Monday, April 15, 2013

Victorian wardrobe malfunctions

In my book I talk about two different sorts of authenticity we seek from the clothes of the past. There's 'archival authenticity', which is understanding the garments themselves, and the right ways and contexts of wearing them; then there's 'emotional authenticity', which is using clothes to explore what it might have been like to live in the past.

People who participate in cosplay or historical re-enactment societies often have the most detailed information about how to move and hold yourself in unfamiliar garments. I just found a fascinating video tutorial on how to sit down while wearing an 1870s or 1880s bustle dress.

The comments also discuss how to get through narrow doorways while wearing a crinoline. After steel cage crinolines were first introduced in 1856 they were the subject of much satire. This page of crinoline cartoons gives you an idea of some of the mishaps that could occur. Because they took up more space than the wearers were used to, they often did things like sweeping vases off tables with their skirts, or accidentally setting their skirts on fire by standing too near the fireplace.

Crinolines were also much lighter than the previous layers of stiffened petticoats. They tipped forwards and backwards like bells, exposing the wearer's legs and undergarments; and if a high wind got underneath, it could actually flip the crinoline up over the wearer's head. Under-drawers, which weren't always worn prior to the 19th century, became a compulsory aid to modesty.

This cartoon is from Cassell's Family Magazine, 1881 (or at least that's how it was labelled; I could write an entire other post about how we circulate wrong historical information through misdated and mislabelled archival material posted in social media). If that date is correct, then readers would understand the women in the picture to be wearing ridiculously old-fashioned clothes, underlining their hypocrisy in mocking the Regency outfits of their mothers.

The 1893 music-hall ditty 'Oh! Look at Her Crinoline' was written by George Horncastle and Felix McGlennon and performed by Fannie Leslie, who was the queen of the English pantomime stage. As her 1935 obituary in The Montreal Gazette stated, "hits launched by her went all around the Empire."

It's basically 'My Humps' for the Victorian set. The lyrics read, in part:

Now when a young lady climbs over a stile,
Oh, look at her crinoline!
And when she turns 'round with an innocent smile,
Oh, look at her crinoline!
But when she goes out with dear Charley or Nell,
Or gets on a 'bus – well, I'm not going to tell,
But I'm sure that the boys will cry out and yell,
Oh, look at her crinoline!


Oh, boys, gaze upon her crinoline! Oh, boys, doesn't she look green?
If the wind should blow, would a poor girl have a show? Not on her crinoline!

What's interesting about this is that it's a nostalgic song. When it was written, crinolines hadn't been in fashion for about 25 years. This would be like a pop song about '80s fashion topping the charts now. Well, hang on…

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