Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Victorian Corsets: Some Facts & Myths

Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Loretta reports:

I had the good fortune recently to attend a lecture by historic fashion and textile expert Astrida Schaeffer at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA.  Ms. Schaeffer very kindly gave me permission to take photographs of her lecture.*

As this blog’s regular readers are aware, we periodically point out fashion myths, especially those about corsets.**  However, my research area is the early part of the 19th century, not the Victorian era, so I was interested to distinguish truth from myth regarding later corsets, constructed with materials like steel and metal grommets strong enough to allow more intense tightening.

The changes were not as extreme as we tend to think.  No, the 16”-18” waist wasn’t the norm but the exception.  Ms. Schaeffer presented several images showing the waist we associate with Victorian women, and pointed out that these were not usual, but corset ads or images of actresses whose claim to fame was a teeny tiny waist.  The average woman didn’t go to this extreme.  Her corset was meant to create a smooth line under her clothing, and she came in all shapes and sizes as women do today.

Ms. Schaeffer also pointed out the way the corset redistributed flesh.  From the front, the waist appears narrow, especially with a great skirt ballooning out below.  But if we look at the lady from the side, she’s rather wider.  The experiment was tried with an actual human being, and the picture shows what happened.

These images, front and side, give you an idea.

Another false image is the Victorian woman lying or swooning on her sofa  because her corset prevents activity.  Also not true.  I couldn’t keep up with all the photographic examples, but here’s just one, of women jumping rope.  In other photos from The Happy Valley, they’re climbing fences and jumping down from them, ice skating and roller skating, running, leaping fearlessly from stairs, and so on.  As we’ve pointed out before, when you live in a world where the corset is the norm and not wearing one is abnormal, you are simply accustomed to doing everything wearing a corset.  It doesn’t debilitate you.  If you’re in the last stages of a galloping consumption, that’s another story entirely.

If all goes smoothly, I’ll have something to say at another time soon about Ms. Schaeffer’s book, Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail.

The gold dress, c. 1896, which belonged to Ellen Rodman Motley, is part of the museum’s extensive collection of clothing.  A small but fine selection is on view at present.

*Not wishing to be obnoxious about it, I limited photo-taking to one or two examples in each  subject she covered.
**Please click on the corsets label for more on the topic.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

From the Archives: Queen Victoria's Baby Tooth Brooch, 1847

Sunday, October 19, 2014
Isabella reporting:

Yes, it's that finish-the-infernal-manuscript time again, and so for today I'm sharing a favorite post from our archives. 

I'll freely admit that I'm as sentimental as most mothers, and that like a lot of us, I squirreled away my children's first lost baby teeth as mementos. They're tucked in my desk, inelegantly sealed in business envelopes, preserved for...something.

But then, I'm not Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

When Victoria's oldest child, the Princess Victoria, Princess Royal (1840-1901), shed her first baby tooth, it, too, was preserved, though not in a lowly envelope. The seven-year-old princess's father, Prince Albert (1819- 1861) tugged the tooth free himself in 1847, while the royal family was visiting Ardverikieby Loch Laggan, as a guest of the Duke of Abercorn. As a memento of both the enjoyable visit (Victoria was so smitten with Scotland that she soon purchased Balmoral Castle as her own retreat in the Highlands) and to commemorate the landmark event in Princess Vicky's young life, Albert had the tooth made into a special brooch, left, for Victoria. Set in gold, the tooth forms the blossom of a gold and enamel thistle, the symbolic wildflower of Scotland. A "private" piece of jewelry as opposed to royal jewels for state occasions, the small brooch had never been shared with the public until 2010, when it was included in the Victoria & Albert: Art & Love exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

It's easy to dismiss a brooch featuring a baby's tooth as one more example of slightly macabre 19th c. taste, but in some circles, such mother's jewelry is still made and worn. Check out actress Susan Sarandon's custom-made bracelet, featuring her children's assorted baby teeth as the charms.

Above: Brooch, gold, enamel, & tooth, 1847. Commissioned by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria. Photo copyright The Royal Collection.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Breakfast Links: Week of October 13, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014
Served up fresh for you - our weekly round-up of fav links to other blogs, web sites, articles, and images, all gathered via Twitter.
Dudes of the Dutch Republic.
• Woman's hilarious tale of her husband and the healing power of tea, 1733.
Edinburgh in calotype: atmospheric images from the earliest days of photography.
• Marie Antoinette's last letter before she was taken to the guillotine.
• Strange story of documents thrown overboard and later recovered from a shark's stomach, 1799.
Image: Art Nouveau leather, gold, and gem-set owl purse, 1905.
• Delight in the splendor of the Belle Epoque with this publication from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, free to read online or download.
• Mad for plaid: George III, tartan archer.
• Top ten haunted hotspots that make up England's spookiest sites.
Image: Pembroke Castle, by Paul Sandby, 1808.
• The peripatetic life of 19th c. traveller Isabella Bird.
• Try not to end up in a squalid boarding house or addicted to laudanum: dating advice from classic literature.
• The historical difference between "Miss" and "Mrs." : starting point - they're both short for Mistress.
• For whom the ghost tolls: an irritating sort of haunting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, NY, 1901.
Image: an oh-so-striking red redingote, 1810.
Jeanne Garnerin, 18th c. female ballooning and parachuting pioneer.
• Modern science reveals secrets of the mummified corpse of 2,500 Siberian princess.
Image: Luncheon menu from Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, celebrating the 60th year of her reign.
• The top remedies of the 17th c. that you'd probably want to avoid today.
• The high cost of appearing fashionably rustic: details of an 18th c. stomacher.
• Privately held photos of Titanic's launch shown for the first time.
Bachelors looking for love in 1910: pretty sure bachelor #22 is still on OKCupid.
Image: Magical 15th c. house in gorgeous gardens, Stoneacre, Kent.
French soldier's room unchanged 96 years after his death in World War One.
• The 18th c. mystery of Oliver Cromwell's missing head.
• True story behind the myth of Mrs. O'Leary's cow starting the Great Chicago Fire.
• What do Columbus and Tony Soprano tell us about the history of American immigration?
• When fonts were FONTS: the Caslon Letter Foundry, London, 1902.
Image: Spectropia: an exquisitely stunning spooky book cover, beautiful gentle lettering.
• What tattoos can reveal about the lives of the Victorian poor.
• Chop-chop-chop chopines: a part of 17th c. Venetian shoes.
• Meet the Teddy Girls, the forgotten 1950s Girl Gang.
• Diagrammatic writings of UK asylum patient, first published in 1870.
Image: The Victorians knew a thing or two about traveling in style....
• Never stiff the undertaker: "The Undertaker's Revenge" with a mysterious death and missing entrails.
• Lantern slides with theater etiquette for early 20th c. movie-goers.
• Recipes from the 17th c. for St. Anthony's Fire.
• The forgotten (and now long-gone) streets of old Chelsea.
Image: Dior photoshoot at the Acropolis in 1951.
• What made a "fine gentleman" in 1783.
• Princess Victoria's cycling adventure, 1901.
• Ancient Viking treasure hoard including old textiles discovered in Scotland.
Image: Amazing detail in the costume: Portrait of Aletta Hanemans by Frans Hals.
• For fans of Sleepy Hollow and Washington Irving: retracing the journey of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman through the real Sleepy Hollow.
• Just for fun: British parrot missing for four years returns home speaking Spanish.
• And a just-for-fun image: Library Cake.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Casual Friday: Victorians get funny

Friday, October 17, 2014
Street Acrobats
Loretta reports:

No YouTube video today, because of my brain.  But I am sharing a link to some amusing photographs of those supposedly prim and proper Victorians.

You can view them here.

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the captions will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Modern Face in an 18th c. Painting

Thursday, October 16, 2014
Isabella reporting,

Fashions in faces and beauty change just as they do in clothing. Often portraits of famous beauties of the past fail to convey that magic to modern viewers, who just can't figure out how THAT face launched a thousand ships - or at least rocked some long-ago king's world.

And then there are portraits that seem almost shockingly modern, with faces that stand out in a gallery like a misplaced time-traveller. I saw this young lady yesterday in the Winterthur Museum, and had exactly that response. Painted by colonial artist John Durand around the time of the American Revolution, her face to me seemed as modern as any other teenager at the mall today. The museum's placard:

In 1834, an early critic of John Durand's work called his style "hard and dry." Durand's charming portrayal of the then-unmarried Miss Briggs as a woman of talent with a confident gaze and self-assured presence belies this assessment. By selecting a cittern – a Renaissance-style stringed instrument – and fashionable garb for her portrait, Dorothy Briggs declared herself both a member of the Virginia gentry and a woman of the world.

Maybe it's that "confident gaze and self-assured presence" that make Dorothy stand apart from other, more demure women's' portraits from the same time period. Maybe it's the little wisps of her dark hair that have slipped free around her ears, or the way she wears her elaborate silk gown with such nonchalance. What's your opinion - do you think she looks more 18th century than 21st?

Above: Dorothy Pleasants Briggs (Mrs. John Nicholas), by John Durand, 1775-1782. Photo by Herb Crossan, Winterthur Museum.
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