As promised previously, here’s more from my visit to the Strawbery Banke Museum exhibition, Thread: Stories of Fashion at Strawbery Banke, 1740-2012.
The descriptions in the show are not nearly so detailed as those I’ve presented from La Belle Assemblée and Ackermann’s Repository. This beautiful dress—perhaps my favorite item in the show—is simply described as an “off-white silk brocade dress with a square neckline, and a bodice boned with eleven stays. The look is sweetly decorated with a leaf and ferns patterns [sic] and heart shaped leaves.” Dated at about 1875, the dress belonged to a Portsmouth lady.
Cunnington* describes the 1870s change in style thus: “Woman seems to have stepped out of her dress and to be standing in front of it, clothed in corset and petticoat. The device imparted to the ballroom the intimate charm of the bedroom, ‘suggesting that the wearer has forgotten some portion of her toilette. Few husbands or fathers would allow their wives or daughters to appear in public thus undressed.’”
“Undressed?!!!” you say. One could understand some people being shocked by the thin, slim muslin dresses of the early 1800s. But this? Yet the style met with disapproval, and even the ladies admitted it was a little strange. One critic said, “ ‘Fashion is now going from the ridiculous to the shameful . . . presenting [the female form’s] outlines almost as distinctly as those of an uncovered statue.’”
I was scratching my head for a time. Then, it occurred to me that a woman’s natural hip dimensions had not been visible since the 1820s. For fifty years—more than a generation—her bottom half was shaped like a bell, and her top half had been hidden under pelerines and shawls. The lines of fashion had turned her into two triangles, more or less. Now . . . woo, woo! And lots of action in the booty.
*C. Willett Cunnington, English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.