When women wore clothes

William Not man’s famous portraits hark back to a grandiose era of fashion to remind mere men hoiv swiftly feminine tastes can change

September 14 1957

When women wore clothes

William Not man’s famous portraits hark back to a grandiose era of fashion to remind mere men hoiv swiftly feminine tastes can change

September 14 1957

When women wore clothes

William Not man’s famous portraits hark back to a grandiose era of fashion to remind mere men hoiv swiftly feminine tastes can change


continued overleaf

The incredible era of the steel skirt

The photographs on these and the following pages, some of them a century old, prove as no words can that tastes and fashions change with bewildering speed, especially where women’s clothes arc concerned. To a modern woman, the tentlike creatures shown here must seem as strange and distant in time as the dinosaur. And yet in their day, when these members of Montreal’s élite posed for their portraits in William Notman’s fashionable studio, their costumes were considered the epitome of good taste.

These pictures are all taken from the Notman collection which was purchased last year by McGill University with assistance from Maclean’s. Notman began taking photographs in 1856, when the crinoline skirt had reached its zenith, and he kept taking them for almost half a century until the era of the puffed sleeve.

Originally, the crinoline was a petticoat stiffened by horse hair; some women wore seven of them and the bulging dress that surmounted the whole required some twenty yards of silk. But by Notman’s time, the inventive genius of the Victorians, which produced the steel marvels of the Crystal Palace and the Forth bridge, had invented a substitute for petticoats. The Watch Spring Crinoline was born—the famous hoop skirt. By 1859 the steel mills at Sheffield w'ere turning out wire for half a million crinolines a week.

The crinoline was perhaps the most awkward garment ever devised, and one of the most dangerous. Many a social butterfly, straying too close to a Victorian fireplace, literally went up in flames. Skirts were so huge that -a man and a woman could no longer walk side by side down the street. Women became so gargantuan that four of them crammed a parlor to overflowing. Buses designed to accommodate eight

passengers could take only half that number.

In vain, mere males protested and the gaitered clergy railed from the pulpits. Women persisted in wearing crinolinesfor the same reason that their Chinese sisters bound their feet: it was obviously impossible for anybody so attired to stoop to manual labor—or indeed to stoop at all. For the crinoline was the product of an age in which the first thin mewlings of an infant democracy were being heard. More and more, the upper classes of Europe who ruled the fashion world felt it necessary to distinguish themselves from the burgeoning industrial masses. Thus, the impossibly impractical skirts, the morning silks and afternoon velvets, the sleeve ends of foaming lace all but smothering the tiny genteel hands.

A woman cheerfully paid thirty pounds for a crinoline — a staggering sum in those days. Among the genteel classes, luxury meant boredom and vice versa. Any young lady who consciously sought the mildest of pleasures was considered “fast.” Swathed in her hooped armor, the diameter of which was often equal to her height, her feminine lines completely disguised, the virtuous female of the species felt secure from wicked masculine predators.

And yet there was that delicious swaying of the circular skirt which managed to reveal beneath its folds a trim ankle, the sight of which literally caused the more sensitive of Victorian males to faint with passion. Men developed an “ankle complex” and boots and shoes took on an erotic significance that is today reserved for more modern feminine accouterments.

Soon ankles were not enough. By the midSixties the shape of the crinoline was undergoing a change. Women who had been bellshaped and later triangle-shaped now slowly began to be woman-shaped again. Imperial France was crumbling and the Parisian style world was in upheaval. Change was in the air. The uppermost hoop of the crinoline became smaller and the whole, unwieldy mass was pushed backward—like an afterthought. Viewed from the front, women were women; from the rear they remained a shapeless bundle of cloth. But slowly that bundle was assuming a rounded feminine form: a new gimmick was just around the corner, in more ways than one. It was called a “bustle” and it can be viewed on the next two pages in both of its remarkable manifestations. But before anyone, man, woman, or child, snickers too hard at bustle or crinoline, let him turn to page 1 17 where some suspiciously similar modern counterparts suggest there’s really nothing new under the sun.

“Swathed in her hooped armor, her feminine lines completely disguised, the virtuous

female of the species felt secure from masculine predatorsThen came the bustle

The two bustles

They were history’s

With the adoption of the first bustle in the early Seventies, women began to step forward in the world—literally as well as figuratively. The changed centre of gravity produced by the enormous billowing mass at the back, together with a high heel, caused her to tilt forward. Thus, even when standing still, she seemed to be advancing, a position that fashion dubbed “the Grecian Bend.” The whole world, in fact, was moving forward. The Reform Act of 1867 in England, the social legislation of its Liberal government, the collapse of the French Empire—all this change and turbulence was reflected in feminine dress.

Women now frankly displayed those allurements that the crinoline had kept encaged for two decades. Indeed they exaggerated them by tightening the waist and padding the hips—and for the same reason that modern women pad their bosoms. A man was a catch in the days of the bustle; the chances of a twenty-one-year-old girl marrying were only one in three and it was every girl for herself. Until the end of the century, some version of the hour-glass figure was to be in vogue and to many modern psychologists this phenomenon looks like an indication of an unsatisfied sex instinct.

A reaction to the bustle came briefly at the end of the 1870s. The protuberance vanished and became a tail that dragged behind. Women assumed a vertical shape and, as one fashion

most preposterous fashion hoaxes

historian has written, “the result was that of a graceful statue swathed in wrapping ready for removal.” This Princess Shape, as it was called, was a sort of sentimental look backward to a simpler and less complicated era. But it was really only an interlude between bustles. In the 1880s, a more formidable appendage burst upon the fashion scene.

This second bustle was less provocative than its predecessor, for this decade saw the emergence of the Career Girl, whose tailored, purposeful shape seemed to suggest that she no longer needed male attention.

By 1885 the new bustles projected at right angles from the waist for as much as two feet and a teacup might be poised upon them safely without fear of mishap. The earlier pad had given way to a wire cage over which a six-pound dress could be draped. Some students of fashion and psychology have called this “the maternal bustle” because they believe it to be an expression of unfulfilled maternal craving, “like being able to lead a child by the hand,” as J. C. Fluegel phrased it in his Psychology of Clothes. Certainly the way in which the skirt was draped in front carried an unmistakable suggestion of pregnancy.

But the bustle, too, was only a passing fancy. Toward the end of the decade it began to diminish as women’smercurial tastes settled on the new fad, which is shown on the following two pages.

When sleeves looked like legs of mutton

Anybody contemplating the photograph above must be moved to remark that as far as women's fashions are concerned, the art of design is the art of exaggeration. At various times, women have accentuated the waist, the bosom and the hips. In the so-called Gay Nineties they accentuated the biceps. What began as a small tuck of material at the shoulder swiftly developed into an enormous “leg o' mutton.” so huge that a cushion had to be used to keep it in place. Why this accent on sleeves? The Nineties for all their gaiety were noted for their prudery and the enormous epaulettes usually made of contrasting material, distract-

ed the eye from what the late Victorians considered the forbidden regions of the body. (Loose, concealing blouses were also a feature of the period.) The big sleeves lasted until 1898, then vanished, only to reappear in a different but equally exaggerated shape. But the flamboyant Victorian fashions that William Notman so faithfully recorded were almost at an end. Women ceased to be hothouse flowers and, with the invention of bicycle and motorcar, were moving out into a world in which bustles, crinolines and puff sleeves weren't practical. An era of simpler (but equally puzzling) fashion was dawning. ★

From babies to brides all puffed their sleeves