpin laws. In 1902 the Chicago Tribune published an article about Jaunite Bonneau– one of the first female couriers for Western Union– defending herself with “Fists and Hatpin” against a group of young male attackers– and being completely blamed for hurting the lads that attacked her.

You can find even more Chicago Tribune articles about hatpins being used as weapons in their searchable archives. Most have a rather negative view of hatpins and the women wielding them, but there are a few articles that mention their use in a more positive light, including this 1898 blurb about Barbara Stack who “routed street car robbers with a hatpin” or this 1907 horror story about a woman defending herself from a kidnapping rapist.

The uniquely feminine weapon did not sit too well with men used to submissive ladies, so beginning in 1908, they began passing laws limiting the length of hatpins, usually to no more than 7-9 inches. Other cities passed regulations requiring safety caps for hatpins rather than outright banning longer ones. This seemed like a much more practical approach to the problem of accidental stabbings– a naked pin point sticking out of a hat could accidentally injure people around you– though requiring a cap rendered the pin much harder to use for self-defense, too. Other cities allowed longer, uncapped pins, but they could stick out no more than 1/2″ or you could face a hefty fine— including paying reparations:

From the Boston Sacred Heart Review April 12, 1913.
It is probably not a coincidence that the notice about outlawing hatpins as weapons appears just below an article about militant suffragettes in England.

Male lawmakers weren’t just making idle threats, either. Women vehemently opposed the laws and some ladies were even arrested for wearing long or uncapped pins in their hats, especially suffragettes. Yes, policemen would actually stop women to inspect their hats for illegal hatpins. For example, here’s a clip from a newspaper article about arresting women with long hatpins. At a fierce 13 inches long, my hatpin could have landed me in the slammer if I wore it without a permit after 1908!

Pre-ban Hatpin on the left, 13″ long circa 1900
“Legal” hatpin on the right, 7″ long circa 1890-1915
Somewhat ironically, the shorter hatpin is sharper. You could definitely still defend yourself easily with it!

Hatpins do require extra attention in order to wear them safely. Truth be told, a properly worn hatpin should not be noticeable at all when worn. It should hide amid your hat trimmings, showing only the bejeweled end if it has one. The sharp end shouldn’t not stick out more than an inch (unless it also has a decorative cap as some 1910-1950 hatpins do).  If you are like me and have a hatpin a bit too long for your hat, you must be very careful when giving hugs or taking selfies with friends, not to mention being careful not to stab yourself! However,  hatpins are incredibly important if you want to wear historical hats properly…or defeat hooligans.

Post-ban newspaper articles take a decidedly dark view of women using hatpins. Many reference the violent protests of women’s rights activists as proof that women could not be trusted with sharp objects, no matter how prettily decorated:

Whether the hatpin ban made women adopt smaller hats or whether the natural flow of fashion made the edicts obsolete, it’s hard to say, but as the 1910s progressed, hats changed to sit lower on the head and slowly shrunk in scale. By 1920, a decade after the hatpin laws passed, women had adopted shorter hair, shorter skirts, and close-fitting cloches that didn’t need hatpins at all. American women also got the vote so we could fight to wear what we want!

A fight for fashion is a fight for freedom!

I actually don’t know when–or even if!– places like Chicago, New Orleans, and Melbourne repealed their hatpin bans…for all I know, it’s one of those weird laws left on the books after all these years and I’m technically a criminal in some municipalities!

COME AND GET ME, FASHION POLICE!

Easy Edwardian Day Out – Thistle Hill House Tour with the DFWCG

Family, Friends, and Fashion!

My birthday was this past week, so when the DFW Costumers Guild scheduled Edwardian Day Out that weekend, of course I had to go! We visited Thistle Hill, a stately old house from 1904. It’s surrounded by hospitals and parking garages. Thank goodness they saved this old house from becoming another concrete car park!

Thistle Hill is a little patch of green in the middle of the medical district.
I’ve always been slightly confounded by urban Texas. On the one hand, Texans are fiercely proud of their history, particularly their 19th century pioneer heritage. On the other hand, they are capitalist to a fault and if a plot of land is worth more as parking lot than a historic house….hello new parking lot! Not many 19th century buildings are left and many that remain are in terrible disrepair. Dallas has lost the vast majority of its pre-1930 historical architecture. Fort Worth still has some of its older neighborhoods and storefronts, but many folks drive a few hours to surrounding towns like Waxahachie just to see Victorian houses! Thank goodness for for places like HFW and Dallas Heritage Village which have helped preserve historical architecture in the Metroplex.

I was going to wear my green version of Butterick 6093 again, but the week before, I found a lavender bridesmaid skirt at Goodwill that was freakishly similar to the one Becky owns!

In addition, I have a giant green tub full of *literal pounds* of Easy Edwardian stuff I’ve hoarded over the years, so I dug it out and settled on a modern cotton blouse with a fussy ruffle down the front and a vintage burgundy leather belt.

LITERAL POUNDS.

Turns out my giant tub of stuff would come in handy again: we invited Becky’s mother, Marcella, to come along for her first costumed outing. She found a lacy maxi skirt and needed a blouse and hat to go with it– and the Tub provided!

Marcella’s fabulous first historical costume. She made her coordinating drawstring purse herself!

Now, I won’t say definitively that I endorse costume hoarding, but by golly does having a variety of costuming pieces in a range of styles and sizes come in handy! It’s great for helping new-to-the-hobby friends or pulling together a last-minute outfit when nothing you’ve made fits or suits your fancy.

Time to check the Green Tub, girl! The Green Tub’s got you covered!

After being wadded up in the tub for months, my blouse needed a good pressing. To turn a modern collared blouse into a more Edwardian-esque shirtwaist, simply iron the collar flat to remove the fold. This will make it stand up like the high-collars of yesteryear! You can wrap the collar wings over each other and hide the wrap with a jabot or brooch, or do as I prefer and just fold the front tips back.

Thanks to the Tub, there was no last minute event sewing needed! It was nice to spend 2 hours planning and pressing an outfit rather than 2 days or 2 weeks frantically sewing. The most time consuming part– aside from doing my hair– was trimming my hat. Okay, so I guess that counts as sewing because I had to tack town the trimming…but it only took about 20 minutes!

This particular hat has been in my collection for years, but this is the first time I’ve had an outfit to wear it with. I originally purchased it from Dilliard’s. Usually their hats are SUPER SPENDY, but if you go at the right time, like a post-Easter sale, they mark down their hats a ton– I got this one at 80% off! However, it is still the most expensive hat I’ve ever purchased for myself. The fluffy puffball is the original decor. It’s not really Edwardian looking by itself, but the vintage brooch from my 1890s hat helped tame the goofy poof somewhat.

My belt and shoes were a purple-tinged maroon, so to *tie* the hat in with the outfit, I decorated it with a sliced-n-diced neck*tie* of a similar shade:

Ha ha! Puns.
Thrift store neckties are great for decorating hats. They’re another one of those costume bits that I hoard…

The tour itself was a bit expensive ($20) and felt rushed. The house is a popular event space for dinners and weddings, so there were tables and chairs out everywhere and the staff was preoccupied with clearing the space after a dinner the previous day. However, the house is lovely and the ticket allows you to tour another local historical home, too. The biggest surprise was that the ticket is also valid for a full year! So we can go back again as many times as we like! I think there are a few more Edwardian events in our future.

Check out the full Flickr Album here: Edwardian Day Out

And check out the DFW Costumers Guild website for more info about the group and future events!

 

 

Fashion and Feminism: Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute and the Hunt for a Healthful Corset

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Portrait of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute in an article commenting on her corset research and practice (among other things), 1890s.

Before I proceed, I am going to ask that you read this post with the following disclaimer in mind:

I do not fluently read/speak French. Therefore the translations provided below are courtesy of Google Translate, which is not perfect. I tried to verify the translations through multiple dictionaries to ensure that I am not misinterpreting the author’s intent, but sometimes things can be lost in translation which is why I have provided the original French alongside the Google English translations.

 

le-corset

Wikimedia’s photograph archive from the book “Le Corset” written by Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute c. 1900 showcases a wide variety of body shapes in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period. The book has illustrations (photographs overtraced by hand) of women of many body types modelling the “old” corset style from the 19th century and the “new” corset style we call the S-bend or flat front corset, which was supposed to prevent lower tummy expansion and be healthier than the older style.

captureClick here to see all the illustrations.

As you go through the photos, notice all the women the have lower belly paunch that comes from age, childbirth, medical conditions, weight gain, gravity, and from wearing corsets which push belly fat and organs downwards– effects which Gaches-Sarraute wished to correct with her new corset design.

This revolutionary and controversial book is one of the most famous pieces of corset literature from the early 20th century.
(The other, also titled “Le Corset” but by a different author, contains the infamous corset x-rays)

You may already be familiar with some of the images from the book, if not the book itself:

Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute vehemently opposed the Victorian corset because of the health problems she observed–like hernias, constricted ribcages, displaced organs, and weakened muscles–in the women wearing them. At first glance, the book may seem decidedly anti-corset and has lent much to the modern hatred/fear of the garment. However, the author herself states that she is not anti-corset:

“I could not think propose the abolition of the corset, we have seen elsewhere that has its uses; it is towards the elimination of its main drawbacks I directed my efforts.
Original French: “Je ne pouvais songer à proposer la suppression du corset, nous avons vu d’ailleurs qu’il a son utilité; c’est vers la suppression de ses principaux inconvénients que j’ai dirigé mes efforts.”

In fact, she is pro-corset, but only if the garment was made to more healthful standards. Her goal was quite a noble one: to improve the overall health of women by changing what she saw as the root cause of many female health problems— bad corsets.
Thus she designed a new support of her own:

Fig. 7 – Corset Gaches-Sarraute

It is very similar to the girdles that we see later in the century and still wear. In many advertisements, the short, light-reduction version of the S-bend corsets closest to Gaches-Sarraute’s original design are called “girdle corsets.”

It was meant to support the organs from below, free the chest from compression, and encourage “proper” posture. She believed her new corset design not only helped women’s organs, but improved their beauty and mental health. This design became the basis for the S-bend or straight front corset that took the fashion world by storm during the first decade of the 20th century.

With an abdominal corset that supports and relaxes her, the woman has less drawn features, eyes less circled, she is more vivacious, more energetic…Many women, sick without the cause of their condition being well determined, condemned to an almost constant repose, are now vigorous, healthy, able to walk, and without exaggerating, are reborn to life. Did the simple change of corset produce such results? Yes, because to this day all corsets, constructed without rules or laws, acted in the opposite direction to natural indications, and thwarted all physiological functions.”
Original French: “Avec un corset abdominal qui la soutient et la repose, la femme a les traits moins tirés, les yeux moins cernés, elle est plus vivace, plus énergique…Bien des femmes, malades sans que la cause de leur état fût bien déterminée, condamnées à un repos presque constant, sont aujourd’hui vigoureuses, bien portantes, peuvent marcher et sans rien exagérer renaissent à la vie.Le simple changement de corset a-t-il pu donner de tels résultats? Oui, parce que jusqu’aujourd’hui tous les corsets, construits sans règles, ni lois, agissaient en sens inverse des indications naturelles et contrariaient toutes les fonctions physiologiques.”

As we know now, the S-bend was not the cure-all Gaches-Sarraute hoped for. It came with its own set of problems.
Though the distended lower stomach caused by the older style of corset was considered unsightly and unhealthy, it had the advantage of allowing viscera some means of expansion. The S-bend/straight front corset did indeed keep the organs from being distended downward, but instead, it pressed them up, much as pregnancy does. The long, rigid front of the S-bend corset could become very uncomfortable since pressure from meals, gas, urine, menstral/hormonal changes, etc. has nowhere to expand except up against the diaphragm. This was not directly the fault of Gaches-Sarraute’s medically-minded design, but the effect was exacerbated by fashion adaptations made by mass manufacturers (as is so often the case, isn’t it?). Many straight front corsets made for the mass market extended too high on the body to allow for expansion of the ribs and upwards movement of the organs.

W. H. K. & S. “Ascot” Straight Fronted Corset Ad, 1902
Notice how much higher it extends compared to Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute design.

Modern corsets suffer from similar problems as we value the straight front, but crave full coverage to avoid unsightly bulges. This hybridization contributes in large part to the corset’s uncomfortable reputation as mass-manufacturers focus on overall slimness rather than the comfort of their wares. Without room left at the top and bottom of the corset to allow for the expansion and movement of flesh, tubular fashion corsets press too much everywhere, leading to chafing, numbness, breathlessness, and constriction. Coupled with general ignorance of how corsets should fit and be worn, it’s no surprise that the garment has gained such a painful reputation.

Inès Gaches-Sarraute and corset-lovers everywhere are cringing so hard right now.

The size/looks-before-comfort method of corset wearing has always been a problem.
Yes, even Victorian and Edwardian women wore ill-fitting or improperly worn corsets, often purchased “off the rack” in shops or through catalogs.  It’s a common myth that everything was perfectly tailor-made to fit by the women themselves. By the mid-19th century, corsets were manufactured in large factories and purchased much as we purchase a pair of jeans today.
Victorian women were number-conscious just like us, too!

Women have heard from their friends about a corset that looks good, which makes a pretty size [waist] – that is the only fact that interests them: they want to wear it, hoping to benefit also from an aesthetic point of view; But as their physiological state and conformation differ, if the corset is applied under the same conditions it produces the contrary effect and hurts them.
Original French: “Elles ont entendu parler par leurs amies d’un corset dont on se trouve bien, qui fait une jolie taille — c’est le seul fait qui les intéresse: elles veulent le porter, espérant en bénéficier, elles aussi, au point de vue esthétique; mais comme leur état physiologique et leur conformation diffèrent, si le corset est appliqué dans les mêmes conditions il produit l’effet contraire et leur fait mal.”

On this point, Gaches-Sarraute and modern corsetiers absolutely agree: do not sacrifice fit for looks! Fortunately for modern corset makers, the corset’s recent rise in popularity has increased awareness of proper fit. Gaches-Sarraute’s principles play heavily into modern corset design, like reduction points closer to the hips, cupped ribs to allow room for comfortable breathing, and embracing the underbust cut for ease of movement.

Gaches-Sarraute’s underbust design was revolutionary. For the first time in over 300+ years of corset evolution, the female breast was not held within the corset. This was a big change. The low front leaves the bust unsupported and pulls weight from the abdomen upwards, creating a top-heavy apple shape with natural-state breasts, which didn’t suit the Victorian feminine ideal of defined hourglass curves. Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute saw this as an bothersome, but positive side effect:

There is therefore a reform to bring to the costume, tedious reform, but which is necessary. The woman who wishes to wear the abdominal corset must not allow herself to be stopped by this modification; She must not hesitate to subject her clothes to the radical transformations required by the apparatus.
Original French: “…il y a donc une réforme à apporter au costume, réforme ennuyeuse, mais qui s’impose. La femme qui veut porter le corset abdominal ne doit point se laisser arrêter par cette modification; il ne faut pas qu’elle hésite à faire subir à ses vêtements les transformations radicales exigées par l’appareil.”


This is the sort of loose, unrestrictive clothing Gaches-Sarraute was probably expecting.

Fashions did change, but not quite as Gaches-Sarraute might have hoped. To adapt to the new corset shape, the dresses of the early 1900s are different than any feminine fashion before them: the waist moves low to the pelvis, bodices hang full and loose, and women in fashion illustrations appear to be rushing forward so fast they are leaving their skirts behind them.

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1904

Les Modes, 1904

Because the new style of corset moved the point of reduction to the soft abdomen rather than over the floating ribs, women discovered they could achieve greater reductions than before, an effect Gaches-Sarraute obviously was not aiming to achieve originally. She notes with some amused befuddlement in her book:

Before ending the long enumeration of the modifications made by the Abdominal Corset , I must point out a curious phenomenon, which is difficult to explain; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.
Original French: “Avant de terminer l’énumération déjà bien longue des modifications apportées par le corsetabdominal, il me faut signaler un phénomène assez curieux, assez difficile à expliquer; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.

We would call this effect “waist training” in our modern vernacular. Gaches-Sarraute noticed that the shape and weight of her patients changed after they had worn the corset regularly. From her Observations section later in the book:

Madame. H, 48 years old. Obesity, heart palpitations, very bad condition, does not leave the couch, varicose veins. First corset, October 1898. Since then, a lot thinner: 40 cm of belly circumference [15.75 inches], Since then, has thinned a lot: 40 centimeters belly, circulatory disorders have decreased and general health is much better, the patient walks very well”
Original French: “
Mme H…, 48 ans. Obésité, palpitations de cœur, état général très mauvais, ne quitte pas la chaise longue, varices des membres inférieurs. 1er Corset, octobre 1898. Depuis lors, a beaucoup aminci : 40 centimètres de tour de ventre, les troubles circulatoires ont diminué et la santé générale est beaucoup meilleure, la malade marche très bien.”

It probably wasn’t just the cinching power responsible for Mme. H’s transformation. She might have been able to move around more due to the lower back support provided by her new corset, boosting her impressive weight loss results with increased physical activity.

Back support has long been one of the main functions of corsets and corset-like garments. To provide the back support which Gaches-Sarraute believed Victorian corsets lacked, her corset design was very sharply angled at the lower back. This created artificial lumbar hyperlordosis, commonly called swayback. Some people develop this naturally, but by modern medical standards, it is considered a form of bad posture because it places stress on the lower disks, hip joints, knees, and, with the added pressure from the corset, the kidneys. However, this sort of posture was considered both powerful and graceful– and quite masculine. It was the posture of well-pedigreed gentlemen and soldiers standing at attention with their chests puffed out in confidence.

Early 19th Century British Uniforms

German Soldiers, 1901

Dr. Gaches-Sarraute’s design gave women this same posture, and straight-front corsets were often advertised as “military front” for that reason:

Foster Hose Supporter Ad from 1901

Corset advertisement, circa 1901-1905

This hyper-extended ideal posture was adopted by models, fashionistas, socialites, and famous personalities like Camille Clifford and Edith Lambelle Langerfeld:

Camille Clifford is famous for the curvy figure and is known to many as the original Gibson Girl. She embodied the epitome of the new S-bend look: flat abdomen, swelling bust, and prominent derriere. Her extraordinary photos must be taken with a grain of salt: she is also one of the greatest examples of early photo retouching. The retouching is evident here by the unnatural smoothness of everything from her hips up where the wrinkles of fabric suddenly vanish.

Edith Langerfeild “La Sylphe” was an exotic dancer known her extreme flexibility and extreme forward-arching posture, though not for wearing corsets (she regularly danced semi-nude). She combined the fashionable swayback posture and her contortionist skills to create an exaggerated version of the look sans-corset. Her career– and signature style–extended the forward-leaning trend into the 1910s, though the waistline moved up from the hips to the just under the bust.

Outside fashion photographs and illustrations, the average woman did not usually adopt the exaggerated posture–as this informative article, “The S-bend in Context” by Marion McNealy, shows– and some created the illusion of the shape with padding rather than posture.

Women walking, circa 1902-1905
Edwardian women in day dresses going about their daily lives for comparison to the fashion images above.

Photograph of a working class woman walking, circa 1905-1908
A great example of how the underbust design affects the fit of the bodice over the bust compared to a Victorian corset.

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Padding options from the 1905 Sears Catalogue
They are still called bustles, though they are quite a bit smaller than those of the 1880s!

The S-bend posture ideal had lasting effects. In 1932, Elizabeth Arden released a newsreel urging women to abandon the now “old” swayback style of posture Gaches-Sarraute’s straight front corset encouraged:

Elizabeth Arden advises women to adopt the modern straight posture we still strive for today. This posture ideal has much to do with our focus on unisex athleticism and greatly slimmed-down fashions (athleisure, anyone?). It’s quite impossible to hide the edge of a rigid corset under a pair of yoga pants! Many women wear only one or two layers which hug the body and is often cut to reveal skin and structure. We no longer deal with the bulky layers and heavy skirts our female ancestors considered fashionable, which leads to another of Gaches-Sarraute’s reasons for not throwing out the notion of corsets entirely:

The main role of the corset should be to support the clothes and prevent constriction of ties around the waist, so as to prevent overflow of the viscera downward under the influence of this constriction.
Original French: “Le rôle principal du corset doit être de soutenir les vêtements et d’empêcher la constriction des liens autour de la taille, de façon à éviter le refoulement des viscères vers le bas sous l’influence de cette constriction.”

This same sentiment is shared by Robert L. Dickinson who wrote “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement” for The New York Medical Journal in 1887:

“In the woman who wears no corsets, the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction”

Just like the fashions of the Victorian era, the fashions of 1900 were all about layers that relied on a tight fit at the waist. Women sought to make these layers as lightweight and full as possible to avoid bulk, but there was still many hidden supports under those beautiful outer skirts:

I covered more about historical clothing layers in earlier posts: “With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes” and “Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?

A corset takes and distributes the weight of the skirts, supporting all the layers so they do not dig into the skin– the very definition of a “foundation garment!”
Gaches-Sarraute’s low-cut corset lead to the creation of a new  foundation garment: the brassiere, though not quite as we know it now. Gaches-Sarraute was emphatically against altering her corset design to provide breast support, devoting an entire chapter in her book to her argument against it. She believed that the new design provided enough support to the breasts by means of the expanded, upraised ribcage it created and that:

Trapping the breasts in an impermeable fabric promotes wilting and atrophy of the gland.
Original French: “Le fait d’emprisonner les seins dans un tissu imperméable favorise le flétrissement et l’atrophie de la glande.”

Gaches-Sarraute’s entire mission was to spare as many organs as possible from pressure, including the mammary glands. She even describes a problem many modern women who have worn an underbust corset with a modern bra have experienced: the dreaded pinch that happens to the flesh trapped between the corset and bra band.  Modern tastes and social mores press Western women today to wear bras, especially in conservative American culture: modern American women are expected to have high, round breasts that do not show nipples– a goal that mandates daily bra wearing under our relatively thin, sheer clothing. Edwardian women, in contrast, wore multiple layers of cloth over their breasts, so show-through wasn’t as much of a worry. Their concern with the lack of breast support was out of habit (used to old corsets) and practical (the need for support while working/exercising) which is why  some women found the underbust unsatisfactory. This meant that underbust corsets didn’t take over the world in a blink. Instead, Victorian styles and high, demi-bust versions of S-bend corsets were sold right along side the shorter style, much, I am sure, to Gaches-Sarraute’s chagrin:

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Corsets Department page from the 1905 Sears Catalogue. Left side shows older Victorian style corsets while the right side corsets are S-bend straight front corsets.

As any large-breasted woman–myself included– can attest, unsupported breasts have many painful complications of their own. Once they are past a certain size and age, they no longer are self-supporting, creating both comfort, health, and aesthetic issues. She brushes these notions aside, saying, “there are few women with breasts sufficiently large for it to be necessary to provide them with a support/il y a peu de femmes pourvues de seins assez volumineux pour qu’il soit indispensable de leur fournir un appui.” However, she begrudgingly acknowledges the criticism of her design and offers a solution. One of the most famous images from the book shows her brassiere design of choice:

She was far ahead of her time when it came to the design: fifty years later, women would be wearing a very similar look:

Formfit Ad, 1949

Spencer Ad, 1959

Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s corset design, whatever our personal opinions of it, undeniably revolutionized fashion even though the woman herself cared very little for any of the outside frills and fashion. She was concerned only with the internal workings of women, not that of their needles and thread. From her earliest design trials in the late 1890s (her first recorded recorded observation is dated 1895), she recorded the health improvements she saw in her patients after wearing her new corset design, claiming to have observed nearly 4,000 cases of successful recoveries ranging from healing incontinence to treating infertility.

When studying old texts like “Le Corset,” it is important to remember that medical practices and knowledge 120 years ago were very different than today. We cannot verify all of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s claims. Her writing must be viewed with some skepticism, as she is writing to promote both her work and designs as well as writing with the limitations of Victorian medical knowledge. As even she states, it was hard to find enough uncorseted women to form a control group, making it difficult to tell which medical conditions were caused by corsets, exacerbated by them, relieved by them, or completely unrelated. For example, many 21st century women have rounded, low bellies like those pictured in “Le Corset” even though they have never worn a corset in their life– it’s just how some bodies store fat and where loose skin forms after childbirth.

 One thing that is clear, however, is Gaches-Sarraute’s steadfast devotion to the healing and liberation of women’s bodies. She was determined to improve and advance women’s lives via her new corset design:

Woman has glimpsed the possibility of altering her way of life; she wants to take part in the work and physical exercise of men; On the other hand, she is incommoded by the present dress, she is ill, and, consequently, ready to accept its modifications. I appreciate this happy disposition, convinced that nothing can be done for women except with their own consent, and I shall be happy if my work, based on scientific and physiological data, is appreciated by the medical profession and by hygienists. It will be much easier for me to fight against fashion and prejudice, which take no account of the needs of our organism.
Original French: “La femme a entrevu la possibilité de modifier son genre de vie, elle veut prendre part aux travaux et aux exercices physiques des hommes; d’autre part, elle est incommodée par le vêtement actuel, elle est malade, et, par suite, prête à en accepter les modifications. Je saisis cette heureuse disposition, convaincue qu’on ne peut rien faire pour les femmes qu’avec leur propre assentiment, et je serai heureuse si mon travail, basé sur des données scientifiques et physiologiques, est apprécié du corps médical et des hygiénistes, car il me sera alors beaucoup plus aisé de lutter contre la mode et les préjugés qui ne tiennent aucun compte des besoins de notre organisme.”

Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute, as a female doctor, saw her unique opportunity to influence female freedom. As a medical doctor, she had the knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biology that seamstresses, fashion designers, and corset manufacturers at the time lacked. As a woman, she personally understood feminine needs and sensibilities in a way that her male medical colleagues could not. In addition to designing a new corset, she advocated for sensible dress, championed bicycle riding, and was even willing to let women wear pants if they agreed to stop wearing old-fashioned corsets.

Bike Riding with a Corset

Bicycling in lounge pants and and old-fashioned corset. Whoopsie! Sorry, Dr. Inès!

Her legacy continues today in the form of medical corsets/braces (which help thousands find relief from back pain/scoliosis, postnatal complications, hernias, and more), modern corsetry design principles, and, for better or worse, our cantankerous relationship with one of the most controversial garments ever made.

The full text of “Le Corset” is available in the original French on Wikimedia.
It is available in multiple formats, including a wonderful scanned PDF version.

When it comes to corsets–and clothes in general–everyone has different needs. Corsets are certainly not one-size-fits-all, and they aren’t all one-style-fits-all either! Some find the underbust S-bend corset suits their body and is just as pleasant to wear as Gaches-Sarraute hoped it would be. Other people find the flowing curves and high front of the Victorian corset more comfortable and supportive. Many more still have no want for any corset at all, and that is perfectly fine, too.
As for my tastes: Remember those too-tall S-Bends from earlier? Yeah, those work great for me if patterned right! I like the flexible demi-bust front of a Victorian corset for support, but the curve of my back and titled pelvis work best with the back and hips of the S-bend, so long as there is plenty of extra room in the ribs and hips for all my luscious lipids to move around in!
This sort of knowledge is not inherent or concrete. It is something you learn over time with experience. Remember: a corset is just a garment. It is the person filling it with that matters most!

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Animated Edwardian Stereograph by Thiophene_Guy

Looking Ahead: 1870 Imagines the Fashions of the Future

I’ve not done much this past year, or at least it feels that way. I am looking forward to the New Year, making plans and imagining where life will take me.

I was going through old digitized Harper Bazaar magazines from 1870 when I found this gem in the March 19th issue:

harpers-1870s-does-1890

Text:
A LOOK AHEAD
Scene – A Costumer’s   Time – 1890
LADY. “I want a Costume for a Private Fancy Dress Party I am to attend. Something Absurd or Ridiculous.”
COSTUMER. “How do you like That One?”
LADY. “That will do. But is it possible that People ever made such Frights of Themselves!”

There’s nothing like poking fun at the now through the eyes of tomorrow! For the curious, here’s two decadent, fluffy, fashionable dresses and hairstyles…published by the very same magazine only a few days before and after the cartoon lampooning them:

harpers-bazaar-1870

Ball Gown, March 12th, 1870

april-2-1870-harpers-bazaar-house-dress

House Dress, April 2nd, 1870

Oh, the delicious, delicious irony! We still do it today (just look for “Trends we need to ditch in 2017” videos on YouTube posted by beauty gurus who were touting the same things only a few weeks ago to see what I mean). What’s really wonderful about this cartoon, though, isn’t the Punch-style biting commentary or even hypocrisy of it, but how close they got the fashion forecast! They were just a little early in their predictions, though. Here’s a dress from Harper’s Bazar/Bazaar in 1890:

harpers-1890-2

Harper’s Bazar, October 18th 1890harpers-october-1890

Harper’s Bazar, October 18th 1890

There’s a hint of a similarity, but these don’t really look much like the cartoon’s facetious forecast, does it?

But skip forward a bit into the 20th century and…

1903-harpers harpers-1903 harpers-1904Select plates from 1903 issues of Harper’s Bazar

Just to refresh our memory:

harpers-1870s-does-1890

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Tightly fitted, flared-bottom skirts?
Check!

Fashion Plate, 1902

How about some more exciting hemlines?
As you wish…

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1901

But those big, puffy cuffs? Surely nobody would…
Like meringues for your wrists!

Fashion Plate, 1902

Fashion Plate, 1903

Paired with cape-like Sailor collars?!
Mmmmmhmmmmm! Classic.

Fashion Plate 1902

Fashion Plate, 1903

Cute little empire waist jackets with asymmetrical detailing?
You know I could never deny you!

Fashion Plate, 1902

Mounds of hair topped with hats?
Oh, honey, that hat is FAR too tiny, but if you insist….

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1903

Fashion Plate, 1905

But what about the raised waist, short skirt, fluffy hemline, and cute little hats?
Well, I suppose you could wait another decade…

Fashion Plate, 1915

…of course, you’ll sacrifice the fantastic pastry puff sleeves, but, hey, we can’t all be as fabulous as an Edwardian lady fancy dress shopping for vintage 1870s clothes in 1890!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYBODY!

Find amazing FREE digitized copies of 19th and early 20th century Harper’s Bazar/Bazaar magazines here: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000641436/Home

True Vintage: An Edwardian Blouse I Found at Goodwill

It kind of pains me to title this post “true vintage” because that term has always struck me as both pretentious and meaningless, but in this case, it’s a really apt description.

You see, I go into Goodwill all the time looking for “Edwardian stuff,” but not the real deal. The local Goodwills mostly have things dating from the 1980s and onward. The “Edwardian stuff” I look for is costuming-grade things like secretary blouses, long pleated skirts, lacy camisoles, and the like that are perfect for Thrifted Edwardian outfits.

Stuff like this.

As for vintage things, every once in a blue moon I will find a homemade 1960s dress or, once, a chipped 1930s teapot, but nothing mind-blowing. Today I was combing the racks for some work shirts and maybe a nice lace top I could rob of its trimmings. The area where I live is “100 yards from rich” as Chris and I describe it, downwind of the wealthy suburbs, so our Goodwill is blessed with comparatively nice castoffs from the upper echelons of Fort Worth society. The “it” style for spring/summer for the local who’s-who was romantic boho chic with the usual dash of Western flavor Texas is known for.

Stuff like this.

There have been tons of peasant blouses and filmy tops with lace collars that were perfect for Thrifted Edwardian costumes, so I was already hauling an armful when I pulled this beauty off the rack.

 edwardian2

Labelled as a size “Medium” – HA!

 I confess that when I first caught sight of it, my first thought was “Oh! Another nice modern blouse that looks good enough to fake it,” so imagine my genuine surprise when I pulled the hanger out of the polyester sea to get a better view. This blouse was so good at “faking it” because it was real! There are enough similarly-styled modern blouses that no one noticed its age when it was tagged ($4.49), racked, rifled through, or rung up at the register.
I must say I feel quite proud: my “looks-Edwardian” radar is honed enough that it picked up on a real Edwardian/WWI blouse even though it only saw one sleeve smooshed between 10,000 others.

edwardian

It’s not a particularly fancy piece by any means, but it has some nice filet lace around the collar and a bit of embroidery at the front. I didn’t take many photos because I wasn’t even planning on writing about it, but I hadn’t posted in a while and, hey, cool 1910s blouse! Why not share? Just further proof that you never know what you’ll find lurking in the racks.