A tale of sewing secrets revealed…

One of the things that I really love about  fashion history is that clothes are both individual and societal stories.  There are general overall societal truths and trends, but there are also examples in every period of people creating things that were totally unique, making do, and making things up.  There are a lot of examples of quite unique innovations in early NZ fashion history, as people attempted to follow European fashions with limited resources and without access to a full range of materials and patterns.

This particular story of someone’s clever make do, and the unfortunate  reveal of their secret has always amused me.

During the recent windy weather I was meandering along Kaponga Road in the evening when I espied a fair damsel turning the Bank corner.  She wore one of those arrangements the ladies call a ‘waterfall’ which the wind blew to one side, and shewed to my horrified gaze, a neatly tied bundle of straw, doing service as an improver.

The story is recounted in  Eve Ebbet’s In True Colonial Fashion: A Lively Look at What New Zealander’s Wore.  Sadly, Ebbet  does not tell us the name of the writer, or the date (only that it was from “the years when the bustle was in fashion”).  I’m working my way through her original sources, and hope to discover more precise details.

It’s not precisely a sewing secret, but it’s still great inspiration for the Sewing Secret’s Challenge

The fair damsel’s ‘waterfall’ ensemble  may have looked a bit like this, but probably wasn’t nearly as fancy:

Walking dress, 1880s

Walking dress, 1880s

In addition to finding the original source for Ebbett’s quote, I’ve also discovered that I need to do a terminology post on waterfall bustles, as  a quick scan of sources reveals they referred to slightly different styles across the bustle era, and that the term is a bit muddled and confused – more research is needed!


  1. Daniel says

    I actually thought it meant waterfall as in the hairstyle….

    • Every single mention of ‘waterfall’ referring to fashion or clothing that I have found in a NZ newspaper from 1870-1900 clearly refers to skirt drapery, so I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.

  2. I think my all time favorite sewing secret was this vest in LACMA’s collection which I was lucky enough to see on display in their Fashioning Fashion exhibit.

    While the outside of this pro-French revolutionary’s vest is rife with political symbolism and colors it is lined with the silk – an aristo newly converted to the cause!


  3. In the Hunter Mansion in Harrisburg, PA there are several silk gowns that had to my surprise a straw stuffed bustle as support. (it was kinda prickly!) but it was always under the base skirt and pretty sure a gust of wind would not be able to reveal it. One gown also had sticks wrapped in cloth to hold it back in the fashionable bustle shape. That looked majorly uncomfortable.

  4. Frances Yaxley says

    This could only happen in a small rural town like Kaponga… The bank is still there. The descendants of this lady probably are too.

  5. Heh, I love this story. You have to salute the woman’s ingenuity. I find these creative attempts to recreate European fashions using materials and resources that were available quite interesting. Do you think, Leimomi, that you would ever want to write a post on such things? I’d like to read it.

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