Bustling Through Boston: Searching for Mme Chesneau’s Dressmaking Shop

Last time I fell down an enormous rabbit hole, it was while researching this 1840s men’s neck stock from Philidelphia:

Click here to fall into that hole yourself.

I was not only about to find out where the stock was made, but all about the man who manufactured it! Through careful study, I was able to even narrow down the age of the stock to within 4 years– just based on the manufacturer’s stamp inside!

Anyway, this time around I have fallen down the rabbit hole with this skirt:

Isn’t the gold lovely? And that lace! The waist is bitty bitty: only 20 inches.

Some pretty little details to this deceptively simple skirt like floral lace overlay and tiny little knife pleats.

Unlike the stock (which I found in my favorite antique store and now own), this skirt is not mine, but an auction item on eBay waaaaaay out of my price range. I was just going to post a short little Facebook blurb about it because it’s so dang pretty, but then I looked closer at the pictures and found this:

Yes indeed! This skirt has a marker’s mark!

Fortunately, Boston is an old town, so there are plenty of maps available. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Mme Chesneau’s little shop deftly labelled as I was able to do for Mr. Ward. However! Her shop was in the heart of Boston– right off the Commons! The block she was located on is still relatively intact thanks to the presence of the Granary Burial Ground right behind it.

6 Beacon Street circa 2017

Today, the address belongs to a late Victorian building with a mix of offices, condos, and businesses inside. Here’s a realtor’s ad for the building (it’s a PDF, so it will download for you to open), if you are curious about the current interior. Sadly, very little, if any, of the original Victorian finishes appear to remain beyond the outside shell, but the street layout and numbers have not changed much at all (unlike poor Mr. Ward’s store locations which were both obliterated in the 1950s when Independence Mall was constructed). Mme Chesneau would also have been just up the block from the historical Tremont House when she owned her shop there in the late 1870s or early 1880s (judging by the style of the skirt). The Tremont House was a grand hotel built in 1829 and famous for being one of the first “modern” hotels with indoor plumbing, bellboys, and guest soaps:

I’m sure guests made off with all the free soaps just like they do today…and that’s a good thing!

Sadly, the Tremont House was razed in 1895 and the office buildings that now fill the block around the old burial ground went up in its place.

I didn’t delve as much in-depth with this skirt as I did with the neckstock, but here are some nifty maps from the 19th and early 20th century showing how much (and how little) the area where Mme Chesneau would have worked has changed:

This view is from decades before the skirt was made, but it shows you how little the streets of Boston in this area have changed! This is the view of 6 Beacon street from the Boston Commons. The spire belongs to Park Church and the trees behind it are the Granary Burial Ground. It’s hard to tell which side of the street the other buildings are on, but one of them to the left in the background would house 6 Beacon Street. The domed building to the far left is the Massachusetts State House, built in 1798.

The view of 6 Beacon Street from 1877–near the time the skirt was made! You can see the big dome of the Massachusetts State House in the foreground with the spire of Park Street Church right behind it. 6 Beacon Street would have been in or near the tan building to the left of the church.

This view of 6 Beacon street was made at almost exactly the same time as our golden bustle skirt: 1879. This view shows the dark outlines of some buildings, but it’s not a very detailed map. There are, however, 2 dark buildings at the corner where Somerset Street meets with Beacon Street at the turn. 6 Beacon Street would be located in one of these.

This 1885 map is a bit more detailed. In the center you can see the label for the Burial Ground in big letters to the right of the commons. If you look closely, you can see the label for the Tremont House (Tremont H.) to the right. 6 Beacon Street is in the white space just above it (on this map, white space doesn’t necessary indicate an empty lot, but just means there was nothing of importance to the cartographer).

Check out this nifty map from 1894: it shows the subway routes! In the 1890s, Boston began to change very rapidly. This is the year Boston’s first modern hotel was no longer modern enough for the growing city and shut down. The map still labels the plot “Tremont Building,”, but the outline looks much more like the office building the replaced it a year later…

Sad day! The Tremont House is no more on this 1895 map, but the giant Victorian office building that stands in its place today is still there. 6 Beacon Street is right on the other side of the little street leading to the Granary Burial Ground, Tremont Place. The building is labelled as being owned by WJ Otis.

One last glimpse of 19th century Boston and 6 Beacon Street. The building numbered 14 is the office complex that replaced the Tremont House 4 years earlier. Behind it is where 6 Beacon Street would be. I do not know if Mme Chesneau was still in Boston, but it is very likely that the building she sewed the skirt in was long gone by this time (I tried to look up the age of the current building there, but short of diving into tax records, I could not find it).

I could probably look Mme Chesneau up in Boston’s tax and business registration records, but I never thought I’d get so involved with an eBay skirt I could never hope to own! So unless I find a random pile of money to buy the skirt, I’m going to stop obsessing over something I cannot have for now.

However, the story of the skirt does not end with my trunicated quest or Mme Chesneau, the woman that made it. Someone bought and wore this skirt… but who? The seller themselves has a little theory about the owner of the skirt to add to the mix, making this skirt a nifty little diversion for a historical fashion, genealogy  and georeference fans alike:

We found 2 names associated with these clothes [there are other clothes available for auction from this seller]. A Miss D Hurd in a C 1915 dress and a calling card with a Mr and Mrs Ledyard Hart Heckscher. The older 1880s dresses may have belonged to Mrs Heckscher because their names are on a calling card with a note that states ” Fil de Main” Handkerchief sent to your grandmother Heckscher in 1869.”  The calling card looks of the late Victorian period. They may have been from Philadelphia or Boston / New York.”

A dress from a later generation, around 1912, from the seller’s other listings. If these are from a single family, you can tell the love of lustrous satin with netted lace overlay was passed down through the years!

This is what makes historical costume research so fun for me: the human element that leads you on a journey away from the seams and into the streets!

“Looking up Tremont Street toward Beacon Street, with the Granary Burying Ground to the left, taken around 1910. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.” – via Lost New England

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!

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

The Genteel Fashionista’s Dialogue: A Humorous Timeline of Fashion

In the Classic Style of Historical Fashion Satire and in the Spirit of Congenial Camaraderie, I Present to You the Product of an Overly-Active Brain in the Form of a Fashion Timeline in which there is much Over-Generalization, a Single Expletive, and a Dearth of Illustrations:

THE GENTEEL FASHIONISTA’S DIALOGUE

The Genteel Fashionista Dialog

1770s – Let’s flaunt how wealthy we are with lots of delicate, expensive fabric and wall-like skirts so wide we need special doors, furniture, and houses built just to accommodate them! Pass the hair powder and Pomeranians!

1780s – Thanks to new technological advances and the start of the Industrial Revolution, I am enjoying my emerging merchant-class lifestyle! However, panniers get in the way when I try to navigate city living. High hats and hair, though, I can do. Also, I am strangely beguiled by these cork rumps….

1790s – The peasants are pissed. Maybe big hair, big hats, and big butts weren’t the way to go. Plus, there’s a bunch of cool Greco-Roman stuff in style. Let’s ditch ridged stays and huge skirts for the more refined Empire look…YIKES! A PIKE!

1800s – What a mess that was! Now that the bloodshed is over, I can safely wear white again. These fine, diaphanous fabrics are really expensive and the white makes my spendy imported shawls really pop! I feel on top of the world again!

1810s – Slim sleeves and silhouettes make me look like every other belle at the ball. Some fancy hem trims and puffier sleeves will make me stand out!

1820s – MORE TRIMS! MORE SLEEVES!
Also, maybe some petticoats to help show off ALL THESE HEM TRIMS better.

1830s – F*ck yeah, giant sleeves! Also, I’ve got a pretty hot bod. Those old Regency sacks hide all my hotness, so let’s go back to natural waistlines and open up the neckline for some shoulder action. I am ready for some romancin’!

1840s – Hmmm…maybe I went a little too crazy with the sleeves, low necklines, and bonnets the size of a serving platter. But I like having a waistline again. Let’s see just how much waistline we can get. Longer! I NEED LOOOOONGER!

1850s – Thanks to my corset, my waist is looking better than ever! However, I’m beginning to miss big sleeves. Every belle needs bell sleeves. I could layer them, like those exotic Asian pagoda roofs I saw in a book once. Speaking of roofs, these stacks of petticoats are getting tough to walk in. Maybe I need some rafters…

1856 – HELLO STEEL HOOPED CAGED CRINOLINE, MY NEW BEST FRIEND.

1860s – These hoops are awesome! Now I can display yards and yards of expensive fabric easily again and everyone has to clear the sidewalk to let me through, like Moses parting the sea. Bonus points for getting the sofa all to myself! Let’s see just how big these hoops can go.

1870s – I’ll admit that I might have gone overboard with the hoops, but now that I’ve turned them into a bustle, I can hug people again and the sidewalks of town are cleaner than ever! The sewing machine makes adding trims to my trim’s trim so easy, too!

1875 – The bustle’s poofs and swags are hiding my hot bod again. :(

1878 – This princess line gown shows off my naturally-enhanced-by-a-corset form perfectly. I’ll never hide my glorious bum under a bustle again! What a folly!

1882 – Well, a little padding back there couldn’t hurt…

1885 – HELLO BUSTLES, MY OLD FRIEND.
I’m sorry I ever doubted you!

1890s – Okay, I’ll admit that the bustle thing got out of hand, but I have learned the error of my ways. Let’s go back to the classic combo of tons of petticoats and huge sleeves.

1900s – I have given up big sleeves in favor of something new: tons of lace and s-bend corsets! They say a puffy breast makes my waist look tinier, but in reality, it makes me look like I am careening forward towards social, industrial, and technological progress, just like a new-fangled motorcar draped in an heirloom tablecloth!

1910s – Rushing towards progress is hard to do in full skirts. A slimmer skirt line is in order. Should I go hobble skirt to display my fashion prowess or skirt suit to further the march towards women’s independence? Either way, it will need more decorative buttons.

1920s – Corsets and curves have been incumbent for too long! I vote for President Bob Haircut and Senator Cloche! Drop waists from the ballot and pass the mascara! The world is ready to finally revel in the glory of my knees!

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Here is 160 years worth of fashion plates!
See if you can spot the trends:

1770s fashion plates

1780s fashion plates

1790s fashion plates

1800s fashion plates

1810s fashion plates

1820s fashion plates

1830s fashion plates

1840s fashion plates

1850s fashion plates

1860s fashion plates

1870s fashion plates

1880s fashion plates

1890s fashion plates

1900s fashion plates

1910s fashion plates

1920s fashion plates

Review of the Historical Fashion Flip-Up Book “Fashion Through the Ages: From Overcoats to Petticoats”

Subuculas, Stays, and Slips!

I like going to Half-Price Books. They have all sorts of out of print and hard to find books, plus a great antique/collectible section! Their Fashion selection, however, is sometimes seriously lacking. I spent one day frantically trying to find the Fashion section after they apparently moved it. I was looking for a copy of The Tudor Tailor, so I asked the front desk after searching through the Art section, the Craft section, the History section, and even the Collectibles section (where books like Fashion in Detail had appeared before) to no avail. Turns out they had no clue where to put fashion books, historical or otherwise, so they stuck them in the “Salf-Help” category! They had very few historical fashion books of any type, but just before I gave up hope, I found this book:

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“Fashion Through the Ages: From Overcoats to Petticoats”
by Margaret Knight with awesome illustrations by Kim Dalziel

Inside, there were stylish illustrations of historical fashions from ancient Rome to the 1960s, all with nifty flip-up clothing layers! At $5, I had to have it!

Inside, there are there are 28 thick cardstock pages that detail fashions for men, women, and male and female children in chronolgical order from earliest to latest fashion, starting with the Roman Empire (27 BC to 467 AD), then the Middle Ages (500-1500), the Fifteenth Century/Early Renaissance, Sixteenth Century/High Renaissance, Seventeenth Century, Eighteenth Century, Nineteenth Century, 1901-1920, the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s-50s (combined), and the 1960s.

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Besides the illustrations, each category included a generously-sized foldout describing the changes in fashion and society during the era. Along the edges of the pages are additional fashion tidbits, like hairstyles, hats, and other information not included on the main feature of the book: the flip-up clothing layers.

Each figure has at least one fancy flip up/open/down piece that reveals information about the layer. For example, the “1635” man’s doublet/coat folds open to reveal his shirt beneath and a brief description of it:

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And the “1750s” woman has a layer for her gown and a separate one for her petticoats which both lift to reveal her shift, stays, and panniers underneath:

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The adults clothing has more details than the children’s clothing, but the children’s clothing flip-ups do contain bits of information about popular children’s clothing colors and fabrics.

That’s the basic description of the book. Now, for the review!

This such a cool idea! I love the illustrations and the discovery with each turn of the page and lift of a flap. Children and adults alike are curious about the “weird” clothing our ancestors used to wear and this book is a fun way to explore the basics without feeling like an intruder (how many times have you as a reenactor, cosplayer, costumer, or vintage-lover faced that awkward question or unwelcome groping hand?). The basics are all contained in this book, so it acts as a jumping off point for multiple eras without the intimidating immensity of a fashion encyclopedia.

The illustrations are well-balanced with the double-sided flaps containing the detailed text portion so it’s neither too child-like nor too text-heavy. The colors are well-thought-out and suit the general mood of the chosen eras (lighter colors for Rococo, earthy colors for the Middle Ages, and, of course, bright primary colors for the 1960s).

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There are a few places where I was disappointed, however. The sections, especially for the earlier fashions, are very broad– some covering 500 years or more! I admit that I am not a scholar of the nuances of these earlier eras, so I am not as disgruntled as, say, an expert in the 1340s would be. For example, the Tudor era (1485-1558) is almost entirely skipped, save for Elizabeth I’s reign.

I can excuse some generalizations because this is designed as a children’s book meant to present the very basics of fashion history in an entertaining and quick manner. In a world when most folks know Medieval fashion only from the Lord of the Rings movies, learning even the most basic real Medieval fashion concepts can be confusing to a beginner. The layers and undergarments, which is the main purpose of this book’s illustrations, are all pretty well-covered (ha ha!) despite the broad time swathes. For the most part, petticoats, garters, stockings, stays, and shifts are introduced in the eras they should be.

There was one era, though, which I thought was done a huge disservice: the 19th Century.

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Since this is a book about layers and showcasing the mysterious underwear worn beneath them, it would seem natural to include the many different types of undergarments in the 19th century. It was, after all, probably the most exciting, underwear-centric time in history! There were the short Regency stays and slips, the long stays and crazy-huge sleeve-puffers of the 1830s, the steel-busked corsets and hoop skirts in the 1850s and 1860s, the advent of the bustle in the 1870s and its construction ingenuity in the 1880s!

bustle centaur

Were they centaurs? They must have been centaurs.

Yet, the book dedicates only one section to the entire century and only illustrates the 1810s at the very beginning and the 1850s in the middle– with no children’s outfits to boot! So many shapes that I was bewildered by as a curious child (and even as an adult) are skipped over. The bustle is relegated to a few notes in the top right corner. I would not be as disappointed if the 20th Century decades weren’t given their own sections and illustrations despite the relatively uneventful underwear and layers involved. The 20th Century pages have fewer flaps, and there is little change to the undergarments after the 1920s. The most exciting bit is probably the corset and bullet bra on the 1940s/50s woman:

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The copy of the book I bought was preowned, but despite that, many of the flaps in the later eras had never been touched even though the flaps of the earlier styles, particularly the Roman, Medieval, and Victorian eras, were more “worn in” from use. Whatever person(s) had the book before me was clearly less interested by the modern era! The underpinnings of the 1400s were far more mysterious than the 1940s, at least in this case. In a few decades, perhaps the 20th Century sections will seem more exciting since they will be more distant from the now.

With that said, this book is all about layers and undergarments, so you are literally undressing the illustrations layer by layer down to their skivvies. Some folks might not be particularly comfortable with this, especially since the Middle Ages allows you to see under the lady’s chemise to see her stockings and she’s nude (of course) underneath:

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The illustration is not heavily detailed, but she does have curves denoting her breasts, a little belly button, and the tiniest V where are thighs meet her trunk. Being nude under her shift is historically accurate, but you can easily paste down her shift to make her more modest if you are concerned about it. The children’s layers are not as detailed, so they don’t go down that far and neither do most of the men’s outfits, though the 1960s keeps the playing field even:

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The fashions are Euro/Anglocentric (the author worked for the Victoria and Albert Museum), some of the terms are out of date (the book was written in 1998), the corset/stays/bodies information retains a slightly sensationalized tone, and the 1590s woman is wearing inaccurate pantaloons, but at that point, I’m letting my current knowledge outpace the level this book is intended for.

According to Amazon, this book is for ages 5-7 years, but I believe that’s way too young for this book: not because of the revealing nature of it (the whole point of the book is to reveal the hidden parts of fashion), but because this book has a lot of text and details that a younger child might not appreciate. However, for a 7-14 year old, this book would be a really fun, informative introduction to the world of historical fashion! I would have loved a book like this as a tween and I still appreciate it even though I no longer need it. For $5 or even $15, this book would make a great gift to a budding historical fashionista. The quality of the book itself is very high (great paper, wonderful layout, etc.) and it will answer many questions, prompt new questions, and encourage further research.

Overall rating:

Great fun for a fashion history newbie!

The Myth of a Myth: Brushing Your Hair 100 Times

A Tiny Bit of Historical Hair Care for the Modern Woman

Young Teenage Girl with Sausage Curls, circa 1860

I have very greasy hair and always have. It’s also fine, but dry at the ends, so I have to cleanse it every day yet hydrate it with heavy creams. Recently, I’ve delved into the world of alternative haircare. In my case, I’ve taken up co-washing, which uses conditioner as a “shampoo” that doesn’t strip hair as badly as regular shampoo. It’s basically alternative hair care for casuals, but so far, it’s been working pretty well! A lot of alternative haircare methods remind me a lot of pre-20th century haircare methods. Before the great hygiene shift created by 20th century marketing, women didn’t just style their hair differently than we do; they cared for their hair differently, too.

Lotta Crabtree, an American Actress
One of her defining physical features was her thick, somewhat unruly hair.

They used pomatums, powders, and oils frequently, but loathed to use soap on their hair because it is very drying and disrupts the natural system of oils in your hair, kind of a “hard-reset” for your scalp. In fact, soap was considered a last resort for only the most dirty of hair situations. If they were putting all that stuff on their locks and never using soap, they must have been pretty disgusting, right? Not necessarily.

Group of Young Ladies, circa 1870

I love this photo because it shows a variety of hair types, textures, and colors.

Remember that old tidbit about brushing your hair 100 strokes or so before bed each night? Everyone these days brushes it off (ha ha!) as a myth and screams that the 100 stroke method is horrid for you hair, causing split ends, flyaways, and even baldness! And they are right…but oh so very wrong.

You see, such claims are for women who wash their hair frequently with modern shampoos and use plastic brushes to detangle their hair. If you brush your modern-treated hair vigorously with one of those brushes, it will create static and lead to snarls and frazzed locks. But those that claim the 100 strokes is an outdated practice are ignoring the fact that many modern women have begun to go shampoo-free, just like our ancestors! How do they do it without their hair being weighted down with all that oil and gunk?

Natural Bristle Hair Brush from a Vanity Set, circa 1695

Natural Bristle Brush with Silver Handle, circa 1900

Modern Soft Boar Bristle Brush by Kent

Before plastic brushes became the norm, all brushes were natural-bristle brushes. A woman’s vanity set would include one or two combs to take the tangles out of her hair, then a natural bristle brush to style and tame it. A bristle brush is not a detangler. It distributes the oils throughout your hair that would otherwise accumulate at the roots, smooths flyways, and cleans the dirt out of your hair.

“Aurelia (Fazio’s Mistress)” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, circa 1863-73

Unlike some of the modern “myth-busting” pages that recommend a sparse bristle brush, you actually want the opposite. A brush with a wide, dense pad of soft-to-medium bristles is much better for your hair than the tight, stiff clumps on many modern brushes, but it doesn’t have to be as expensive as the uber-deluxe Kent brush above. I have a wood-handle, oval paddle brush from Conair that I got for $6 at Walgreens that works really well. Baby hair brushes are also a good choice if you have thin or brittle hair since the fibers are often softer than regular boar bristle (just make sure they are natural fiber and not plastic). You start at the roots and in long strokes, pull the brush down the hair shaft. It really does make your hair silky smooth, but it takes time, especially if you have long hair! 100 brush strokes is actually too few in some cases!

I’ve started using my boar bristle brush on the days that I don’t wash my hair. I wake up an oily mess, but with 3 minutes of brushing in the morning and at night, it does it get very soft and the hair becomes slick, but not greasy.

“Princess Alexandra of Denmark” (later Queen Alexandra of England), circa 1861

A lot of historical hairstyles that would otherwise require lots of holding sprays or tight curls, like 18th century pompadours, 1830s sculpted buns, and 1870s updos, are easier to achieve with natural-state hair. Brushing your hair with a boar bristle brush also changes how your hair behaves. In many of the photographs of Victorian women with long hair, you’ll notice that it’s lightly wavy and feathers as it near the ends. In the modern world, we call this the dreaded tent hair! But healthy, long hair naturally takes this shape if properly cared for. It looks dry to us, but that’s because we are used to applying heavy (often silicone based) conditioners on the ends while having stripped hair at the scalp. Our ancestors had the opposite situation: natural oils near the base that lessened down the shaft towards the ends.

Portrait of a Woman with her Hair Down, circa 1880

In fact, daily shampooings are relatively new. Up until the 1960s, women would wash their hair only once week or so. Here’s a fabulous hair care video from the 50s demonstrating proper hair care for the era, including “frequent washing,” which in this case means every two weeks!

I’m still technically in the transition phase during the process, so my hair gets oily, but I can tell my hair’s developing texture is much different from my previous one. It looks much less like a Pantene ad and more like Victorian hair– smooth and close-laying on top and feathered at the ends. Thanks to over a century of being conditioned (ha!) to think that natural body oils are bad for us and that our hair should fluff four inches high on our scalp, it’s hard to trade that squeaky, perky clean for your hair’s natural character. Of course, results are not instant. First, your scalp has to adjust to not being super-stripped, so it will be enormously greasy for the first few weeks.

After your hair and scalp adjust to the new regimen, you may find out that your hair is entirely different than you’re familiar with! Sadly, it will probably not give you magical curls or volume if you naturally don’t posses those features, but people who fully embrace the historical or no-product haircare lifestyle report that their hair grows faster and doesn’t suffer as much breakage as before. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully let go of my shampoo and conditioning ways, but for now, it’s fun experiment!

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Portrait of a Woman, circa 1870

Victorian ladies did not have access to hairspray, but they did use styling oils, waxes, and creams to help hold their hair in place if the natural sebum in their hair was not enough. They also had access to chemical treatments, but many ladies dared to risk them, especially since cosmetics were not as heavily regulated as they are today and could be quite harsh. Curling irons, however, were nearly universal and were heated near the stove or a lamp. You have to be really careful not to burn your hair with one!

Anyway, my point is that the 100 brush-stroke myth is not a myth. It just requires a specific tool as a caveat. A boar bristle brush is good to have for any occasion, not just for ladies who dream of floor-length locks! It’s one of the simplest additions to a any hair care kit and comes in handy for regular small jobs like smoothing back hair for a sleek ponytail or getting a little natural loft in your roots. Everyone’s hair is different, so what hair care methods work for one person may not work well for others. Fortunately, there are lots of different ways to care for you hair, and there is no right or wrong–only what works for you. Even if you still use regular shampoo and conditioner, using a boar bristle brush on your “off” hair-washing days works wonders!

 If you are interested in no shampoo/product haircare, there are lots of blogs, videos, and tutorials to help you, for example Tara Creel (who has hair similar to mine) has a full series on YouTube about her 1 year without shampoo journey. There are also plenty of blogs about historical haircare and cosmetics, like On Living History’s series about 18th century hair products and styling.

Mele Kalikimaka: 1950s Christmas Goes Tropical!

A Happy Hawaiian Holiday to You!

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LOOK magazine cover, circa 1960

Hawaii became exceptionally popular during the 1950s. Hawaii hadn’t become an US state just yet (that happened in 1959), but it was a bustling tourist destination. The unique culture and laid-back attitude of the isles appealed to mainland Americans, and the topical weather was especially enticing.

 1950s Americans loved Hawaii for it’s hula, ukeleles, brightly printed shirts, and flowery leis. It all may seem pretty campy to us now (it was pretty campy even at the time), but the idea of Hawaii as the perfect tropical paradise was especially appealing near Christmas time. As beautiful as traditional wintery December evenings are, after weeks icy weather, who wouldn’t dream of trading snowy drifts for sandy beaches?

If you couldn’t afford to visit Hawaii at Christmas, you could always tune into the radio or take a trip down to the record store to catch a Hawaiian-inspired Christmas tune. The most famous Hawaiian Christmas song of them all is “Mele Kalikimaka” as sung by the one-and-only Bing Crosby:

Mele Kelikimaka isn’t a translation from English into Hawaiian. It’s more of an accented version (kind of like Americans pronounce the German “Wiener” with a “w” instead of a “v” sound).
“The phrase is borrowed directly from English but since Hawaiian has a different phonological system – Hawaiian does not have the /r/ or /s/ of English and its phonotactic constraints do not permit consonants at the end of syllables or consonant clusters – ‘Merry Christmas‘ becomes ‘Mele Kalikimaka'” – Wikipedia

Add a Little Bit of 1950s Hawaii to Your Christmas

Embrace the kitsch of the 1950s holiday tradition! Here are some fun Hawaiian inspired items that will bring a touch of the tropics to any mid-winter  fandango.

(In Splurge/Save style! All of these finds are from Etsy.)

Bright Tropical Party Dresses

Tropical Orange Dress, circa 1950-60

Tropical Green Dress, circa 1950-60

Charming Bracelets

“Aloha” Natural Seeds of Hawaii Charm Bracelet, circa 1950-60

Vintage Natural Seeds of Hawaii Charm Bracelet, circa 1950-60

For the Holiday Hunk

1950s Shaheen’s of Honolulu Hawaiian Shirt, circa 1950-60

Vintage Men’s Tribal Hawaiian Shirt, circa 1950-70

Welcoming Wreathes

Custom Red Hibiscus Wreath
The hibiscus is the Hawaiian state flower. The native yellow hibiscus is the official state flower as of 1988, but hibiscus flowers of all colors have been used to represent the state since the 1920s.

Make Your Own Seashell Wreath (or Trees)
Seashell artwork of all sorts was immensely popular and was a clever way to display the shell picked up on vacation. Though the huge numbers of tourists makes beachcombing on many Hawaiian shores a challenge, the islands are home to many sea creatures with beautiful shells (here is a pictorial index of Hawaiian seashell types).

Topical Tastes

Macadamia Nut and Coconut Crusted Fish Recipe
Hawaii is the macadamia nut capitol of the world. During the 1950s, large macadamia nut producers increased production and made the creamy macadamia available to a wider audience across America.

Homemade Super Tasty Pineapple Pie from a 1950s Ad
Pineapples have become the symbol of hospitality, especially during the winter months. Plus, if you haven’t tried some kind of pineapple pie, you’re missing out. That stuff is delicious!

Fun and Games

Hong Kong Hula Hoopers: Lin Dai
Humans have swirled and twirled hoops since ancient time, but the hollow, plastic hula hoops we know and love were officially invented in 1958. They were named “hula hoops” because the twisting hip motions imitated basic hula swaying motions. The traditional Hawaiian hula dances are much more complex than just swaying your hips, but for a good bout of party fund, nothing beats a hula hoop! (Just make sure to move breakables out of the way if you’re going to attempt hooping indoors!)

Sunburst Harmony Soprano Ukulele, circa 1950-70
Ukeleles are a Hawaiian version of a Portuguese instrument brought to the Islands by 19th century immigrants. Because they are small, easy-to-learn instruments, the ukelele has really picked up in popularity recently. Any song that can be played on guitar can be played on a uke, but there is plenty of vintage ukelele sheet music available, including this wonderful free-to-download collection and this cutesy free chord map for popular Christmas songs.

Merry Christmas Coconut Postcard
Oranges used to be considered exotic fruits and were common Christmas gifts during the 19th and 20th centuries. However, military men stationed in Hawaii would send home something quite a bit larger: coconuts! The US Postal service has a long list of things you can’t mail, but even more impressive is the things they actually will. The Hawaiian post office will mail a dried, decorated coconut for you, no box required! Decorated “coconut postcards” are available from vendors pre-decorated (like the one above) or, if you are fortunate enough to find your own coconut on a Hawaiian vacation–you lucky duck!–you can decorate it yourself before sending it on it’s merry way to an unsuspecting relative’s PO box!

MeleKalikimaka

Mele Kalikimaka!