Tagged: corsets

Mar 28

Shaping Victorian Bath

 

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I’m late plugging this, but you may be interested in a story I dug up and wrote that was happily featured on the front cover of March 2017’s The Bath Magazine. It recalls what you might call a Victorian corset entrepreneur, a German emigré named Charles Bayer, and the factory he built in Bath 125 years ago. Originally called the ‘Albion Stay Factory‘*, it was a huge success and helped turn around the city’s then slightly dwindling fortunes.

The monumental Bayer building still stands on South Quay, not too far from the railway station. So, if you’re interested in garment history and happen to be in Bath, do wander down and take a look at it – at least from the outside; it’s still occupied by businesses today – though none of the garment-making variety, as far as I know.

And if you happen to be a Bathonian and worked in (or know/knew someone who worked in) the old corset factory, then the Museum of Bath at Work would be delighted to hear from you. The factory closed 35 years ago  (1982), producing foundation underwear right up until the very end, and the museum is collecting and recording recollections of former Bath garment workers as part of its ongoing oral history project.

My grateful thanks to the wonderfully helpful local historian at Bath Central Library (which is currently at the centre of a campaign to keep it in the purpose-built location that so many Bath residents know and love) for digging out a load of old press clippings for me – plus the 1930s brochure mentioned in the article – and also to the Fashion Museum, Bath for allowing me to study a handful of WW1-era Bayer corsets that they happen to have in their collection – which will have to wait for another post to get their airing.

Anyway, here’s the article. Enjoy!

 

*on the eve of the triggering of Article 50 and Britain’s imminent departure from Europe, that’ll be my wistfully subtle Brexit link for this post

 

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May 20

Undressed: a brief history of underwear

 

 

 

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Undressed: a brief history of underwear exhibition at the V&A

 

Undressed: a brief history of underwear is this year’s big fashion show at the V&A. Curated by Edwina Ehrman and sponsored by luxury lingerie maker Agent Provocateur plus make-up producer Revlon, it explores men and women’s undergarments from around 1750 to the present.

Displayed thematically alongside images from the V&A’s extensive archive, the exhibition charts notions of the intimate and private, the healthy and hygienic, the advance of materials and their mastery, and the curious structural re-shaping of the body that has taken place over the past 250 years or so. That covers quite a range of emphatically gendered female silhouettes, from the stately panniered court dresses of the eighteenth century through the exaggerated hourglass figures of the corseted Victorian and Edwardian eras, the flat-chested androgyny of the 1920s to the conical bosoms of the 1950s. Men’s underwear has changed less dramatically over that time, as (by and large) men’s private layers were designed for comfort, not the radical alteration of physiology.

I spent three hours yesterday poring over the exhibition with as great an attention to detail as I could muster. Photography is strictly not allowed there, which is wonderfully good discipline in that it forces you to really look closely and observe – though it’s undoubtedly frustrating when you have a blog post to illustrate. 

What struck me right away was how the prosaically personal and the fantastically erotic rub shoulders; there is underwear here that is worn quite unselfconsciously, and then there’s ‘private’ wear that is worn to be seen in. In the former category are the simple, functional body-covering shifts or chemises made from linen (and later cotton), the direct descendants of medieval base garments; the shift’s function was to provide a protective, comfortable layer between body and outer, non-washable clothing. And it needed to stand up well to a boil-wash – the presence of embroidered initials remind us that these items would receive the attentions of a professional laundress. Lingerie, as it developed in the twentieth century into flimsy silk and lace concoctions, provides an example of the second type of underwear, worn with display very much in mind.

And the second thing that struck me was the advance of technology through the centuries. Underwear has represented serious engineering kit requiring earnest hardware: hooks, eyelets, buttons, strings, whalebones, busks, pins, horsehair pads, metal hoops, elastic panels and more, to contain, attach, raise, lower, restrain, shape, frame, bulk out and sculpt the body. You wouldn’t want any of this to give out on you at a critical moment – a wardrobe failure representing a kind of social death, if not a literal one; a few very unfortunate women did actually meet their maker wearing unwisely voluminous crinolines, though many more must have accidentally displayed their drawers (and blushes) to the world sitting down a little carelessly. 

 

What I really liked…

My personal highlights included:

Stays  – the forerunner of the corset and such beautiful things. The exhibition includes several examples such as a very ‘real’ rough-and-ready pair worn by of a working woman from Whitby – complete with pin hidden inside one panel (just visible on an accompanying x-ray). And also busks – made of wood or bone – which would have kept the centre front straight and rigid. These were often personalised with carving and would have been given as love tokens – appropriately, lying close (as they did literally) to the wearer’s heart.

Men’s shirts – these were considered ‘underwear’ in the eighteenth century because worn next to the skin. Indeed, it would have been considered indecent to show one’s shirt sleeves in public. And that fact alone provides the perfect excuse to view this scene again with a renewed sense of its Regency shock-value (though Darcy’s lake swim was a BBC elaboration and not included in Jane Austen’s original book).

Maternity gear – there were some great examples of how women managed pregnancy and breastfeeding while retaining the various fashionable lines of the nineteenth century. For example, there’s an 1820s empire line day dress with slits in the bodice to allow breastfeeding, plus a 1900 maternity corset with side-lacing to accommodate a growing belly, and poppered openings to enable infant feeding.

Rear view – several items illustrated that exaggeration of the bottom in the form of the bustle, back when a woman would presumably have asked her friend: ‘Does my bum look big enough in this?’. If not, the answer might well have been the lightweight and collapsible Keelapso bustle, which is illustrated in the exhibition by a delightful contemporary advert, or a striking black-and-white striped cotton crinolette with a scalloped black braid edge – quite beautiful enough to wear as an outer garment today by someone bold enough. You’ll find it, featured in detail in Eleri Lynn’s Fashion in Detail (see below).

Rational dress – women’s growing activity in the later nineteenth century led to the advent of various items of ‘sportswear’, including specialist corsets for riding, cycling and golf (which were sometimes a little shorter and made of more robust materials) as well as the rise of the bloomer. 

Jaeger – founded in 1884,  Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System Co Ltd ushered in a craze for wearing wool next to the skin, on the grounds that animal fibre was superior to plant matter, cotton being the default textile for underwear at this time. Wool underwear was favoured by many explorers, including Ernest Shackleton. George Bernard Shaw (GBS) was a big fan too; his Jaeger wool undershirt is included in the exhibition, alongside a picture of him in his Jaeger combinations.

Corsets – often with impossibly tiny waists, and in sumptuous colours and fabrics. I really appreciated the hand-stitched corded quilting on an an early (1825) version. The fuchsia corset on the front of the exhibition catalogue (below) illustrates the two-part front-fastening busk, first introduced in the 1820s, an advance that allowed women to dress unaided for the first time – before that, you needed someone else to lace you up. Curious to think that putting on your clothing before that (at least, for women) had to be a collaborative act. 

 

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Undressed – image from the exhibition poster and catalogue

 

The advance of materials – periodically, new materials have revolutionised how underwear works. Nylon, for instance, made it easy to wash and quick to  dry – and did not require any ironing. And the advent of Lycra in the 1950s made a huge difference to what structural garments could achieve. Hello girdle!

If I had any quibble with this show, it was that I found some of the contemporary inclusions alongside the historical garments slightly arbitrary. I would, for example, rather have seen display space in the early cabinets devoted to more of the deep historical stuff (more shifts, more stays, more busks and some jumps, maybe) than a selection of contemporary bamboo knickers featuring days of the week; these might instead have been grouped into a section illustrating the growth of ethically produced, sustainable underwear in the modern era.

I really like to view things in the order that the curator/s intended, so found the large print accompanying spiral-bound guide (free to use within the exhibition) very helpful and would recommend that any visitor takes that round with them.

 

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Victorian advert for a collapsing bustle

 

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London until 12th March 2017. Entry standard price: £12. Accompanying catalogue: £10. 

Underwear: Fashion in Detail by Eleri Lynn (first published 2010),  a wonderful book featuring 120 objects from the V&A’s collection, is available at a special exhibition discount (£20, down from the usual £25). 

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Oct 11

She stoops to conker

 

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Picking up the gleaming treasure under horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) is irresistible at this time of year. You’re never too old for your inner child to spring into squirrely action and pocket a few.

 

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Residents of Britain might think of the horse chestnut as a native tree, but it’s really a naturalised immigrant, originating in the Balkans and imported from mainland Europe around 1550-1570. Imagine Shakespeare seeing it as the latest faddy garden ornamental! When we lived in London, my husband and I used to tandem down the Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park under its broad canopy of horse chestnut trees. In full flower, they are a spectacular sight, and the park has a festival each May to celebrate the showy white candle-like blossoms.

The trees there might not be looking quite so magnificent these days as some have fallen prey to several forms of destructive blight. It’s estimated that 10 per cent of British trees are now affected, those in London suffering more than most. There were no conkers at all at Kew Gardens in 2006. Unthinkable! More about the various pests and pathogens attacking horse chestnuts over here.

 

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If you’re lucky enough to find any conkers, what can you do with them? First, do nothing but admire the shoe-shine perfection of the russety globes, fresh from their acid-green spiked casing. Next, according to Roald Dahl, utter the greeting “Oddly, oddly, my first conker” thereby seeing off any misfortune heading your way in the coming season. It’s worth a try.

 

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Uses

Insect/spider deterrents.  There’s been a lot of talk about this. Giles Deacon, fashion designer and insect enthusiast, reportedly recommends conkers as a natural moth deterrent (Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2012). Their brown skins contain a compound called triterpenoid saponin which wards off these pests. Worth trying.

 

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The idea is to scatter them liberally in corners, and tuck them in with your woollies etc. You could drill holes and hang them on strings or wire if you want a more decorative approach. But I wouldn’t bother. Especially as their plump sheen is so short-lived and the shrivelled version is best kept out of sight. Do they also work as a spider deterrent? I’m not sure, but what’s to be lost by trying?

Horse food?  That old chestnut! No, don’t try this at home. When eaten by horses, horse chestnuts produce tremors and lack of coordination. Though deer, cattle, sheep and squirrels are not affected by the toxins – that saponin again – which would destroy our red blood cells if we consumed them. The nuts are, though, harmless to handle.

Grinding up horse chestnuts and and boiling them in water appears to make them just about edible for horses, but hardly seems worth the effort. The name may originate from the nuts being used to create a medicine for equine respiratory disorders. 

Pile cure. The mind boggles, but apparently horse chestnuts have astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. They contain a glycoside – esculoside – which has been shown to shrink distended veins. It need to be pulverised and processed into some kind of cream first,  and then applied topically. Commercial forms of this cream are available.

Fabric soap/bleach/whitener. The saponin in horse chestnuts also performs as a whitener, traditionally used to bleach flax, hemp, silk and wool in places such as France and Switzerland. Scientifically speaking, it’s the aesculin or esculinic acid – a glucoside – in the inner bark of the horse chestnut which has ultra violet fluorescence, acting as an optical whitener. More about that over here. If you want to try this at home, you need approximately 20 horse chestnuts per 6 litres of soft water. The method sounds a little complicated. And before you rush off to discover it, the brightening qualities of horse chestnut extract may wash out and are sensitive to light, so proceed with caution.

Conkers. If the tree isn’t native to Britain, the game played with the fruiting body certainly appears to be. It was first recorded on the Isle of Wight in 1848, but was described by the poet Robert Southey in the 1820s as played with other types of nut. The World Conker Championships were established near Oundle, Northants in 1965 and take place on the 2nd Sunday of each October. I could add a lot more but the game boils down pretty well to: a) drill hole in conker; b) thread onto string and knot well; c) find opponent with same; and d) get walloping.

Doll furniture. This idea of making little tables and chairs from conkers appeared in the 1965 (obviously a good year for conkers!) Puffin book Something to Do. All you need is a few pins to make legs plus back and arm supports, and some scraps of wool. Think The Borrowers meets Mid-century styling. I’ve had this book since childhood and remember having a go at these, probably over a long, wet weekend. As far as I can recall, the furniture had all shrivelled and the pins rusted by the end of Sunday. A little disappointing, but fun while it lasted.

 

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Finally, a couple of noteworthy horse chestnut trees for you. Here is officially Britain’s biggest horse chestnut tree, down in Hampshire; we’re talking girth, not height, with this giant measuring in at a over 7 metres around its bole. And Anne Frank described her inspirational view of a horse chestnut tree in her diary entry for 23rd February 1944 (see below). The beleaguered tree sadly blew down in August 2010, but 11 offspring saplings survived it. They are all destined for meaningful sites of remembrance: one is destined to be planted at the site of 9/11

 

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I will think of Anne Frank the next time I pick up a conker, and feel profoundly fortunate.

 

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PS  The title of this post alludes to She Stoops to Conquer, a play by Oliver Goldsmith. First performed in 1773, it’s a prototypical RomCom. Here’s a little film about Mark Thompson’s 18th century costumes for Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 National Theatre production. If you like corsets, not to mention pleated ribbon embellishments, you’ll be very happy. Enjoy your weekend, and remember that love conkers all… 

 

 

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