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Ettie Rout: War Hero, Journalist, Health Campaigner, and the “wickedest woman in Britain”

The Ettie Petticoat didn’t get its name just because it makes for a cute hashtag (#ettiepettie), (although that did help!).  It’s named for Ettie Rout: war hero, journalist and author, health campaigner, and the “wickedest woman in Britain”.  She’s a fascinating figure whose modern legacy is as complicated as society’s reception of her was in her own time.

The front page of the Scroop Patterns Ettie Petticoat

Ettie Rout was born in Tasmania in 1877.  Her family moved to New Zealand in 1884, when she was almost 8.  Her father worked as a plumber, and the family struggled financially.

Rout excelled at school, and later in shorthand and typing classes.  In 1902 these skills landed her a position as a shorthand writer for the New Zealand Supreme Court (now the High Court).  Here she was exposed to court cases covering a whole range of social issues: an unusual experience for an educated young woman at the dawn of the Edwardian era.  In 1904 she became a journalist.  She used her court experience to cover stories that went far beyond the fashion column and household tips articles that most women journalists were confined to.

Rout came of age at an amazing time.  She was 16 when New Zealand women gained the vote.  A variety of campaigns for social reform were linked the suffrage movement: worker’s rights, rational dress, temperance and prohibition, even health issues like diet and exercise.

The cycling costume & dress reform

Rout embraced many of these.  She was an active socialist.  She used her journalism skills to found and edit a newspaper for the New Zealand Shearers’ Union.  She took up cycling and ‘physical culture’.  She wrote impassioned letters about women’s rights to earn equal wages to men.  She stopped wearing corsets (maybe – there’s contradictory evidence), and even wore trousers when she could get away with it.  At some point she became a vegetarian.  She became friends with the radical intellectuals of New Zealand, and was exposed to the newest in political, feminist, and sexual-health theories.

The Press, 13 June 1904

The Press, 13 June 1904

Not all of Rout’s convictions were so counter-culture for her time, or so acceptable in ours.  She became a firm believer in eugenics: a doctrine that was wildly popular in the early 20th century (embraced by everyone from New Zealand’s Sir Truby King to Winston Churchill, to Theodore Roosevelt, to Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History for a quarter of a century), but which is now, thankfully, well out of favour.

Also typical of her time, Rout also saw herself as a patriotic member of the British Empire.  When WWI started she wanted to contribute to the war effort.  To this end, Rout organised volunteer nurses to help out in the service camps in New Zealand, and later to go overseas.

Members of the VNS were between the ages of 30 & 50.  The uniform of the Volunteer Nursing Sisterhood was:

“a blue print dress, blue lustre cloak, white panama hats, with white aprons and “Sister Dora” caps for indoor wear.”

You can see Ettie Rout and some VNS members here.

In 1916 Rout went to Egypt to serve with the VNS herself.

The Sun (Christchurch), January 3rd, 1916

Ettie Rout’s Departure, The Sun (Christchurch), January 3rd, 1916

She quickly realised that there was one major gap in the soldier’s medical and social care that could not be addressed by serving tea at the YMCA and changing sheets at the hospitals.  The overseas forces were rife with venereal disease.

If the Olympics have taught us anything it’s that if you put a lot of fit young people in one place, you’re going to need a lot of condoms.  New Zealand and Australia has sent thousands of young men into a situation where they were free of their normal social constraints and the expectations of their community.  They were alternately extremely bored and extremely terrified.  They wanted something to do, realised they could die at any minute, and were in a country where they had significantly more money than the average women.  They also, by and large, had very little sex education.  VDs were the result.

Rout realised what scientific research has since backed up time and time again: education and prophylactics are much more effective at preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancy than moral strictures and draconian laws.

Rout began campaigning the New Zealand Medical Corp to issue prophylactic kits, and inspec brothels so they could recommend ‘hygenic’ ones.

When the NZMC ignored her, she took matters into her own hands.  She assembled her own kit, set up a social club near the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital outside of London, and began selling the kit at the club.  She continued to campaign for the kits to be official military issue, writing letters to New Zealand newspapers about the need for them.  One of these letters so incensed the the Women’s Christian Temperance Union so much that they officially condemned Rout’s suggestion

Grey River Argus, 20 March 1918, WCTU object to Ettie Rout's suggestion that NZ troops should be supplied with prophylactic kits

Grey River Argus, 20 March 1918

Despite opposition in New Zealand, the letter had the desired effect.  In 1917 the NZMC adopted Rout’s exact kit and made it compulsory issue for any solider going on leave.  Not only did Rout get no credit or recognition, but the New Zealand government was so anxious to avoid any suggestion that their armed forces might be slack in moral fibre and self control that they forbid New Zealand papers from publishing Rout’s name, with a £100 fine for infractions.

Although the kits helped, Rout still felt that it was necessary to direct soldiers to clean brothels.  So, just as she had with the kits, she decided she’d have to do it herself.  She moved to Paris and began meeting trains of NZ soldiers, welcoming each soldier with a kiss on the cheek – and the business card of a safe brothel!

Rout continued her work until the end of the war, and then ran a Red Cross outpost as the war wound down.  The NZ Returned Servicemen’s Association sent her a post-war tribute of £100 (how apropos!), but there was no official recognition of her service from New Zealand.  Her own country may have snubbed her, but the French government awarded her the Médaille de la Reconnaissance française for her work inspecting brothels.

After the war Rout returned to writing, this time as an author.  She published an exercise manual, a vegetarian cookbook, a wildly inaccurate book on Maori culture which was really just an excuse for her to promote eugenics (she claimed that Maori practiced eugenics by killing weak babies (did I mention wildly inaccurate?) – which was why they had been strong and healthy – not that eugenics should be practiced against them), and, most famously, 1923’s Safe Marriage: A Return to Sanity.

The latter was a best-seller in Britain and Australia, but banned in New Zealand.  Its frank discussion on reproduction and sexual health so infuriated the Anglican church that one Bishop called her “the wickedest woman in Britain.”

Safe Marriage is an interesting read as an illustration of the information on reproduction and prophylactics that was available in the ‘teens and 20s.  It also demonstrates towards sexual responsibility, and sexual health, prevalent even among the most liberal elements of society.  Or perhaps Ettie adapted the book to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience? (although church and medical responses suggest not).

Ettie Rout was married (to Mr Hornibrook, for those of you with extremely juvenile senses of humour) by this time, but the marriage didn’t last.  She returned to New Zealand briefly in 1935-6, and then travelled on to Rarotonga, where she died of an overdose (probably intentionally).

Obituaries of Rout in New Zealand delicately skirted her work, referring to her as ‘humanitarian’ or as a campaigner for ‘welfare methods’

Poverty Bay Herald, 23 September 1936, Mrs. F. A. Hornibrook (Miss Ettie Rout), in Paris, where she conducted a hostel for colonial troops during the Great War, as well as inaugurating a campaign for welfare methods for the troops. Inset, Mrs. Hornibrook. who died at Rarotonga last Thursday.

IN PARIS IN THE WAR YEARS.—Mrs. F. A. Hornibrook (Miss Ettie Rout), in Paris, where she conducted a hostel for colonial troops during the Great War, as well as inaugurating a campaign for welfare methods for the troops. Inset, Mrs. Hornibrook. who died at Rarotonga last Thursday.

It wasn’t until 1939 that any New Zealand newspaper actually addressed her work:

The Press, 6 December 1939, Letter to the Editor about Ettie Rout

The Press, 6 December 1939, Letter to the Editor about Ettie Rout

Even then, the focused remained entirely on the men Ettie Rout helped.  I’m also interested in all the woman that she helped, directly, and indirectly.  How many thousands of women were not infected with VD’s spread by soldiers during and after the war because of her work?

Aesthetically, the Ettie Petticoat isn’t a clear match to its namesake.  Rout preferred extremely practical ‘mannish’ dress, and a ruffly petticoat that is not.  Instead, I was thinking of all those women who did wear ruffly petticoats, and were helped, whether they knew it or not, by Ettie.  The link is also metaphorical: a petticoat pattern named for a woman who attempted to force her country to acknowledge and care for what went on under society’s skirts.

Wedding dress, Drapery Supply Association, 1920, Dunedin, Silk with feather and metallic thread trims and metal fastenings, PC003279, Gift of Mrs Tui Preston, 1984

Rate the Dress: Sheer Tiers in 1920

I’m having computer issue, which are a most inconvenient thing to happen during a strict lockdown (first world problems,  I know!).  So I’m stuck doing a lot of work from a very old, slow laptop…but that comes with a perk.  I’m finding a forgotten cache of Rate the Dress possibilities.  Such fun!  My one problem is making sure I don’t pick one that I’ve already run before.

I’m pretty sure this tiered confection is new to Rate the Dress.  It’s certainly novel for its era: embracing all the latest trends of its era, and venturing out in to a bit of quirkiness all of its own.  What will you make of it?

Last week: an 1840s day dress in printed silk

You all agreed that the fabric for last week’s dress was absolutely gorgeous.  Opinions on the rest of the dress elements were more mixed.  Some of you loved the lace, some of you felt it didn’t match the rest of the dress.  There was also a lot of criticism of the shoulder slope, which seems a little unfair: 1840s dresses will always have slopey shoulders, and I did ask you to rate the garment as an example of an 1840s dress!

The Total: 8.5 out of 10

Down a smidge on the week before.

This week: a tiered and feathered New Zealand wedding dress from 1920

This layered, ruffled, feathered, embroidered, appliqued and lace trimmed wedding dress was worn by a New Zealand bride, 26 year old Tui McKinnon, to her June 1920 wedding.  Sixty-four years later she donated her beautifully preserved wedding dress to the national museum.

The dress was made by the Dunedin department store Drapery Supply Association.  In addition to ready-made garments, the store made custom items, like this dress, which bears their ‘Drapery Supply Association / Costumiers / Dunedin’ label

(How happy does this make me, as a Costume Construction teacher training a new generation of costumiers?  Very!)

As this was a custom piece, Tui probably had a lot of say in its design.  It’s a fascinating mix of Edwardian detailing, texture and layering, with the sweetness we so often see in early ’20s dress, and a willingness to experiment with materials and silhouette that characterised more avant garde ‘teens and ’20s fashion.

One very interesting feature to point out is the raised waistline.  The fashionable waist level in the late 1910s was all over the place: at the natural waist, dropped, very dropped, and raised.  There was even was a brief return of the fashion for empire waistlines in the early 20s, as this dress demonstrates.

It’s quite a distinctive dress, and you may be wondering what it looked like on.  We don’t have to imagine what Tui looked like in her dress: there’s a photo!  And here’s a couture version of a similarly be-ruffled dress from the 1919 film ‘ A Sporting Chance’.  You might find it interesting to know that Anna is playing Ethel’s stepmother – the ruffled dress is a perfectly appropriate choice for an older woman.

Anna Q. Nilsson and Ethel Clayton – 1919

Anna Q. Nilsson and Ethel Clayton – 1919

Getting back to Tui’s wedding dress, what do you think?  Is this a fun and fabulous example of a once-in-a-lifetime dress?  Or should this tiered and feathered dress be tarred and feathered?

(I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.   I did manage to hold off on naming the whole post ‘Tiered and Feathered’ though!

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A reminder about rating – feel free to be critical if you don’t like a thing, but make sure that your comments aren’t actually insulting to those who do like a garment.  Phrase criticism as your opinion, rather than a flat fact. Our different tastes are what make Rate the Dress so interesting.  It’s no fun when a comment implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with it, or who would wear a garment, is totally lacking in taste.

As usual, nothing more complicated than a .5.  I also hugely appreciate it if you only do one rating, and set it on a line at the very end of your comment.

Rate the Dress: Woven and Printed Patterning 1840s silk

I took a break from Rate the Dress last week to launch the Ettie Petticoat.  This week is running a little late because Delta has reached New Zealand and we’re in strict lockdown, so I’ve been focused on getting my teaching and a schedule sorted.

But, life aside, Rate the Dress is back, with a dress that has been on the RTD list for almost five years.  It was just never the right time for this 1840s dress in printed silk with supplementary warp brocading.  Now that its here what will you make of it?  Will this floral frock be a RTD success story, or a wallflower?

Last week: a 1920s dress with pink peonies

Generally speaking you loved Molly Tondaiman’s Callot Soeurs frock, and found the history behind it really interesting.  A few of you weren’t so keen on the green colour, or the way the two greens were paired together.  There was a bit of criticism of the embroidery placement, but as AnnaKareninaHerself pointed out, it was a dress devoid of accessories: with a long necklace the blank space would be perfect and purposeful.

The Total: 8.7 out of 10

Not quite making that 9!

This week: an 1840s day dress in printed silk

This day dress, with its sloped shoulders, berthe-effect pleated front, mancheron oversleeves, pointed waist, and cartridge-pleated bell-shaped skirt, is a classic example of mid-late 1840s style

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has paired it with an equally classic 1840s bonnet:  sleek smooth brim, and ribbon embellishment around the crown.

The whole effect is sweet and modest: the shape of the bonnet mirrored in the skirt, the bodice, sleeves, and waist creating lapped layers of Gothic arches leading down the body.

The simple, archetypical shape is made interesting through trim and fabric.  The delicate silk lace framing the neckline and berthe and hemming the mancheron oversleeves is remarkably well preserved.  The entire dress is made from a striking printed silk with a vining floral pattern in purple and green with touches of red and yellow.

The silk ground the vining pattern is printed on has a woven-in warp-thread brocaded pattern of peonies, giving the dress a delicate shimmer from a distance.

What do you think?  As an example of 1840s fashion is this top of the curve?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A reminder about rating – feel free to be critical if you don’t like a thing, but make sure that your comments aren’t actually insulting to those who do like a garment.  Phrase criticism as your opinion, rather than a flat fact. Our different tastes are what make Rate the Dress so interesting.  It’s no fun when a comment implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with it, or who would wear a garment, is totally lacking in taste.

As usual, nothing more complicated than a .5.  I also hugely appreciate it if you only do one rating, and set it on a line at the very end of your comment.