My visit to the Bronte Parsonage

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I’ve finally ticked off another ‘museum’ off my list!

However, I would not really class the Bronte Parsonage as a ‘museum’. Rather, I would consider it as simply a house, stepping back in time and into the life of a Bronte sister, their brother and their father. Renowned for their literary works, the Parsonage gives a detailed insight into their other past times including art, fashion and how they ran their household.

Located in the once sleepy hamlet of Haworth, not inhabited by hundreds of tourists a week, it is almost effortless to imagine Victorian figures walking through the cobbled street – it comes naturally, as if no time had changed. 14233704_10210467449585606_2012401731_o.jpg

I got the same feeling when I visited Anne Frank’s house in Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, – a feeling of wonder, amazement but sheer sadness.

The Bronte family experienced many devastating events and quite simply they were unlucky. Patrick Bronte, the local priest of Haworth, became a widower in 1821 a year after his wife Maria gave birth to her sixth child – daughter Anne. He witnessed all six of his children become gravely ill; his 5 daughters (Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily & Anne) contracting tuberculosis and son Branwell possibly contracting the disease but enhanced by his addiction to alcohol and drugs.

Perhaps the curse of the Bronte Family was not necessarily a curse specifically put upon the family, but rather a curse of Haworth itself. According to records from the census and local records, the mortality rate of Haworth was 25% in the Victorian period – differing with nearby Bradford and Keighley which were around 17%. CrmJg9uXEAAAYIi.jpg

I definitely sensed eeriness around the exterior of the house, the church and the graveyard – which all interconnected. The sheer size of the graveyard is a reflection of the mortality rate, clearly being a factor of the inspiration for the Gothic novels written by Charlotte and Emily. In contrast, the street of Haworth unexpectedly had a community feel despite fatality, and inside the Parsonage there is a mix of a welcoming tone with a somewhat mysterious feel.

The Parsonage felt a little isolated also, not negatively, but as if it was meant to be a beauty spot. Central and carrying grand importance. There are no neighbouring houses – but it is guarded at one side by the church and school (where Charlotte once taught and also acted as the venue of her wedding reception) and on the other the purple and brown haze of the Moors.

After purchasing the tickets from the reception leading off from the original house at the back, the entrance to the house was the original front entrance – adding to the welcoming feel. I was initially surprised at how deceptive the size of the house was from the outside as inside the rooms were very small. It was then pointed out that there were two factors for this – some rooms acted as private exhibition and store rooms, the other reason was the thick stone walls which allowed to house to look big

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Patrick Bronte’s study

ger from outside.

Through the front door I was introduced to a room on each side. To the right was Patrick Bronte’s study set up with his writing desk, piano, spectacles and at the back was his top hat!

To the left was a small living room, again holding a writing desk and range of books. I presume the three younger sisters and their brother used this room for t

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Living Room

heir own studies as they spent a majority of their days in each other’s company. This room in particular was very unnerving in a way as it contains a sofa on the far right. It is believed that the sofa was where Emily took her final breath.

Entering the kitchen I found out that Charlotte and Anne did a majority of the housework within the parsonage alongside their servant, while Emily acted as housekeeper. The three surviving sisters were taken out of school after 1825 as it is believed that the two eldest Bronte sisters contracted tuberculosis due to the poor conditions of the school. (Acting as inspiration for Lowood School and the characters in Jane Eyre)

Going up the stairs I was faced with the original grandfather clock of the house, opposite was a copy of the most famous Bronte painting – the portrait of the siblings painted by Branwell who then painted himself out, leaving a ghostly figure between two of the three sisters. images

Patrick Bronte’s bedroom was the first room off the stairs, also acting as Branwell’s room when he became extremely ill.

Charlotte’s room was dedicated to items of her clothing and pasttimes, including small figures from a dollhouse. A weird coincidence then occurred, as there is workshop and exhibiton run by historians and writers, including a writer named Jessie Burton – who’s book the Miniaturist I am reading now!

The Parsonage is celebrating a bicentenary and over the next few years each year will be dedicated to a specific Bronte – so I suspect this room will be adapted and reflect her siblings and father over time.

One of her last surviving dresses was on show in a tall glass cabinet along with her incredibly tiny shoes, long longs, parasol and one of the most beautiful fans I have ever seen! The dress is an uncanny resemblance to a dress I stand near to at the Castle Museum, known as the TB dress. Being pale and ill was considered beautiful, and the sha
pe and tone of this dress also adds to that nature. The dress extenuates the tiny waist – Charlotte standing at under 5’ with a 19inch waist.

In another cabinet was Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, laced with bcrnixmxxyaa5jxilue and yellow flowers which have kept their tone really well. An interesting fact I wasnot aware of was that Charlotte signed a document that in her death all of her possessions would return to her father and not her new husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls!

Upon entering the exhibition room I passed through Branwell’s own study – dedicated to his paintings. He was an incredibly talented artists, so lifelike!

The exhibition room contained a wide range of Bronte artefacts, from first edition publications, their artwork, family heirlooms and even the collars from the family pets! Charlotte’s writing desk and her trunk are situated in this room.

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Charlotte’s writing desk

The last part of the room was dedicated to the deaths of the family. It was a Victorian tradition to incorporate the hair of the head into items – including a bracelet made up of Emily’s hair and rings with intertwined different member’s hair. This was continued downstairs in another exhibition room opposite the reception: Charlotte Great and Small. This particular exhibition is curated by the wonderful novelist and historian, Tracy Chevalier.

In one of the glass cabinets of this exhibition there was a family template from 1824 with a lock of each members hair.

Other cabinets included small pieces of Charlotte’s work; a small piece of one of her dresses, a tiny embroidery which when you look at very carefully is encrusted with the tiniest needles ever. If you ever have a chance to view this exhibition – GO!!!!

From the final exhibition room you return to the reception and the gift shop (where I picked up a few Bronte postcards for my next wall art). I spoke to a lovely member of staff who gave me some more information on the private exhibition the Parsonage holds. I am really interested in seeing some more clothes and items of the sisters, including Charlotte’s corset and dresses by Emily and Anne – to lay each dress next to each other to imagine all three sisters together. Hopefully one day I will get a chance to go on the private tour!

Outside the Parsonage, Haworth is dedicated to all things Bthumbnail_IMG_20160905_144950.jpgronte with retro style cafes and shops incorporating the names and artwork of the family. Traditional shops still stand, including an old fashioned sweet shop, and the most amazing – the apothecary used by Branwell.

The schoolroom was unfortunately closed for restoration, however the church was open. For a really small hamlet this church is absolutely stunning and incredibly large, with the most beautiful stained glass windows on every side. I don’t particularly like taking photos of stained glass inside churches or the alters but I did take a quick photo of the Bronte plaques, one explaining their vault and the other showing the spot where Emily and Charlotte lay.

I would highly recommend visiting Haworth and the Parsonage – it really is a spectacular place.

 

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Making my own corset: Part One

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It’s finally happened everyone: I’ve turned my attention to making a corset.

From researching the history of corsets for my museum work, stumbling upon (and buying, obviously) a beautiful gold satin one from a vintage ‘barn’ and receiving access to a free pattern online – it was inevitable.

The free pattern is courtesy of corsettraining.net, which gives you a detailed digital booklet and online pattern of the most basic corset – perfect for beginners! The pattern stretches across two sheets of paper, with the different sizes colour coded withi14139411_10210367104957053_1650529098_on the shapes.

I’ve opted to make a size 14 as it’s very difficult to gage what kind of sizing is measured. However, because corsets are made in what seems like a hundred different pieces it’s relatively easy to add or take panels away if the sizing is a little wrong.

Obviously before starting I needed to get the materials, meaning I would be in the fabric shop for at least an hour just gawping and contemplating every single colour and style.

Eventually I went with my all-time favourite colour, a jade-green silk finish. What I didn’t exactly realise was the amount of layers on this particular corset, not only needing this beautiful outer fabric but a stiffening middle layer and a lining for the inside – oh and bias binding to make all the edges look pretty and neat. (Note, bias binding was made at home using a metre of polycotton, cut on the bias!) For all the fabric I got ½ metre each! 14101603_10210367102716997_576247134_n

For this corset I wanted all the fabric (minus the stiffening layer) to be the same colour so I chose the same jade shade for all. Unfortunately the name of the black stiffening fabric has fallen straight out of my head, so when it reappears in my head I will update you all!**

And for the boning? Not whale bone or steel boning unfortunately…but nylon boning – a very excellent and comfy alternative. I got a couple of metres of this, rolled up and secured with a lot of sellotape (it doesn’t unravel – it pings, everywhere.)

After doing the material shopping it was time to focus on the pattern! After printing the pattern it was time to go back to school (sort of) and do some cutting and ‘sticking’ (pinning).

The pattern is great, clearly labelling each pattern piece A B C and D. Starting with the black stiffening layer, part of the edge was folded and piece A was pinned on the fold. The other pieces were pinned elsewhere and not on the fold.

Before cutting it is recommended to leave a seam allowance of around 1cm so I had room to manoeuvre or rectify a probable future mistake, haha. Instead of cutting directly on the lining I roughly cut 1cm away all the way round the piece.

All the pieces, minus A which was cut on the fold on fabric were cut out twice. Piece A is the front of the corset, when unfolded it becomes the centre.

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After I felt comfortable with my millions of pieces, it was time for the next stage: Unpinning the paper templates and pinning the black shapes onto the silk finish. You do not need a seam allowance this time, as it is included in the black shape already! (You can happily reuse the paper templates if you want, just remember to use the seam allowance again!) This stage is exactly the same, however the two fabrics are completely different to work with. The stiffening layer was a little bit of a challenge to cut due to its sturdy nature. In contrast the silk is extremely slippy, something that I will have to take into account if I make any future garment!

The final stage for part one is my favourite part. It’s time to thread up the sewing machine! Each black shape is sewn together with it’s green counterpart, and hallelujah the first two layers are beginning to form! I sewed around 1/2 cm in, trying my hardest to be equal!

That was enough for one day. I need to recharge myself!!

DIY Vintage….

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Photocredit: 101 ways to stitch, craft, create vintage

As you all probably know by now, I love craft projects. I have countless books, magazines and pinned pages online with different vintage style crafts and items. On reading one of my hardcopy books I came across a beautiful hair fascinator, encrusted with colourful ribbons. Inspiration alert.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a hair fascinator hanging around – but I do have a plain royal blue hat; half a skull cap style, half beret. I’ve ‘accessorized’ this hat before – adding feathers or brooches depending on what st20160821_115453yle of outfit I go for. I like removal items so I’m not stuck with a certain style.

I’ve never used ribbons on this hat, so I decided to give it a go! Also, my wonderful foam hat ‘model’, Angelica, has made an appearance.

 

What I used:

  • One hat.
  • A selection of ribbons, lace and fabric (Try to get different widths and styles, to layer and contrast!)
  • A pair of scissors
  • Pins (Safety pins also work – if you want to make your hat a fixed design, pin and then superglue!)

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  1. Take the larger piece of fabric and cut three circle like shapes. There’s no need to worry if the circles aren20160821_121305’t perfect – they’re going to be moulded into flowers! I just love how the colours compliment each other, a jadey green teamed which a royal blue.

 

 

  1. To get the circles into flowers, the middle needs to be ‘pinched.’ The fabric here is quite slippy, so I secured it temporally with a pin. The sides are then pinched together, making a flower outline. Take the pin out, and then position the flower wherever you want on the hat. I chose to pin on the top front. I made two more flowers, one at the bottom and then one for later to position when
    the other items are on.

 

  1. I mentioned I love the colours teamed together. I still do. But why not add another? I cut up the thin purple ribbon, making them into small bows. Using another pin, I attached the centre of the bow into the middle of both flowers.

 

  1. I liked the way the bows looked, so I created a bigger bow out of the pretty while lace ribbon. It came out asymmetrical which matches the asymmetry with the hat! Again, I pinned it between the two flowers.

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  1. The last flower was then added above the bow, holding a more rose shape rather than the two ‘pansy’ style flowers. Conclusion: A very modern, yet vintage style hat. So unique.

 

Great thing about this hat: no two can be the same! You can remove, add or move all the décor about!

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Doll Conservation: Petticoat & Shoes

The Bowes Museum's Blog

The last few miniature garments from our 1740s fashion doll [TOY.301] have now been conserved. These were the quilted silk petticoat, and buckled silk shoes.

The shoes are constructed from leather, cream silk damask, blue silk ribbon trim and lacing, and a braid with metal thread down the centre front of each. A combination of light damage, and mechanical damage, has left the silk damask in a vulnerable state, with areas of loss, loose and fraying fabric.

DSC06906 Before conservation: fragmentary and vulnerable silk

In order to hold the fragmentary remains in place, a fine conservation nylon net, colour-matched an appropriate shade to visually blend in, was used to encase the silk. The net was pieced, following the seams, to create the correct shape, and cut in and around the ribbon trim. All stitching was carried out using a fine curved surgical needle, and colour-matched fine polyester thread.

DSC06929 Insect pins hold the nylon…

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Top Five ‘Vintage’ Outfits

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A little while ago I put a tweet asking for thoughts on future blog posts and one response was to do a top 5 or 10 ‘vintage outfit’ post.

Everyone who knows me knows I have lots and lots – maybe too many – clothes, including pure vintage, reproduction and modern styles. I felt a top 5 would be more of a challenge for me, having to raid my wardrobe and realise my favourite items!

Because of the variety of styles, hopefully this post will help to show a vintage look can be devised using modern high street items or accessories – for example a modern outfit can easily be retro by adding a colourful scarf, or maybe a beautiful fashion brooch!

I’ve carefully chosen a range of different items, charity bought, handmade and affordable shop items. I have steered away from using my original items – mainly because these are more evening wear (which I will do a post on eventually) however there is at least one accessory which I consider to be very vintage.

I’ve also tried to get different eras – well tried anyway!

5.

This look is more retro than anything, using standard items and adding little gems of vintage. I wear a lot of black and basically live in cigarette trousers (well I do when I can fit in them) because they go with any top, blouse, shirt or jumper! Additionally, cigarette are classic vintage – worn by icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.

Here I’ve teamed my trusty black cigarette trousers with a basic white chiffon blouse – top. The beauty of black trousers allow any style and colour top to be a winner! To spruce up the outfit, the retro element lies in the shoes – the lilac ballet dancer lace ups. I bought these a few seasons ago from ASOS, falling in love with the delicate, summery shade.

I’ve added a scarf to compliment the shoes – I always love a cool green shade teamed with light purple. This silk scarf is what I call real vintage, being a Mary Quant scarf. I picked this up for £3.00 from a charity shop.

White Top: Lindy Bop

Cigarette Trousers: Topshop

Shoes: ASOS

Scarf: Dove House, No.87 (Hull) – Vintage Charity Shop

4.

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I just love this quirky, girly, yet boat-like look? (I think the latter is the colours, red, navy and cream horizontal stripes)

The skirt is such a perfect length, great for a summer garden party. I personally love the length because it’s long enough to cover the majority of my legs, yet shows enough leg to not have to wear tights. (Self-conscious of my legs)

A midi skirt is key to achieve a summer retro look – it can never go out of style! Most vintage skirt and dress patterns carry the same length whether it is a circle skirt, A-Line or the signature figure hugging pencil skirts. There are so many adorable patterned midi skirts available both on the highstreet and in charity shops, florals, stripes or statement block colours.

The cream underlying of the skirt allows any colour top to match. I always lean towards black or white tops because you can never go wrong. However the strong red in the skirt always steers me towards this cropped little lace blouse. For some reason, the lace and pleats really work – something I would have never thought of. Teamed with pointed toe black flats and a pair of sunglasses – I feel like a modern yet retro girl on a Roman Holiday!

Blouse: Topshop (sale item)

Skirt: Dove House, No. 87 (Hull) – Vintage Charity Shop

Shoes: New Look

3.

 

 

My attempt at 60s and 70s. The dress is great for either! Although I am not one to step into the 70s style, teaming this dress with a wide brim hat gives an instant 70s vibe. As for the 60s; bring on the beehive hair, knee high boots and the most obvious – eyeliner wings!

I just love the wide arms of this dress, giving an elegant silhouette and representing an influx of freedom (woo, girl power.) The length of the dress is fab too, having the ability to be worn with trousers (wide legged jeans maybe, another way to claim a 70s look?)

Dress: F&F (Tesco)

Boots: Dorothy Perkins

Hat: Was given to me

 

2.

I like this outfit because it is my go to ‘smart casual’ look. I wear this outfit quite often in the university library to fool myself into work mode! I found the blouse in a local charity shop falling in love with both the colour and the collar design. It was clearly meant to be as the blouse fits perfectly – something I struggle with on a day to day basis (small waist, bigger chest = unfitted shirt).

Blouses are making a comeback, with a majority of high street shops selling a variety – retro styles and practical. I got this blouse for £4 – so I recommend going to different charity shops and having a rummage around – you’ll always find a bargain or a hidden treasure!

Another area I struggle with is highwaisted trousers, I find there is never any comfort! However Primark pulled through and I found these amazing high waisted cigarette pants – I practically live in these! At £8 a pair I’m going to get a variety of colours!

Blouse: Dove House, No. 87 (Hull) – Vintage Charity Shop

High waisted cigarette trousers: Primark

Shoes: Clark

Cardigan: Marks and Spencer

1.

My favourite look is this profoundly 50’s style. Think Grease.

I am so impressed with this outfit overall – just because the shoes and the skirt is a perfect colour match!

The main reason that it’s my number one outfit because it is the most obvious vintage look – and the cheapest. I have an array of circle skirts – an item which suits absolutely everyone and can be adjusted to different lengths.

I personally like the way it tucks into the waist to show off my curves and give an illusion of added height! I’ve teamed it with a plain white shirt and a little red crop top for an accent colour.

It is the cheapest look because the skirt is handmade – with the excess fabric allowing a matching neck tie.

Vintage fashion does not always mean ‘old’ items – you can create a vintage and retro look through crafts of your own. I always think making your own clothes is proper vintage (or at least will be one day) because people of the past were more likely to make their own clothes and accessories. It makes it that little bit more sentimental, as well as getting an outfit that fits perfectly – something that is very difficult in buying vintage.

 

White Shirt: Gap

Red Crop Top: New Look

Circle Skirt & necktie: Homemade, materials from Boyes

Shoes: Primark

Earrings: Primark

 

What are your top five ‘vintage’ outfits? Any particular ways you style them?

English Rose, Elizabethan Make-Up

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Next in line for historic beauty regimes is a very traditional English look – The Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), or as I like to call it, the ‘English Rose’ look.
The first thing that comes to mind, for me, is like the later Victorian era, the majority of women in an Elizabethan society were fair skinned – however not all of this was purely natural. 13695150_10210011679751645_860193231_n
For instant, Queen Elizabeth is depicted with this white complexion which is actually enhanced with a heavy make-up base. Some may claim this is due to the famous ‘virgin status’ of the Queen, with the colour white being symbolic of this characteristic.  Additionally, women were inspired by the Queen’s presence that her style was also reflected in daily beauty regimes, a lot like celebrities nowadays being the style icons and trend setters.
As already mentioned in my Victorian regime, there is the additional factor of the paler face being a social status; those with paler skin were seen as wealthy compared to women with natural tans caused by the outdoors and working.
In jumping back to Queen Elizabeth there is actually some evidence of other reasons for this complexion. The young Queen once contracted a form of small pox, resulting in facial scarring. As beauty was regarded as one of the highest forms (drawing from Ancient Greek philosophy) the white powdered face allowed the Queen to have an illusion of societal beauty while masking the marks which could have been subject to criticism and objection by the society she was ruling. After all, she took the thrown as the final child of the King with no one thinking at her birth she would become queen. Similarly she was a powerful woman, a figurehead over traditionally patriarchal societies with a lot of male opposition. She merely could not afford, at first, to show reasons why she would be an unsuccessful leader.
In focusing upon this ‘artificial’ white face, the powered base was created in a form of ‘ceruse’ which was made up on lead and vinegar. Obviously, this is an extremely poisonous combination – potentially cutting the natural life expectancy (Elizabethan clearly missed this bullet, having an extremely long reign for any monarch of the time).

This was not the only way of gaining a foundation, another form was ‘face paint’ which was created from natural entities, like plants and their leaves. Natural seeds and oils were then developed into acting as hair dye while kohl was an ongoing popular way to darken the eyelashes. Unlike the use in the Egyptian style, kohl was used to create the natural, but not overly enhanced eye make-up for the Elizabethans. This whole natural look then ran all the way to probably the 1920s, with the exception of historic actresses or ‘backstreet’ working women, who donned more  extravagant make up.

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Cate Blanchett portraying a historically accurate Elizabeth

 

 

The English ‘rose’ look was complemented by the signature rose lips and the blush cheeks, also created by different dyes and natural substances gaining the prominent colour.
The main idea that came to mind when researching Elizabethan hairstyles for my ‘tutorial’ is that the era contained various hairstyles, rather than one singular style which is normally associated with certain historical periods.
Commonalities between women’s hairstyles was the ‘frizzy’ nature of the hair, moulded into certain frames on the head using wires and newly invented hairpieces (which are created by their own or other’s hair).
Fun Fact: metal hairpins, like ‘bobby pins’ are an English creation, appearing in around 1545.
Original hairstyles were inspired by the social developments of the time – mimicking a sort of social ‘enlightenment’. Compared to the notorious Middle Ages, the Elizabethan and the general Tudor dynasty paved ways for new themes and lifestyles, including politics, music and art.
Bordering on the philosophical impacts of thought, I believe that women embraced this new society and creativity through their looks, especially their hair styles. Note the variety of hairstyles shown in these pictures:
As mentioned, women were inspired by the coronation of a new Queen, and used her style did have an impact in their everyday routine as well as experimenting with their own hairstyles. For example, Elizabeth is known for the fiery red hair – causing lighter hair to seem more beautiful in a society, hence the development of dying and wig wearing. Elizabeth’s hair colour shade was actually presented as bolder within paintings with the hair thought to be more of a strawberry blonde with hints of red. I believe the way she appears in illustrations is to express her power and her determination to succeed and protect – and this is shown through the symbolic red tone within her hair. Additionally, Elizabeth’s hair was also a wig, she actually had many wigs which became known as ‘periwigs’.
The Elizabethans decorated and embellished their outfits with a range of colourful jewellery. Both precious and semi-precious jewels were contained their jewellery and even the lower classes had access to cheaper, costume like jewellery, resembling real jewels.
Fun fact: Earrings were known as ‘ear-pickes’.
Pearls are commonly associated with heavily decorated, upper class Elizabethan women. I believe that this was popularised by rosary beads – as England had gone through a period of both Catholicism and being Protestant. Elizabeth’s elder sister Mary was a Catholic, wearing rosary beads as a symbol and communication of her faith. The round stones were in necklace, and were worn by a large majority of Tudor women at the time. When the change of royalty came about women kept the string necklaces, opting for more plain white beads – or pearls. With Elizabethan being a Protestant, the religious element then became relaxed and women wore these necklaces and mostly jewellery – in some cases the cross is evident in a lot of Elizabethan depictions.
Alongside my ‘Elizabethan’ make-up, I am sporting a handmade lace ruff which is drawn from one measure of elastic. The ruff was a common garment worn by all in a society to stop the necklace of clothes becoming damaged or dirty.

 

Ruff – Handmade, (metre of lace and elastic)
Blouse – Vintage
Headpiece – concocted with a pearl necklace and decorative brooch

‘Underwear Undressed’

Volunteering brings a lot of benefits.  Not only do I get the pleasure of getting wonderful experience in my all-time favourite museum – I get the opportunities to listen in on amazing talks by various historians and curators. For those who are unaware (although you all probably are because I talk about it all the time) I volunteer at one of my local museums, York Castle Museum.
Due to an unfortunate staff illness, I responded to an emergency ‘help’ email to assist with an event later that day and became very lucky to get the chance to listen to a wonderful talk from Susanna Cordner, an assistant curator in fashion and textiles from the V&A, London. Her talk, ‘ V&A Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ had been advertised for a few months, which I had my eye on – but being a student on summer break made it pretty impossible to part with £15. However I would like to add that this event was well worth the price! My role was a greeter, before sitting down and listening to the talk.
The topic was a great addition and combination to the Castle’s newest exhibition ‘Shaping the Body’ (If you haven’t been, you really need to) – exploring the innovations and developments of clothing items and body shapes. The exhibition itself spans a timescale of 400 years, having a variety of clothing items in its collection – from regency period dresses, 1960s versions of ‘flapper dresses’ and a dress owned by the most famous Victorian of all time…
Going back to the talk, it took place in the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition Hall, being a host for around 50 people.  Susanna is a fantastic orator as well as being very glam!
Unlike most historic underwear talks or research, which is normally very female orientated, Susanna incorporated elements of both genders so I learnt completely new facts and different areas of fashion. For example, corsetry was not exclusively for women – men in fact wore an item which was advertised as having a purpose away from a traditional ‘corset’. One idea is to keep the gentleman’s clothes having straight lines, another is more military centred – protecting the torso and keeping upright in uniforms. A funny fact thrown into this topic was that, although men and womens corsets were made exactly the same they were advertised with completely different names reflecting the feminine and the masculine.
Keeping the focus upon corsets, the talk also explained the sheer variety in the different types of corset. This includes the corset’s predecessor, the stays as well as different types of corset such as the ‘S’ bend and ‘maternity’ corsets. The stay and the S bend provide their intended function in their name – the stay to almost fix the flesh of the upper body in place and the ‘S bend’ explaining the shape it makes (bust out, stomach in, rear out). The latter is more of an idolised figure, used purely for advertisements or models – not practical in any way for day to day life! Regarding the maternity corset, the audience was reassured that this is not as extreme as it sounds. Unlike the stereotypical corset that comes to mind, this corset is made of two front pieces, laced, and a back piece with laced panels up the both sides. As the stomach grew, the side and front lace ties could be tied looser at the same as keeping the fitted shape.
Susanna explained the key differences between the stay and the corset – the former being made of predominately whale bone. In a previous post I explained that a corset’s original purpose was to take the weight off the heavy skirts and dresses worn by women of history. The stay did this, adding stiffness to the torso, allowing a straight posture.
Corsets are less stiff and lacks the detailed structure that stays have. In my personal opinion stays are more informal than corsets, the latter are normally more detailed and embellished, more personal and carry a distant similarity to lingerie. Susanna explained that because stays are made of whale bone they are rooted in the working class in whaling towns, which in part shows reasoning for the plain designs and lack of ‘softness’ the corset is claimed to have.
Accompanying the superb talk was an array of historic pieces from the Castle’s collection including a variety of corsetry in different sizes, lace bralets and some ‘crotchless’ pantaloon/trouser type for women (a great contraption, allowing women to go the toilet without removing the gigantic skirts, underskirts etc…) The most significant piece, for me, was a ‘stay’ dating from, I think, the 1740s-1760s. This piece was too delicate to handle but just to see the parts of this corset alongside a stay ‘busk’ was so interesting.  In regards to a ‘busk’ this is a triangular wooden carved piece – inserted into the front of one’s stay with an edge flattening the stomach in a vertical way. This made it extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for the wearer to move or bend forward. The busk on display was engraved with the owner’s name and age – the girl was 17 at the time.
I would have loved to get lots of pictures, however I am always cautious of photographing exposed historical items. I’ve included photos on this post of the items within the ‘Shaping the Body’ exhibition, shielded behind glass. Similarly, Susanna included some photographs of the V&A collection in her talk, making me really tempted to book a weekend trip to London…