To go with our 18th century ‘Rate the Dress‘, this week’s terminology post is 18th century. Our term: bosom friend.
A bosom friend isn’t just the 18th century word for your BFF. It is, literally, a friend for your bosom: a shaped tippet of wool, flannel, or fur, and later a knitted scarf, which kept the chest warm and served as a bust enhancer for less well endowed women.
Bosom friends were worn from the late 18th century till the mid 19th. They were particularly useful with the low necklines and thin muslin dresses at the turn of the century.
A 1789 entry in the Norfolk Chronicle explains the garment:
The fashionable belles have provided themselves with bosom friends for the winter. Their province is to protect that delicate region from assault in every kind; and they may be had at all the furriers shops in town.
Once muslin became the predominant fabric, bosom friends weren’t just for winter use. In 1802 Nancy Woodeford, a country parson’s niece from Norfolk, England, wrote of a friend coming to visit wearing ‘a fur tippet, a bosom friend and a Muff and a Winter Cloke’. And this in July!
The fashionable belles and country matrons of Norfolk may have embraced them, but not everybody approved. A 1796 article published in Philadelphia describes them as pads worn in the bosom as a safeguard against cold weather, and adds that they are ‘scandalous’ and ‘suspicious in appearance’. Oh dear! I think that must be about their double-use as bust enhancers.
Scandalous or not, ‘bosom friends’ were certainly as open to mockery as all fashions. In 1807 a very amusing satirical poem (page 83) was dedicated “to Mrs _____, who had presented the author with a bosom-friend constructed of fur.”
The last description I can find for a bosom friend comes from the 1840 Workwoman’s Guide, which gives complete instructions for a knitted bosom scarf:
Set on your pin seventy stitches, and knit in imitation knitting for about 100 rows, when knit twenty-five stitches for the next row, after which take another pin and fasten off the next twenty stitches, the knit the next twenty-five stitches on another pin.
Continue knitting the twenty-five stitches on one pin in the same stitch, fastening off one stitch at the beginning and the end of each row, next to the middle, which forms the hollowing round the neck . When the stitches are reduced to four fasten off.
Do the same with the other pin containing twenty-five stitches, and fasten off.
Sew white ribbon to the corners to hang it round the neck.
Some persons do not hollow out bosom friends, but knit them square or oblong.
Goodness! I bet that makes perfect sense if you actually know what you are making, but if you don’t it makes none!
I’d be tempted to call my winter scarves ‘bosom friends’ from now on, but it turns out that a modern company has co-opted the other, less warm and cuddly and more provocative, meaning. If you take my meaning!
Unfortunately I was not able to find any images of what was definitely a bosom buddy, so I hope you enjoy my Georgian to Regency winter wear images.
Blauvet, J, Avalanche, Anthony, and Glacier, Gregory. Fashion’s Analysis Or The Winter In Town, Part 1: A Satirical Poem, With Notes, Illustrations, Etc. J Osborn, 1807
Buck, Anne. Dress in Eigteenth-Cetury England. B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1979
Cumming, Valerie, Cunnington, C. W, and Cunnington,P.E. The Dictionary of Fashion History. Berg Publishers, London. 2010
Schorsch, Anita. Images of Childhood: An Illustrated Social History. Mayflower Books, 1979
The workwoman’s guide, containing instructions in cutting out and completing articles of wearing, 1840.