Posts Tagged ‘Fashion History’

Polonaise of Marie Antoinette, with a back pulled up from the dirt

The Polonaise of Marie Anntoinette pulled up from the dirt

The Victorian world saw an explosion of advancement, growth, and manufacturing. Factories were raising from the gentile fields of Europe, and America was stalking and pouncing on the power of steam and mechanization with a covetous hunger. From all the clank and soot arose new millionaires, all eager to establish themselves in society and ensure themselves a place in social/congregational heaven. But how so? How can these nouveau riche of Western Society be squeezed into an inherited pattern whose foremost requirement is that entrants not be nouveau riche? How can society create order with such seeming economic chaos? Easy. Give those mass produced parlor sets crotch mahogany veneer. Make all the new stuff nobly pay tribute to the old. 

Victorian Revival of the Polonaise

Victorian Revival of the Polonaise with a Watteau back

My next project will be something of a revival of a revival  – a purple plaid polonaise c. 1874-1876. The Victorian Polonaise was meant to be a revival of a Roccoco style ‘gown’ for the aristocracy that was intended to copy the dress of rustic Polish peasants. Of course the Rococo Polonaise and the Victorian Polonaise little resemble that which the 18th century Polish peasant actually wore and were made of much more expensive materials, but that’s beside the point.

The Victorian Polonaise is something of an evolution of an evolution. In the age of Marie Anntoinette, when dressing like a simple, silk-clad, puffed, and embroidered peasant girl was a la mode, fashions were adopted by designers that wished to give elegance to the ‘simplicity’ of peasant life. In order for designers to credibly claim their designs were peasant-chic, they would slap names on their garments to evoke some foreign, and perceived simplistic culture.

Sleeveless Polonaise

Casual blue sleeveless Polonaise

La Polonaise was a safe bet for a name of such a garment, first because Poland was a long way away from France, and second, because the former queen, and grandmother of the current King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Leszczyńska, was Polish and reknowned for her piety, simplicity and charity. Unlike Marie-Anntoinette, she had a well-deserved reputation for charity, piety, thrift in a decadent court, and she was popular. Also, Poland was poorer than France, so there must be simple peasants there.

What was a Polonaise? Basically a bodice that is shorter in front and with a very long back. The original intention of the 1770s Polonaise was to bunch the back, so as to imitate peasants who pull their robes up out of the dirt. Aristocracy, you see, didn’t need to pull their robes up from the dirt because they had peasants to walk on when the ground was muddy. [It’s a joke]

A Sporty Polonaise from 1883. The styling here was the most common.

A Sporty Polonaise from 1883. The styling here was the most common.

The Polonaise came into style just about the same time as the bustle. As the Victorian era grew older, it became sportier and sportier, loosing the old pick-up-from-the-dirt idea and turning instead into to simply  a long-backed bodice. Some of them were made with faked shorter bodices, with long attached ‘tail’ or skirts. Eventually, they just became something of a jacket, but retained the name.

The Polonaise has likely existed in some form or another for quite some time. I remember seeing images of Tudor women, working class women from the 17th century, and 17th century courtiers wearing gowns of a similar concept. An Elizabethan gown ‘In the Polish style’ meant simply that it was high-necked, without a train, front closing, and decorated with horizontal braid across the front opening. That which would be most similar to the Polonaise was called an “open gown” or “loose gown,” which isn’t nearly as catchy, chic, and French as Polonaise. So when the term was coined, it stuck for a little over a century.

The polonaise I intend to make will resemble it’s Rococo ancestors only minimally.


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1840s silhouette

1840s silhouette

After consuming a significant number of books on scientific advances in the 1840s, I wonder why, in such a highly charged atmosphere of innovation and energy, their clothes and hairstyles were so dreadful.As much as I enjoy championing the champion-less, I would take up the cause of this decade begrudgingly, and only out of a desire to understand the physical aspects in which all these advancements took place. For fashion-wise, the decade was invidiously dowdy.

Scientifically and philosophically it yielded an extraordinary number of innovations and divergences in thought:

  • John Stuart Mill writes, Principles of Political Economy, in 1844
  • Start of the Computer Revolution with Charles Babbage and Ada Byron Lovelace
  • First Publication of The Economist, 1843
  • Marx & Engels write the Communist Manifesto, in 1848
  • First convention for Women’s Rights held in 1848
  • First use of general anesthesia in an operation in 1844
  • First telegraph sent, starting a Communication Revolution
  • The Political ‘Revolution of 1848’
  • Darwin’s preparation of his theory of Natural Selection

But the women’s clothes were awful. The fashions of this decade were the prudes of the prudish nineteenth century. Alison Gernsheim writes: “Never before or since has Western women’s costume expressed respectability, acquiescence and dependence to such a degree as in the 1840s, the most static decade of nineteenth century fashion.” And, I am inclined to agree with her. One would need to go back to the fifteenth century – and very arguably not even then – to find a decade of fashion so hell-bent of stifling what our genetic disposition would urge us to find attractive.

Sick faces encased in poke bonnets or drooping, plastered hair

Perhaps, besides the Europe-wide famine, this was one of the reasons for the explosion in thought. It is difficult to imagine the female visage inspiring contentment and distraction for mankind when framed by such severely parted, drooping hair and visible only when her view is straight-forward on due to her deep-brimmed poke bonnet. Those wretched bonnets made the sideways glance in the park or the passing look on the street impossible. The sullen, sick faces of the fashion plates, stuffed into stovepipe-like contraptions or sad, plastered hair were little improved by a lame spattering of dinky lace and fake flowers. And the bodices! Their cut made the youthful and sinewy matronly, the tall and willowy gangly and angular, and the well-busted top heavy and immobile. The constriction of the skirts, pancake-like flattening and dropping of the bosom, all-over covering of the skin, and face-blocking unflattering hair emphasized that idea that women were indeed forbidden fruit, but not in a good way. Mystery was abandoned for sanctimonious righteousness, boring rigidity, and the stifling doctrinal tightness of fear and disapproval.

The fashions of the 1840s were a blight upon the eyes of men and an encasement for the expression of women. In 1839, the year before the plunge into this mirthless decade, Honore de Balzac bent minds into viewing fashion as “sort of a symbolic language,” and that “to be proficient in the science, every woman walks about with a placard on which her leading qualities are advertised.” It is sad to imagine that the language of fashion would be one so without poetry and voiced with a clipped, monotone lack of ingenuity and spirit. Clothing can be not only a sounding board, as Honore suggested, it can also be an entombment. Is it any wonder that George Sand dressed like a man?!

1847 Portrait of Lola Montez painted for the King of Bavaria

1847 Portrait of Lola Montez painted for the King of Bavaria

It is easy to imagine the lascivious and romantic beauties of their days, the Josephines in high waisted Empire clothes, lounging on chaises and eating strawberries, or the Marie d’Agoults attracting the young Liszts in their exaggerated puffed-sleeved of the 1830s showing off their little waist and luminescent faces with dangly earrings in the candlelight. Or perhaps the era of the hoop that was to follow in the 1850s and 60s. Though it is not my favorite period, it had more redeeming qualities than the 40s. It was when below the waist was just too large and festooned to be ignored and the bosom generously framed and available for visual consumption.

But the 1840s? Even Lola Montez – the courtesan who was rumored to have seduced the King of Bavaria by wrestling her way into his study, sliding her hips onto his desk, and cutting her bodice open with a rough pair of scissors without so much of an introduction – looks dowdy and prudish in the fashion of the time. Though the particulars of the story are exaggerated, Ms. Montez’s quick temper and overpowering lustiness were infamous. But in her high-necked black gown with her flat conical bodice, It is hard to imagine her irreverential gall and hedonism inspiring the discontent among the masses that led to the downfall of her royal lover and the end of her career as a mistress of state. Though to her credit, the decision of Ms. Montez to not rely on her fashionable clothes to capture the Wittelsbach King – and eventually a title – was a demonstration of good strategy.

The western world of the 1840s must have been a rather detestable place: cold weather, potato famines, cranky men and bad clothes. Is it any wonder that so many were disenchanted with their institutions?

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“Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of the skirt,” – Elsa Schiaparelli

“Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions” – Coco Chanel

When I mention the bustle (or the corset) to friends and colleagues, I can not help but notice how the Twentieth Century cultural associations will immediately be applied in their responses. Bustles and corsets have after all been vilified in the previous century, seen as the root of all evil from which twentieth century dwellers were rapidly running away. But as Thoreau reminds us, “every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

With an innate tendency to defend the underdog, I decided a month or so ago to play devil’s advocate and became the champion of the bustle for this Halloween, to demonstrate to all slanderers that this poor article of underclothing does not deserve all of the derision it has received. To do this effectively, I will need to place our poor defenseless bustle in context. Perhaps it is not the tyrant we have imagined it to be, but merely, a simple unknowing foot-soldier in a war waged between some distant and unseen forces.

Let me start with it’s ancestry and birth. About 1840 was the start of the crinoline period. The ideal shape for this period was an hour glass torso covered in a close-fitting bodice with a natural waist-line, and a very full, bell-shaped skirt.

Belles of the Hoop Period

Belles of the Hoop Period

At first, the look was achieved with layers and layers of petticoat. Eventually, to the relief of women everywhere, the layers of petticoat were replaced with hoops, lessening the weight of the skirts and making their wearers less prone to drowning and combustion. The hoop provided fashion houses the opportunity to amplify the the size of the bell-shaped skirt. And amplify they did.

Empress Carlotta of Mexico, height of the hoop size

The hoop increased in size and ornamentation, until it reached its peak in the early 1860s.

Fashion has this marvelous capability to survive, to find solutions for the problems it creates. The fashionable ladies of the Western World needed somewhere to move, a new space in which to expand. Instead of making the hoop larger, fashion made it go to the back. With the weight of the skirt concentrated in the back, the fashionable woman could keep her full-skirts but be far more aerodynamic and graceful. It was modern and sexy compared to the bell-shaped contraptions that always had a risk of ringing as they moved.

Wealth was moving from the countryside and into the city. Land-based wealth could no longer compare with that of the industrialists, and investors. New wealth with money to burn on clothes lived and socialized in the city not in country courts and palaces. The modern city was a bustling (no pun intended) place. A woman in a full-scale hoop skirt could not get very far. Thus was born the graceful, aerodynamic elliptical hoop.

Elliptical Hoop

At first, the circumference remained the same, with just the weight shifting to the back. No surface area was lost for ornamentation, and the shift in fashion was not so great to be unpalatable or too extreme. But the shift in weight was a huge idea. Not since the previous century had skirts had contraptions that unevenly distributed the weight. Disregarding the train – which is something else – the shape of the fashionable skirt was symmetrical and the weight was even in the nineteenth century until the arrival of the elliptical hoop. It had not been since the later 18th century with its huge panniers or significant padded bustles that there had been a contraption for an uneven skirt. The stripped-down Empire style arrived, replacing elaborate contraptions with dresses that could be compared to see-through undershirts.

But the shift from oppressive bell-skirts to something – dare I say it – a bit more sexy must have been very welcome, and designers ran with it. Fashion is always fetishistic, and where the emphasis during the hoop period had been the small waist and expansive size of the skirt, it now moved to the waist and back, or the woman’s behind.

Industrialization and the rise of the sewing machine reduced the cost of labor. Decoration of the gown, not it’s circumfrance became the order of the day, and the female derriere was to receive the bulk of the frills in the late 1860s. Fashion had found a new extreme or fetish.

The skirts of the early 1870s had a hoop-like appearance with a higher waist

Waistlines became higher as well to show off the new skirts. Notice the gowns in the pictures to the right and left, and how the waist is an inch or two above natural. They lowered again in the mid 80s.

1868 Fashion Plate. Transitional from Elliptical Hoop to Bustle

Although the shift to the full-fledged bustle can be seen as a natural progression, I like to think it was hurried along by the fall of the Second Empire. There was yet another coup in France, then the center of fashion. The republican party was organizing to overthrow Napolean III. Empress Eugenie remarked “If there is no war, my son will never be Emperor,” so war on Prussia was declared. It was a catastrophe. Napolean III surrendered to the Prussians, and his Empress, then the leader of fashion in Europe and therefore all the west, fled to England in exile, to live an artistically memorialized tragic existence in England after the death of her husband and eventually her son.

Whether it was that the world was ripe for change and therefore embraced the bustle and the overthrow of the Second Empire, or if the overthrow of the Second Empire made the world ripe for change and therefore embrace the bustle we will never know. But the bustle was as huge a shift in fashion as say that which occurred in the 1960s, though the particulars are, of course, different.

Young Lady of Fashion vs. Working Class Older Woman – 1871. The Young Lady’s skirt and waist are exaggerated for effect.

The bustle has a bad rep amongst women in 2008. It’s associated with Victorian male patriarchy, sexual repression, and uptight, suffocating morality. Actually, it was an innovation. If one has worn the fashion of the 1850s or 1860s, and then worn a bustle from 1870s or 1880s, one would appreciate the difference. Yes, there are constraints, but as in any period of fashion, it is the choice of the woman that determines to what extent they are imposed. A woman may chose to tight lace her corset. Also, she may chose how large she would like her hoop. Photos of different women from the same year will demonstrate that women could differ dramatically in their adherence to the “fashionable.” But one undeniable aspect of the bustle is that it is far more aerodynamic than any hoop, more comfortable, and easier to move in without the fear of looking like a bell or a toilet plunger.

1873 Bustle

The elliptical hoop evolved into the first bustle period bustle, which was a very narrow hoop skirt with a concentration of hoops in the back and, in most cases, a rigid support arched bone to make the back extend outward from the wearer. The structure was stabilized by a supporting peice of fabric that rested flat falling from the waistband until the knees. They came in many designs, but were hoop-like for the entire first-bustle or “soft” period.

First Bustle Period

The new shape had an asymmetrical profile, and the gowns that went on top of the bustles embraced this new found release from cross-sectional symmetry. Skirt designs became elaborate to accentuate the form. Decoration became complex and compartmentalized.

Perils of the Natural Form from Punch

All good things however must come to an end, and so did the first bustle period after a good eight year reign. What followed is called the “Natural Form,” where women retained the same bodices complex skirts and the same philosophy behind the decoration, but removed the bustle. Small pads were worn on the bum instead, and skirts were sewn tightly to the females’ legs in a “fishtail” style, that highly fashionable women were recommended to remain standing.

The “soft” bustle gives way to the “shelf” bustle of the Second Bustle Period, 1887

Even during the Natural Form period, the bustle remained the silhouette of choice for formal events, such as weddings or court. The fashion of regular daytime wear and of evening social events though was the highly constrictive “fishtail.”

The bustle wouldn’t stay away long. By 1883 it was back in full-force, though changed. Whereas the First Bustle Period is the “soft” bustle, the Second is the “hard.” The bottoms of fashionable ladies were no longer swathed in frothy poufs, but instead became shelf-like. The designs on the skirts became asymmetrical, and the waistlines and lines of the torso fell to accentuate the length of the torso, and the width of the shoulders. By the 1880s, the bustle form had become and institution, and no longer needed to dress itself up to justify its existence.

1892 Ballgowns. The torso is long, the shoulders wide, and the waist tiny

Parody of Sleeve styles from Punch, 1890s

The bustle’s lifetime was about twenty years. By the start of the Gay Nineties, it was nowhere in sight. The bustle era had died without resurrection. Women did wear bum pads in the nineties, until eventually even that disappeared.

Emphasis had switched to the sleeves, which reached dramatically large sizes. The shoulders and sleeves were made to appear larger to emphasize a tiny waist. Though the restriction from the skirts had diminished and taken a more graceful, un-boned structure, corsets were ‘innovated’ to allowed for tighter lacing and smaller waists. Bodices became blouse-like and billowy to emphasize the bosom in contrast to the waist, a departure from the close-fitting bodices of the bustle period.

The bustle did not have a Third Period. With the political instability and economic revolution of the twentieth century, it became a symbol of a contemptuous past, of all that was cast off culturally by our social revolutionaries. It is associated with romantic tragedies, gothic terror, female neurosies, social injustice, and malevolent ghosts, though at the time of its inception it was a breath of fresh air, a welcome change, and an expression of feminine sexuality. There are lessons to be learned from the fate of the bustle, the type that are replete in history. Time will eventually judge our current fashions, too, and likely unfavorably.

The project that I will document here will be an ode to the bustle, and attempt to prove, at least to my immediate company that the bustle deserves respect and admiration. Ritual is ritual. It’s only the props that change, but the basic end result is the same. Though we may all praise the freedom that comes with lycra (a scientific advancement, not a social one), our functional classless jeans (are they genuinely classless?), and the easy cut of a T-shirt (Byronic blouses are much more comfortable, though harder to maintain if they are made of old linen) they will become outmoded and disliked. I imagine that though the specific complaints may use a different vocabularly, these styles will be regarded by posterity as being worthy of as much derision as the bustle, when we continue to confuse advances in human thought and science with improved intentions. Most of history is, after all, not just steps forward.

I entreat all of my readers to pause, take a deep breath, and give a moment of silence to the lost bustle, who died in unjust derision and slander.

*To my knowledge, the copyright on all used images has expired. Please inform me if the case be otherwise.

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