Whenever I am down in Nelson I go shopping for old photographs. I don’t know why I can’t find an antique store near to me that carries them, but for some reason they don’t.
I collect old photographs as costume research, and as visual stories.
Usually I find a lot of sweet late Victorian and early 20th century images, but this time I managed to find a selection of 1860s-1880s photographs, which I’m quite excited about.
I particularly collect images of people in fancy dress, and women in work clothes, but I also have a keen interest in people in unattractive and ill-fitting clothes, as an illustration of the imperfections of the past. We tend to romanticise past fashions, and old clothes, and think of everyone as being glamorous and beautifully put together, in perfectly fitted clothes, and that simply wasn’t true.
Even taking into account that informal photography was quite rare, and most people would have chosen to be photographed in their best clothes, you get ensembles like this:
It’s terribly unflattering on her, the proportions are all wrong, the fit is terrible, and it’s quite rumpled. And I adore it! So much more interesting than a pretty dress. I almost wonder if she might be pregnant, given what’s happening with her stomach.
I estimate the dress at 1881-3. The photograph was taken by the Ewing Brothers, of Station Road, somewhere in the UK.
Going back in time a decade and a bit this middle aged woman of the mid 1860s is quite beautifully dressed, but her gown still demonstrates that even in period, unattractive hoopskirt bulge and hem collapse happened.
She was photographed by David Gay “Photographer to his late Royal Highness the Prince Consort” of 74 Cheapside London EC. Now that’s a good bit of history just on the back of the photograph!
More unattractive hoopskirt-ness in this lady here – the dress just lacks any sort of elegance. She seems to have a very tall, lanky build – quite awkward for this style. The chair is quite fetching though! And those are some sausage curls! I’m pretty sure they are a hairpiece, which was the main reason I picked up the photo.
It’s by “City of London Photographic Copying Company, 18 Queen Street, Cheapside”, which I presume means they weren’t the original photographers. Based on the hoop, I’d say late 1860s?
For more unlovely hoopskirts, I found this fantastic family group. Despite the petticoats she would have been wearing, there are clear hoop lines on the girl on the far right. And check out the wrinkles on her bodice, and the other young woman in the light dress. It’s really comforting to know fit wasn’t always perfect in period.
The father’s suit really intrigues me. It’s so dark and rich and almost looks velvet-y. And what are the knot motifs on his collar? Most fascinating!
The best thing about the photo though, is the young man standing at the back. It’s Heathcliff! I’ve always imagined him looking exactly like that!
Sadly there is no information on that photo. I’d date it to ca. 1863.
My final entry in the unattractive hoopskirt hall of fame is one without a hoopskirt at all – or with a very tiny hoop. It’s really nice to see a reasonably practical, restrained, sensible style captured in a photograph. And you can just see the line of her corset.
I’d date this to the late 1860s or early 1870s, though the ensemble lacks any of the fashionable extremes that help with dating. Sadly, there is no information at all about the photographer.
In total contrast to the restraint in the photo above is this fabulous frock. Check out the lace! Check out the ruffles! Check out that amazing trim! And the backdrop! It’s all so delicious!
I’m also in love with the wrinkles and creases at each seam in the skirt, despite the obvious cost of the outfit. It really demonstrates how hard ironing was at the time, both as you sewed, and after.
Our beauty was photographed by Arthur J Melhuish “Photographer Royal / By Special Appointment / International Exhibition 1862 / Dublin Exhibition 1865 / Portrait Painter & Photographer / 12 York Place / Portman Square / London W”. I date her to ca. 1870, and I think she’s just divine! I wonder, comparing her to photographs like this, if she might not be Princess Alexandra – she was a very popular subject for carte-de-visites at the time.
Another lady who I think is just divine in this late 1880s lass. Her outfit fits very well and is full of gorgeous details, though it’s not really to my taste (I dislike moire almost as much as I dislike fringe). I think the gathered/smocked V at the front of her skirt is fascinating. The crossover effect on the bodice is quite cunning, and the fact that you can see that it doesn’t fit perfectly at the neck where it attaches only makes it better. The collapse at the top of her corset is a good detail to notice as well.
The thing that most jumped out at me with this photo was her waist. Compare it to the size of her neck and head. See how her waist is 2x the size of her head? That’s a standard waist size today. She’s clearly corseted, but mostly to give her body a nice stiff foundation for the bodice to sit over. It really isn’t about waist reduction at all.
I do wonder who this woman was. I can’t quite make out what book she is reading. She’s got such a frank, interesting face, and strong, beautiful hands. I wonder if she was a bit liberal and artistic – the smocking, though seen in standard fashions, was particularly associated with the aesthetic movement.
I’ve got a few more photos to show you, but they are on a different theme, so I’ll leave them for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of my photo gallery!
Last week I posted a 1910s frock by Mrs Dunstan, and while a few of you found points to quibble about, in general the consensus was a gasp of admiration and a chorus of ‘Stunnings!’, with a staggering 24 out of 45 10/10 ratings. Still, courtesy of the non-lovers, the overall rating was only 8.9 out of 10.
I know it’s winter, and coming up towards Christmas, but it doesn’t feel like it here in NZ. Asparagus is just winding up, cherries and berries are just starting, and the weather has been warm and muggy. Still, I feel I should post something a bit winter-y, holiday-y, and chocolate and plaid seem to fit the bill perfectly.
You’re going to have to use just a wee bit of imagination in rating this dress, as I only have two images of it: a rather uninspiring view of the dress on display in the ‘Our New Old Clothes’ exhibition from the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives, and a gorgeous detailed image of the bodice of the dress.
Let’s start with the detailed image:
And now, the dress in its entirety on display:
And a little closer:
Between the two you can see the rich chocolate brown silk, enlivened by bias cut tartan trim, ‘prairie points’ around the bodice hem and sleeves, and shiny black buttons. The buttons go all the way down the skirt as well, and are fully functional. Shippensburg have indicated that the dress may have been re-made from an earlier garment, perhaps a wrapper.
The whole thing rather reminds me of a chocolate box tied up with a plaid ribbon, though that could be either a very good thing, or a very bad thing. What do you think? Lovely late-1860s winter warmth? Or too twee?
Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.
Since I don’t want my HSF-marathon posts to get monotonous, I’ve come up with the clever idea of combining them with other thematic posts, for double-goodness. Today I have a cute finished project, and a long overdue terminology post.
First, some terminology:
A reticule is a small drawstring bag carried as a purse by a woman in the 18th and early 19th century. It was also used as a synonym for any kind of purse or handbag carried by a woman.
The name comes from the latin reticulum, meaning a net or mesh bag (the same word has given its meaning to reticle – the cross-hairs (or net) in a firearm scope or telescope). It entered English, as so many fashion words did, from the French, in this case, réticule.
Fichu de Velours, Redingote de Merinos (and a tasseled reticule), Costume Parisiene
The word was first used in the 1730s, but remained relatively uncommon through the 18th century. The Memoirs of the Reticule states ” I am not aware of any mention of the reticule until after the French Revoluton.” At the end of the 18th century, as fashions changed from full skirted dresses that could easily conceal pockets, to slim garments of light fabrics that would show unsightly bulges over pockets, that reticules came into their own. Easily made, easily carried, they were the indispensable accessory of the last decade of the 18th century and the first three decades of the 19th. They were, in fact, so very indispensable that they were also known as indispensables.
Reticules might be indispensable useful, but they weren’t beyond reproach. Older women continued to prefer pockets, and reticules were seen as being almost risqué, because they were essentially pockets, and thus an undergarment which was suddenly carried on the outside. One could liken them to corsets in the modern world – while it is acceptable to wear a corset as evening wear, it’s still a bit suggestive, and certainly not appropriate for conservative dress. Reticules were also condemned for being masculine, because men carried their money and other items outside their dress, in pocketbooks and bags, and women hid their items away in pockets. Now women had a purse of their own that could literally be passed from hand to hand (and the obvious metaphor of pockets vs purses especially when your purses are the usual reticule shape all becomes a little well, obvious and weird about this point).
Reticule, 1818–30, Mexican, glass, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 2009.300.1902
Even if not scandalous, the idea of women carrying their private belongings externally, in their hand, was considered ridiculous. The Almanac des Ridicules, 1801, begins with a little rhyme about reticules and their riduculousness to the effect that a woman looses her reticule, and wants to post a sign “don’t do a thing, says her husband, you will always have enough ridiculousness.” Reticules were already widely known as ridicules by this time.
Walking outfit, Ackerman’s Repository, Vol. 5, Feb. 1, 1811
Although reticules ceased to be as important as fashion accessories once styles changed, and stiffer handbags, and full dresses with pockets, came into fashion as the 19th century progressed, reticules were still used, both as fashion items, and as a term to designate a specifically feminine carry-all. In 1867 a small dictionary was entitled: ‘The Reticule and Pocket Companion, Or, Miniature Lexicon of the English Language’. A male user would carry his edition in his pocket, but a woman, rather than having a purse, would have a reticule to carry hers in.
One of the many advantages of reticules was how easy they were to make. Stiff leather purses required special tools and strong hands, and were the provenance of leather workers, but any seamstress could make a reticule. The 1831 American Girl’s Book: Or, Occupation for Play Hours, has a whole chapter devoted to reticules, with instructions on ten different varieties, from a ‘melon shaped reticule’ to a ‘pocket book reticule’ (instructions for making all the reticules, with illustrations, begin on page 262 for those who are interested).
While the drawstring bags were never at the height of fashion again, reticule was used to describe small handbags and drawstring workbags into the early 20th century.
Hiner, Susan. Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011
Monroe & Francis, The Spirit of the English Magazine. 1831
Riberio, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. B.T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1988
Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930. Faber and Faber: London. 1968
Knitted pineapple reticule in the Kyoto Museum’s 1800-1810 collection
One of the most famous, and certainly most charming, reticule fashions was for pineapple shaped reticules. Many sources credit the trend to a fashion for exotic fruits inspired by Joséphine de Beauharnaises homeland of Martinique, but pineapples had been a symbol of ultimate exoticism and luxury in European arts and fashion since their introduction into Europe in the 17th century. They were grown in greenhouses across Europe from the 1720s, and in the late 18th and early 19th century you could even rent pineapples for your dinner party centrepieces, to give your event that final touch of wealth and elegance.
Historical examples of pineapple reticules were usually knitted or crocheted, but in my usual “I can’t knit, but how can I replicate this style” way, I’ve been working on sewn versions of the pineapple reticule for years now. American Duchess won my first one in a giveaway, and I was thrilled to see in a recent photo that she still carries it.
For the HSF, to cross a few more challenges off my list, I’ve made another pineapple reticule. This is my fourth attempt, but I’ve misplaced at least two along the way.
It’s not as cute as the crocheted versions, but I like it! So what challenges does it cover?
#1: Bi/Tri/Quadri/Quin/Sex/Septi/Octo/Nona/Centennial – pineapple reticules were most fashionable in the first decade of the 19th century, but there are examples from as late as 1830, so this one is definitely plausible (or as much as it can be in its inaccuracies) for 1813.
#7: Accessorize - It’s a reticule!
#9: Flora and Fauna – It’s a pineapple!
#11: Squares, Rectangles & Triangles - Two rectangles and 11 triangles = one pineapple reticule.
#21: Colour Challenge Green – The green leaves and bottom should make it qualify, right?
#22: Masquerade - This ones a teeny bit of a stretch, but since it’s not perfectly historical, and it is quite fantastical, I think it works.
#25: One Metre – Clearly not a lot of fabric in it!
#26: Celebrate – Since pineapples were so celebratory, I think I can count this one as well.
The Challenge: #24: Re-Do
Fabric: scrap of orange-gold silk with pintucks, scrap of green silk (both from stash, and free)
Pattern: my own
Notions: Ribbon (icky poly satin, so I need to find a better alternative
How historically accurate is it? The idea of a pineapple reticule is accurate, but the materials (despite being silk) and execution are not.
Hours to complete: 2ish. Fun little evening project.
First worn: Not yet, but it will make appearances with Regency gowns.
Total cost: $0
Knitted pineapple reticule in the Kyoto Museum’s 1800-1810 collection