History of Fashion: The evolution of the Petticoat

I came across this content when searching my online folders. I had initially researched and written this piece on historic shapewear for a magazine segment, but sadly it never materialised. I still enjoyed the content when I re-read it, so now it is featuring on my own blog.


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When you hear ‘petticoat’, what do you imagine? Is it the voluminous impression of a retro ‘50s look? Maybe the net finish available in a variety of colour? Or perhaps you imagine the traditional petticoats – the beautiful silhouettes created by the endless layers of fabric beneath historical dresses.

The petticoat became popular in the 1500s, the purpose being to imitate a particular shape. Wider hips created by fuller skirts accentuated a smaller waist and a bigger bust – a shape traditionally considered the ideal figure of a woman. Replicating this shape presented ‘ideal wives’ – child bearers and a lady of a respectable societal class.

The petticoat is a detachable garment, hanging from the waist. It began as a separate skirt under the main dress, layered with other fabrics to stiffen the form. Fabric was expensive; the petticoat to being an exclusive style for the upper classes. Embroidery designs and trimmings were put on petticoats, co-ordinating with other elements of the outfit. Despite being rarely seen, if a glimpse of the underskirt was shown, women took no chances – they wanted all their clothing be of a high standard, both of fashion and class.

During the same period the Spanish farthingale was also became popular. It was a hooped underskirt, fixing the shape for the main dress.

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The Farthingale

Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII first wife, is considered to have brought the farthingale to England. Like all fashion, the thought of an exotic style became very exciting, with women adopting the style. The material used for English Farthingales was whalebone, benefitting working class women in fishing towns. Their access to the boning allowed them to make their own versions, beginning to bridge the gap between the social class divide of fashion.

The farthingale and the petticoat merged, creating the crinoline. It translates to horsehair, ‘crin’ – the stiffening material, alongside linen, hiding the ridges of the hoops. The impracticality of layers of the petticoat lead to heat exhaustion and difficulty in movement. The crinoline solved these issues, lightening the dress to just one or two layers. Before, the average amount of layers was about 6 to 8.

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Crinolines diminished in the late 1800s, the fashionable shape becoming the bustle – emphasising the rear.  (think a giant lobster tail!) The crinoline did make another small appearance within the First World War years. The shape was considered patriotic, a more serious and practical attire for women. By the mid-1920s a completely new shape was in fashion. The ‘Flapper’ style reflected culture change; a sense of freedom of the war influenced females to reimagine the stereotypical shape of women. More gender neutral and shapes were desired; the latest fashions removed all boned shapewear and for a loose and free shape.

During the Second World War years, the petticoat again resurfaced. The Queen adopted the ‘bell shaped’ crinoline as an evening look – inspiring society to follow suit. This was limited to evening wear, as civilians opted for practical attire and adaptable outfits for daytime. The petticoat style also struck America; Vivien Leigh popularising the traditional petticoat in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. 

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In 1947, Dior brought the petticoat back to everyday fashion, introducing the ‘New Look’. Stiffened crinoline petticoats reinstated the fuller, traditional ‘hour glass figure.’ The look teamed modern styles, such as fitted jackets and pleated skirts with a traditional petticoat, creating a classic look.

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The 1950s also focused on the silhouette and shapes. However, unlike the previous uses of a classic and dainty style, petticoats and dresses emphasised volume, bright colour and patterns. The American polka dot is associated with this style as well as popular films such as Grease. The increased quality made the petticoats long-lasting, applicable for both day and night wear. Net material became popular by this point as it did not restrict movement, working well with the cultural aspects such as jive dancing.

Despite the petticoat disappearing from some areas of fashion, it is clear that the petticoat is timeless. Each time the garment is revived, it produces a fresh new style – either improving upon its previous use, or incorporating fashions of the present day. The original purpose of the petticoat is forever present – creating that certain shape. However, the exclusivity of petticoat wear is overruled, allowing everyone to replicate its shapewear.

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The 1718 Coverlet

1718 coverlet

This post is inspired by a subject I studied during university. I really enjoyed this research and thought it would be a shame to not revisit it! Here is a summary of my thoughts and findings on 18th century patchwork.



In the archives of the Quilters Guild Museum, York, lies the beautiful 1718 patchwork coverlet. Created from a range of silk fabrics placed in geometric blocks and encrusted with a variety of hand-stitched motifs, at present, the coverlet is considered the “earliest known dated British patchwork.”[1]

Little is known about the exact identity of its creator, the mysterious “E.H”, whose initials are placed in an understated position towards the top of the coverlet along with the titular date. However examinations and detailed investigations into the intriguing coverlet have revealed a variety of clues surrounding the class, personal talents and thoughts of the mysterious creator. Ultimately the coverlet is a visual expression of identity and reveals ground-breaking ideas surrounding 18th century “femininity” and domestic needlework.

18th century needlework is subject to various opinions, both historically and within contemporary research. For instance Mary Wollstonecraft, the renowned social philosopher and advocate for women’s rights, often expressed her distaste for sewing.

“Confining girls to needles shuts them out from political and civil employments, narrowing their minds.” – Mary Wollstonecraft

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Wollstonecraft’s particular views ties into the concept and challenge of feminine ideals. The traditional womanly qualities, that of “nurturing, humility and delicacy” which were also attached to needlework (examples: see Jean Jacques Rousseau’s work) were rejected by Wollstonecraft. Instead she promoted equal intellectual capacities, rationality and political independence of men and women and also attacked the process of needlework for being “motionless” and distracting these functions.

Hannah More, 18th century writer and campaigner, followed suit and claimed that the different types of needlework were true imitations of true femininity. Specifically, More had concerns with material culture and attacked needlework for carrying “aristocratic decadence” – it was nothing more than replicating aesthetic values to display the fashionable home.

This idea was more than taking the needle and completing embellishments or exotic motifs, it also surrounds particular fabric. For instance, cotton was often utilised for purely practical purposes, with items such as coverlets later being made from the material for durability and that is was more comfortable than previously popular textiles, such as wool. While the Calico Act of 1721 banned the importation and sale of these materials in England, there is evidence that they were accessed on the black market which can then be potentially construed as an act of desire – which to hark back to More’s ideals – the desire of material culture and taste.

The 1718 coverlet presents opposition to these powerful 18th century views. The visual elements of the coverlet provides a response to More’s aesthetic decadence; the materials used, the variety and the silks, provides evidence to the class of E.H – not necessarily aristocratic but from a family of wealth. The beautiful motifs, a majority being depictions of nature and wild elements suggests a rural location, potentially of agricultural wealth. There is no hint of cultural replication in the coverlet; while highly valued materials are present the central purpose of the coverlet is to depict an individual story, the life of E.H.

In regards to Wollstonecraft’s attack on needlework’s restrictive tendencies, a detailed x-ray investigation into the surviving coverlet has revealed a strict numbering system for the unique and extensive design. The material blocks of the coverlet mount paper templates which house the
templates which house the correct number and symmetrical design for each block. This numerical, among with various other inferences, demonstrates the high level of thought, focus and intellect of E.H and how the coverlet is an expression of these strong, natural faculties.

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Example of a 18th century paper template, courtesy of the Quilters Guild

Further to expression, the motif blocks within the coverlet depict the memories, knowledge and interests of E.H. Specifically, they can tell observers what she has seen, from the different types of flowers to her own impressions of a wild animals as well as demonstrating her creativity with colour and placement.

What is particularly interesting is a specific pair of blocks which are located towards the bottom of the coverlet. On either side of a single diamond motif lies an embroidered lion and a unicorn, positioned in such a way that represents heraldry. With both the date of the coverlet and Wollstonecraft’s encouragement for female political thought in mind, this subtle pairing can suggest numerous political ideas. It potentially demonstrates E.H’s support for the 1701 Act of Union between England and Scotland or expressing herself as a loyal Royalist. Ultimately, the coverlet embodies and conveys a political and personal expression.

The Lion and the Unicorn are found on either side of the green diamond

Not only do historical pieces of needlework challenge both historical, and in some cases contemporary, ideas of needlework and femininity but they provide a platform for a variety of personal expression and freedom.


[1] Heather Audin, Patchwork and Quilting in Britain, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013)
[2] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) With An Introduction by Elizabeth Robbins Pennell (London: Walter Scott, 1892)
[3] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine.

Christmas at Castle Howard

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I adore historic houses; there is nothing I love more than having a spare couple of hours to delve into the histories of unique country manors, town houses or the small yet powerful dwellings of previous earthly occupants. I’ve visited a variety of houses around Yorkshire – a lot on numerous occasions – yet I was ashamed to have not visited Castle Howard in my adult memory. I had a spare weekend and decided to take the rural and scenic route to the Howardian Hills to visit Castle Howard at Christmas. The overall theme of the house and grounds is The Twelve Days of Christmas, with each room of the spacious, yet intimate, building representing each day of festivities.

 

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I must be honest; I am not overly impressed by modern installations in historic spaces. I’ve seen some amazing ones – and I’ve also seen some average and confusing ones. Museum galleries and creative exhibitions do an amazing job of innovative designs, from audio, projections and interactive mediums yet for me, historic houses are like a freeze frame – they contain and reflect the cultural tastes, values and the stories of the inhabitants of a specific time and I feel that sometimes modern installations alongside authentic spaces sometimes loses that feel.

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Castle Howard is an exception to this – the Christmas installation is honestly one of the most amazing and innovative designs I have ever seen. While each room represents a particular Christmas day of the song they also carry an individual theme. A masquerade theme embellished with feathers lies in the first bedroom while one dining room depicts a scene perfect for the sugar plum fairy. Yet each space is linked by a combination of traditional and original Christmas décor which illuminates the space without losing any of its everyday charm.

 

 

Here are some more photos!!!

 

 

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The Yorkshire Witch’s everlasting spell

Studies of witchcraft often centre on groups of witches or spirits, the Salem witch trials, the Pendle and Samlesbury witches or even the Loudun possessions in 17th century France. Persecution and superstition of witchcraft began to fade towards the end of the 18th century, yet the concept of spirits and possession which were often associated with witchcraft began to be overruled by notions of deviation, criminality and manipulation. One example of individual witchcraft is the extraordinary life of the “Yorkshire Witch”, the creator of “The Prophet of Leeds Hen Hoax”, the serial thief and convicted murderer of Rebecca Perigo.

I became fascinated by the life of Mary Bateman after unintentionally visiting key places of her life. I’d spent my childhood driving past her childhood village, I volunteered in the place of her incarceration and death (now a museum) and I worked in a place where her skeleton was displayed until 2016 (however, I never saw it) Mary Bateman is well known in Leeds; her story, classification as a witch and reasons for her choices continue to be debated in the 21st century.

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“Crist is coming”  Hens began laying eggs with this Holy phrase. It was later discovered that Mary Bateman had taken fresh laid eggs, wrote this phrase and reinserted them into the hen’s oviduct.

Mary Bateman was born Mary Harker in Asenby, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire and was baptised in Topcliffe, a nearby village in 1768.  She was the third child of six children and is stated to have been a part of a well-respected farming family.

Little is known about Mary’s family or childhood events. Her exact birthdate and baptism was not recorded; the implication of neglect or lack of importance for her arrival can be considered a foreshadowing of Mary’s later endeavours. Biographies of Mary’s life state she spent time with travellers on their visits to rural North Yorkshire; they taught Mary the art of fortune telling. Mary is also described as being a troublesome child, often recorded as a liar, a thief, manipulative and lacking empathy. At the age of 9 Mary stole and hid a pair of shoes at her home later claiming she had found them in a barn.

In order to stabilise her juvenile, villainous character she was sent away and placed into domestic work at the age of thirteen. She was employed within a number of houses around Thirsk but excused under “suspicious circumstances.” She later moved to York and finally to Leeds in 1788. Mary became a skilled mantuamaker and had a quick courtship and marriage to John Bateman. It was soon after she was married that the earlier tendencies as a thief intensified; she stole money and silver from lodgers, material from draper shops and sold on her husbands own possessions!

Mary Bateman also claimed to have supernatural abilities and witchcraft tendencies, conducting fortune telling and selling charms for a number of purposes such as miraculous healing and helping poor.

However Mary was fundamentally a trickster, her ulterior motives for her supernatural claims was to deceive, to rob, to kill. She was never arrested or tried for witchcraft, her infamous nickname “The Yorkshire Witch” emerged in 1806, the year of her infamous Prophet Hen hoax. The nickname was exaggerated the next year, in which she was arrested and tried for the murder of Rebecca Perigo. Pamphlets, broadsides and word of mouth instilled Mary’s position of an alleged witch; her victims, the spectators and even doctors became curious and superstitious about Mary’s character. Thousands flocked to see her execution at the New Drop, York, convinced that her supernatural abilities would allow her to vanish from the drop at the final moments.

Mary utilised her “skills” of fortune telling and charms to manipulate the public. Her first recorded “scam” had a Mrs Greenwood as the victim and included “Mrs Moore”, a figment of Mary’s imagination (later replaced by a more wicked figment, Mrs Blythe.)

“Mary attempted to persuade that she, Mrs Greenwood, was in danger of domestic misfortunes of committing suicide and that her skill would be necessary to prevent so dire a catastrophe. Next she informed her that her husband, who was away from home, was taken up for some offence and placed in confinement and that four men were sent to watch him.”

Mary claimed that “four pieces of gold, four pieces of leather, four pieces of blotting paper and four brass screws” were needed instantaneously so Mrs Moore could “screw down the guards “ surrounding Mrs Greenwood’s husband. On this occasion Mrs Greenwood claimed she had no gold and on Mary’s suggestion she ‘robbed’ gold, Mrs Greenwood distanced herself from Mary’s devious intentions.

Mary can be perceived as adapting and ‘perfecting’ her rituals of charms, telling her victims to stitch particular objects into bedcovers which would then disappear as a result of their protection (in reality, Mary was snatching possessions for her own gain) Letters sent by “Mrs Blythe”, the wise woman in charge who was based in Scarborough, were instructed to be burnt when read by the victims – in order to stop the tracing of Mary’s impact and presence.

Generally the public were both mesmerised and manipulated by Mary’s claims and she was often recommended and called upon for help. The Perigos, William and Rebecca, contacted Mary and “Mrs Blythe” after they feared that Rebecca had become possessed. Rebecca was struggling both physically and mentally, complaining of a “fluttering in the breast” and being “haunted by a black dog and other spirits.” Following the process of sewing money into bedsheets, Mrs Blythe then recommended a potion.

“The letter predicted an illness in the Perigo house affecting one or both of them. It instructed Rebecca to take half a pound of honey to Mary who would mix into some special medicine that Mrs Blythe had made. The Perigos were to eat puddings for six days.”

Rebecca died on the 24th May 1807 from poisoning.  Investigations into the honey consumed states that it contained a fatal dose of mercuric chloride. William remarkably survived which foiled Mary’s overall plan. He became suspicious of Mary, going against the the instruction to burn letters and planned a final meeting with Mary, bringing along a Constable who was given the evidence. Mary was arrested and sent to the Yorkshire Assizes. She was hanged in March 1809.

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Engraving of Mary Bateman handing the poison to the Perrigos.

Mary’s crimes and persona had a significant impact on medicine and the public even after her death.

Firstly, her body was taken from York and transported to medical facilities in Leeds – a rare outcome as hanged bodies were normally kept in the area of execution. Murderers and other felons were to be dissected and used for medical purposes rather than a burial which was the case for Mary. However her skeleton was kept intact and put on public display. (This earnt a large amount of money for the hospital through fascination of a “witches” body)

Secondly, her skin was stripped and made into leather pouches, claiming to be magic charms to discourage further evil spirits. At this point in history the medical profession was influenced by the empirical sciences, the perceptions of dissecting a body enabled physicians to know the body logically and physically. These factors, the treatment, display and use of Mary’s body demonstrate the power of superstitious beliefs alongside 18th century ‘science.’ Mary’s skeleton, which is still preserved today, lies within a teaching hospital – yet continues to be predominately known as the “Yorkshire witch”, Mary’s story being the dominant force rather than its medical purpose.

Mary’s confession and copies of her letters to the Perigos can be found within the following sources and bibliography.

  • Anonymous, The Extraordinary life and character of Mary Batemann, The Yorkshire Witch: Traced from the earliest thefts of her infancy, etc. till her execution on the 20th March, 1809. (12th Edition, Leeds, 1811)
  • “Mary Bateman: The Yorkshire Witch”, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/bateman.html
  • Summer Strevens, The Yorkshire Witch: The Life and Trial of Mary Bateman (Pen & Sword Books, 2017)

 

Women In Science: Madame Caplin’s Reformed Corset

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19th Century S&S Corset (Registered in Belgium) Image Courtesy of York Museums Trust

I have various historical interests and for my MA dissertation I decided to integrate my different interests and academic skills – focusing on the medical effects of dress reform and also putting a philosophical spin on it! The focus of my dissertation was the life and work of Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, a Canadian born writer and corset maker (or stay-maker, as Madame Caplin stated) who worked at 58 Berners Street, London throughout nearly the entire 19th Century. She was born in 1793 and died in Surrey on 2nd August 1888 – her long life was full of innovation, inspiration and individualism.

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Madame Caplin’s Hygienic Corset Design

There are various claims on the internet that Madame Caplin invented the corset. The original purpose of the corset, as a stay and support of weight and to lift the body to avoid deformation harks back to Ancient Greece albeit in a basic sense, a cincture around the waist to support the back and breasts. (A topic which Caplin herself builds upon within her own writings)

Rather than Caplin inventing the corset, she reformed the 19th century ‘contemporary’ corset, which, she claimed, had lost its original purpose and became subject to tight-lacing and ill-constructions due to particular expectations of the female body. Health was compromised and women became oppressed both physically and mentally, the latter becoming internalised by women.

 

“The elegant form, the flexibility of motion, the gentle warmth, the cheeks crimsoned with the roses of delight, the brilliant eyes darting rays of love, or sparkling with the fire of genius, enlivened by the sallies of wit, or animated by the glow of passion, are the inheritance of those only who are in good health, and a moment is sufficient to destroy them. The whole is expressed in one word,—­there is an absence of health.”  – Madame Caplin, Health and Beauty, Chapter 11: Health, Dress & Its Relation to Temperaments

Madame Caplin’s Hygienic Corset (first credited to her husband, Dr Jean Francois Isidore Caplin purely for its medical acknowledgement) was fitted with elastic panels to support key organs from deformation and won the only award for corset-making at the 1851 Great Exhibition. I have been lucky enough to meet this particular corset, a beautiful blue ribbed silk corset with a cream lining. (It measures as a 20 inch waist) The particular colour of the silk corset was for display purposes only, (which provides an answer for its immaculate condition for its age) all of Madame Caplin’s corsets made to buy were either black or white. You can find images of this corset, and another of Caplin’s corsets (A pale blue Petticoat Suspender corset, through the Museum of London’s online site)

Madame Caplin’s success triggered her 24 different designs in total, covering a range of different activities and impact of a woman’s life. This includes juvenile corsets for correct and supported physical development into adulthood, spinal and scapula contractors to treat weakened muscles and bodily forms and Gestation corsets, for safe development of the body during pregnancy.

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Madame Caplin’s Orthopaedic Corset design

I first became mesmerised by Madame Caplin during an evening lecture within a fashion gallery at a local museum – her unique name and corsetry designs stuck and I was quick to conduct further research on this interesting historical figure. Madame Caplin was born Emily Ann Pelletier to English born parents and on her arrival to England she was first married to a man with the last name Galloway. (and on early register she had used the name Roxey Ann Galloway) She later met and worked with Dr Caplin, adopting his name and her French title probably to boost her public profile (with French fashion and corsetry dominating Europe) and marrying him at a later date.

I was also quick to access a copy of her monumental book, Health and Beauty: Or Corsets and Clothing. The text details her idea of corsetry reform, her progress and effects of her designs in an eloquent manner, as well as providing insights into her business strategies. The book had numerous editions throughout the 19th century; it was first published in 1856 and was revised over the next decade. caplin-book.jpg

In my opinion, Madame Caplin was more than a 19th century corset maker and writer; she was a visionary, a social reformer, an underappreciated heroine in medicine and modern, medical research. I claimed that Madame Caplin was inspired by the American transcendental movement: she acknowledged and promoted the enlightened female body, its connections with nature and the integral relationship between the spirit of the mind and the spirit of the body. These three factors along the unlocking of new worldly truths and human empowerment were enabled and represented by the reformed corset.

“The head is the treasure-vault of all our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and pas­sions; the thorax contains the heart and lungs; the abdomen all the digestive and secretive organs; and even the orifices are all mysteriously furnished.” Madame Roxey Ann Caplin, Health and Beauty, Chapter One: Of Health and Beauty

Previous Research surrounding Madame Caplin tends to take an exclusive reformative dress perspective, her surviving corsets which lie in the Museum of London have constant interest and examination, while there is little in-depth analysis of her literature. This realisation is somewhat ironic. To refer to the introductory paragraph, Madame Caplin is clear on her position on dress and health and her purpose of her literature – which is overlooked by modern research.

Regarding transcendentalism, I claimed that there were subtle philosophical references within the text which connects dress reform, spiritualist ideologies and medical reform – providing new insights into the three domains. Transcendentalism is an individualistic theory, inspiring each member to find their own path and original impacts within the world. Madame Caplin utilised her experience of ill-constructed corsets, her experiences and knowledge to produce her original creation – which was then projected onto others. Her female customers, newspaper reporters and medical professionals all accepted her corsetry designs and therefore, its different spiritual elements and connections.

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