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Entries in 1900s (6)

Tuesday
Sep132016

“Get this Corset Off Me!”

In this day and age Western women take breathing easily for granted. But once upon a time it was not so easy. A century and a half ago women’s breathing and digestion was severely restricted by the regular wear of a corset; muscles were weakened, and more besides, depending upon how tightly the corset was laced. (Multiple petticoats must have been a pain too, not to mention straight shoes – lefts and rights were not invented until approximately the mid nineteenth-century.)

It is no wonder that in these circumstances the scandalous tea gown came to be invented.

What do you generally do when you come home? You make yourself comfortable. We kick off our shoes, remove our restrictive workwear (sometimes including even our bras) and don instead tracksuits, leggings, jeans or pyjamas and wear slippers or go barefoot. We throw ourselves onto our couches with a sigh of relief, and enjoy a tipple of our favourite beverage.

Edwardian lady wearing a tea gown. Image from 'Seduction' by Caroline Cox, Mitchell Beazley, 2006. (No image credit captioned.)Why should not the Edwardian lady have been the same? Picture her coming home and exclaiming to her maid as she rips the elaborate hat off her head, “Get this corset off me! Let me put up my feet and drink a cup of tea.” She lounges back in her boudoir with a sigh of blissful relief and stretches her legs and wriggles her toes, and takes big breaths in between ladylike sips of restorative Earl Grey.

“Get this corset off me! Let me put up my feet and drink a cup of tea.”

And what was she wearing while she relaxed? At first perhaps she was wearing merely a wrapper over her chemise and bloomers, which meant she was not dressed to receive company. But what if her best friend paid her an afternoon call? She couldn’t receive her in her underwear! (Imagine if you did that today.)

And then the tea gown was born.

Broderie anglaise 'boudoir dress' by the House of Doeuillet; illustrated by André Marty for 'La Gazette du bon ton', 1913. From 'The Fine Art of Fashion' by Julian Robinson, Bay Books (no publish date listed – late 1980s?)Woman's tea gown, Miss Bishop 1870s; Silk satin with supplementary weft patterning, linen machine-made lace, and silk plain weave trim.

What, exactly, is a tea gown?

Tea gowns were worn from the 1870s until the 1930s, and essentially are gowns that can be put on and taken off without the assistance of a maid. They are extremely feminine; long and loose without defined waists, cut on princess lines and made from luxurious fabrics. Sleeves were at first tight, but by the 20s and 30s were also relaxed, so that the whole effect was flowing and languid, and principally, informal.

a tea gown was considered a hybrid somewhere between a wrapper (or bathrobe) and an evening gown

Because a tea gown was considered a hybrid somewhere between a wrapper (or bathrobe) and an evening gown, early versions were designed to look like a robe worn over a dress. The under-dress was waisted with a sash, and the robe on top was loose and open, and it usually featured a train. The tea gown generally had a high neck, as daytime garments always did, distinguishing it from the décolleté evening gown.

Fabrics featured lace; floral embellishments as part of the Art Nouveau movement; medieval details, historical elements from the 17th and 18th centuries; and also exotic details from the Chinese, Japanese and Indian arts popular at the time.

This 1899 engraving shows the stark difference between a day dress and a tea gown.Elaborate tea gown from the House of Rouff, c. 1900. Woven silk damask embroidered with glass, metal thread and beads, and embroidered net and lace. V&A

Emily Post, in 1922, describes it thus:

‘Every one knows that a tea-gown is a hybrid between a wrapper and a ball dress. It has always a train and usually long flowing sleeves; is made of rather gorgeous materials and goes on easily, and its chief use is not for wear at the tea-table so much as for dinner alone with one’s family. It can, however, very properly be put on for tea, and if one is dining at home, kept on for dinner.’ – Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922.

Why were tea gowns so scandalous?

Silk tea gown in a glorious saffron shade, by American designer Jessica Franklin Turner, c. 1929. Perhaps at first the tea gown was worn in real privacy, then in the company of intimate friends over tea, macaroons and a cosy chat. Then one day a close gentleman friend might have come calling in the afternoon, and what harm in having him come in for a cup of tea too?

The design of the tea gown must have slowly evolved during this process, becoming more elaborate as it escaped its tenure in the boudoir and entered the dining room, then other friends’ dining rooms, and eventually out into the world. But at first it was considered scandalous because to wear a tea gown, or glorified wrapper, was to be en deshabille – that is, undressed. And to receive gentlemen callers thus attired showed a woman had shockingly lax morals – even, perhaps, lovers.

to wear a tea gown, or glorified wrapper, was to be en deshabille – that is, undressed

Much was made of the scandalous nature of tea gowns because of the supposition that naturally one must be entertaining lovers simply because it was so easy to remove, and one was practically naked beneath it. Surely not every woman who wore one had a lover! I maintain that the far greater attraction was the freedom of movement and breathing it allowed. Why else would it have emigrated from the boudoir? For at the turn of the twentieth century, reformers were campaigning for women to rid themselves of the corset once and for all, and the tea gown was proclaimed as an ideal garment. Its superior comfort must have been obvious to any woman who wore one. Some of the previously widely-proclaimed ills of daily corset-wearing have been debunked today, but there are still genuine health concerns – read about them in this modern corsetry guide.

By the 1920s and 30s, tea gowns more resembled just another style of afternoon dress, but even then with global lifestyle changes after industrialisation, two World Wars and revolutions in the class system, it became an impractical garment: a relic of an era and way of life long-gone. Today such a gown would – ironically – be considered quite dressy, perhaps something we might wear formally to a garden party or a wedding, but in fact its liberating spirit lives on, albeit in less graceful forms.

Chiffon dress, its bodice is overlaid with paisley embroidery, and is cut away to reveal a black lace knee-length slip – very much reminiscent of tea gowns; Christian Lacroix, c 1992; from British Vogue.Tea dresses styled haute grunge, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, c. 1992; from British Vogue

Fashion Notes

My modern silk dress is of course not an authentic tea gown, but its colours, floral print and flowing lines all brought to mind the tea or afternoon dresses of the 1930s that I love. Its simple cut and ‘short’ length (ie, lack of train) do however make it more wearable as a day dress, which does fit in with the ethos of a tea gown. The earrings are hand made by myself from jade and Indian beaded beads; the ceramic ring is a souvenir from Barcelona; and the supremely comfortable ballet flats are by Sambag. (Both dress and shoes were bought second hand from thrift stores.)

~

To read about the evolution of tea gowns in greater detail, visit The Dreamstress, written by Leimomi Oakes, a textile and fashion historian.

Read more about the history and mythology of corset-wearing at Yesterday’s Thimble, by Lisha Vidler.

Photos: April 2016

Tuesday
Jul052016

Boho v. Bohemian

Boho style has never appealed to me, and I lay the blame squarely on Sienna Miller. In the Nineties and early Noughties, she became so ubiquitous and synonymous with this style that I had to suppress a shudder at the sight of her whenever I flipped the page in a magazine. She was everywhere, extolled and lavished with praise, as was the gypsy style she popularised.

In my mind, ‘boho’ seems sometimes to be interchangeable with the word ‘hideous’. It is indiscriminately used to describe anything with a vaguely hippy appearance, and often involves yards and yards of enveloping Seventies polyester knit, paisley print, miles of fringing, a granny’s-worth of crochet, tiered gypsy skirts, pirate boots (preferably in tan leather or suede), floral leather thong headbands (with or without a crystal pendant), multitudes of long necklaces and an excessive quantity of rings worn on practically every finger at once (see below).

The closest I came to anything boho during my style evolution was a printed Indian full skirt I wore when I was at art school. My mum told me I looked like a gypsy. (Gypsies were a common sight when she was growing up in Yugoslavia in the Forties and Fifties.) I actually found it quite difficult to dress up for this photoshoot, and it took me two attempts to find something emulating boho style.

Today the term ‘boho’ is popularly taken to be an abbreviation simply for ‘bohemian’, but in fact its style origin is more particular, and comes from the French term ‘bobo’. It is ‘short for bourgeois bohème. Parisians who are both upscale and artistic. Similar to the original meaning of the American ‘hipster’, but generally laced with a uniquely French je ne sais quois.’ [Urban Dictionary]

But this is still a very superficial description of the boho chick – I wanted to know who were the original Bohemians, and what distinguished them from their style counterpart of today.

The Origin of the True Bohemians

The original Bohemians sprung up in the late nineteenth century. As Wikipedia describes it: ‘Bohemianism is the practice of an unconventional lifestyle, often in the company of like-minded people, with few permanent ties, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits.’ Or as Virginia Nicholson, author of Among the Bohemians – Experiments in living 1900–1939 [Viking, 2002], puts it:

‘Subversive, eccentric and flamboyant, the artistic community in England in the first half of the twentieth century was engaged on the bold experiment of refashioning not just their art, but their daily lives. They were the pioneers of a domestic revolution.’

Artists, poets, and writers such as Rupert Graves, Augustus John, Dora Carrington, Virgina Wolf, the Bell family of the Bloomsbury Group and many, many more paved the way for how we live today.

Vanessa BellThey in turn were inspired by the emigrating Romanies. The origin of the word ‘bohemian’ is interesting. Today the French Bohémien is translated as ‘Gypsy’, but the original Boii were refugees from the area known until recently as Czechoslovakia. From the early days of the Roman Empire until the Middle Ages, a diaspora of these people fled into Western Europe. They joined groups of disreputable wandering minstrels, unfrocked priests and monks, and from then the word ‘Bohemian’ became associated with such nomadic groups of similar style. When the first genuine Romanies appeared in France with their colourful and vagabond lifestyle, they were immediately associated with the previous refugees. By the sixteenth century, all gypsies were indiscriminately named bohemians.

The Kalderasà invade Britain, 1911 (from Among the Bohemians, by Virginia Nicholson)Augustus John, who modeled his life on the vagabond gypsy and was possibly the original bohemian, was an artist active in the early twentieth century. At the turn of the century after discovering the world of the gypsies in the encampments outside Liverpool, he wrote, ‘Henceforth I was to live for Freedom and the Open Road! No more urbanity for me, no more punctilio…’ Clothing was already deliberately neglected in defiance of his respectable upbringing; he then adopted an exhibitionist style, wore gold earrings, wild hair and beard, which, in his own words, ‘often failed to recommend me to strangers’.

The bohemians of this era celebrated camaraderie, they partied hard, and were irresistibly spontaneous.

His mistress and later second wife, Dorothy McNeill appeared in his paintings metamorphosed as ‘the gypsy goddess Dorelia, her graceful figure swathed by Augustus in yellow folds or sculpted in blue draperies. In his paintings her head is scarved or turbaned, and smocked children caper at her feet, which appear bare from beneath the folds of her long dress. A bright medieval-looking tunic follows the contours of her form. She raises her arms to the sky.’ [Nicholson] Here is the boho babe personified!

Dora Carrington (left) with fellow bohemiansThe bohemians of this era celebrated camaraderie, they partied hard, and were irresistibly spontaneous. Bohemian women bobbed their hair, shockingly wore trousers, and discovered the freedom of sandals after the confinement of uncomfortable shoes. They slept under the stars and climbed trees barefoot. Wearing sandals was actually quite scandalous, indicating libertarian ideals, a preference for beauty, health and comfort over respectability. Though they were expensive, the wearing of sandals indicated anti-affluence— Dorothy John, when seen wearing sandals, was presumed destitute.

Wearing sandals was actually quite scandalous, indicating libertarian ideals, a preference for beauty, health and comfort over respectability.

Hallmark Style of the Modern Boho Babe

According to popular modern notions, bohemian are airy-fairy hippy chicks dressed mostly in romantic, earthy garments, who are fond of wafting around in fields with a breeze ruffling their Rapunzelesque locks with their eyes half-closed pensively. In short, they are inspired by the popular notion of the nineteenth century gypsy, oblivious of their English artistic antecedents.

But what do boho chicks actually wear? Long, flowing layers in printed fabrics, whether they are bursting into flower or a riot of tribal patterns seem to be the most popular iteration. Embroidered, fringed, or beaded fabric is also acceptable, and anything that looks ethnic or exotic. These garments are worn with long beads and feathers, and sequinned or studded belts. Tan leather is preferred as it looks more earthy. Hair is worn long and usually parted in the middle, accessorised with plaited leather thong headbands (my version is a rather tongue-in-cheek exaggerated take on this!). The natural habitat of the boho babe is the music festival, such as Coachella or Glastonbury.

Talitha Getty's style inspires designers still today (click through to read more)Here is Loulou de la Falaise wearing a turban, also adopted by the original bohemians in emulation of gypsiesPoppy Delevingne wearing an Erdem dress and Olympia Le-Tann clutchHere is Sienna Miller, the ubiquitous boho babe herself! (Link to original image broken)Talitha Getty would be the boho chick’s patron saint, and she really did live a bohemian lifestyle in Marrakech. Another Seventies icon with a true bohemian lifestyle is Loulou de la Falaise. Besides Sienna Miller, other celebrity boho babes of this era are Poppy Delevigne, the Olsen twins and Nicole Ritchie.

The average boho chick is clearly not a genuine bohemian in the sociological sense; she is simply acting out a stereotype, temporarily adopting a fad or fashion style for the summer (or just the weekend).

I wonder who are the true bohemians today, and what are they wearing? I suspect they are still much like Augustus John and his band, somewhere on the fringes of society, living life fully and marching to the beat of their own drum.

Photos: March 2014

Wednesday
Dec302015

Box Clever

Ever since I collected these vintage leather lace-up gloves from my old club one clean-up day, I have wanted to do a boxing story especially for Boxing Day. Originally I wanted to wear the gloves, but was never quick enough to organise a friend to come press the shutter for me (as I obviously could not operate a camera shutter remote wearing gloves). Finally I decided to go ahead anyway, as I love the way the laces allow the gloves to hang around the neck – a classic look not possible with modern gloves that fasten with Velcro.

Hattie Stewart, from the Bronx, New York (image from Pinterest)Researching women’s vintage boxing attire was extremely entertaining as of course with the Victorian mania for keeping women as covered up as much as possible during sporting activities, this meant donning all sorts of paraphernalia, such as silk sashes around the waist, ribbons in the hair, and pretty frilled socks and shoes. The image of Hattie Stewart from the Bronx, New York was my main inspiration for my outfit – it was the ribbons and the multi-coloured sash that sold me on it.

The only vintage items I am sporting are the gloves themselves, the silk ribbon in my hair, and a silk kimono I bought in an antique store in Vietnam years ago. I had to make do with a Gap tank and Adidas shorts, and leather fold-up ballet flats by Yosi Samra (super soft and comfortable, by the way). I laugh every time I see the lace socks paired with running shorts!

The Bennett Sisters, c1910–15

I haven’t done any boxing classes for a year or two – martial arts having given way to fine arts – but I still do a bit of shadow-boxing as part of my warm-up when I go running. Doing this shoot reminded me how much I miss sparring, although if I do take it up again in the New Year, I think I will be wearing more practical garments!

Photos: A few days ago

Clara Bow in Rough House Rosie, 1927Women boxing in heels in the 1920s (click through for more images of women boxing)Fraulein Kussin and Mrs Edwards fought on 7 March, 1912

Monday
Oct152012

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock is an icon of Australian literature and film. The book was written in 1967 by Joan Lindsay, and such was its impact that it was soon after adapted to film by Peter Weir, in 1975.

Written in the form of a true story, and set on Valentines Day in 1900, the book centres on the disappearance of a number of teenage girls and one of their teachers during an excursion to Hanging Rock in country Victoria. The first half of the story focusses on the girls as they prepare for this longed-for picnic, and after the disappearance, the impact this has on their fellow students and the larger community. But the mystery was never solved, and hence its endless fascination.

A still from Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1975 film directed by Peter WeirThe character that has most impact on everyone in her world is the ethereal Miranda, who looks, as her French teacher remarks, like a Botticelli angel. All the girls are dressed similarly, in white muslin dresses, buttoned high around the throat and tight around the wrists, with straw boaters on their heads, but there is indeed something special about Miranda. She floats about like a spirit from another world, and she speaks as though she knows she is only visiting for a short time. And then she is gone.

An alternate version of my image treated like a vintage photograph

All sorts of sordid and mystical theories – sexual molestation, abduction, murder – are put forth to explain their disappearance, but none of them come close to the truth. For in fact, Lindsay had written a final chapter resolving the mystery, but her editor suggested she remove it prior to publication. Chapter Eighteen was subsequently published in 1987, and if you burn to know the truth, you can read about it here.

Here is my little homage: my lacy dress (a souvenir from Vietnam) looks more like the girls’ chemises than a dress, but the cotton Battenberg lace parasol and the enamel cups are something these girls from 1900 would immediately recognise. 

Tuesday
May042010

Life, what is it but a dream?

What serendipity! Today – I learned by chance – is the very day, 158 years ago, that Alice Pleasance Liddell was born.

It was she who begged Lewis Carroll to write down the story of Alice’s adventures that he first entranced her and her sisters Pre-Raphaelite looks: I have always loved Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs, and immediately decided to do one in homage when I first started my Alice series last year. with whilst rowing down The Isis (part of the Thames) from Oxford to Godstow for a picnic. Several months later he presented her with the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. (Read more of the history here.)

Carroll himself maintained in later life that the Alice of the story was an entirely imaginary character, and certainly Tenniel’s drawings do not resemble Liddell, although the book is set on her birthday, the 4th of May. Liddell however has inspired a number of other books, poems, films, and even an opera. Yet how extraordinary to have been the muse – however inadvertent – behind one of the world’s most famous children’s tales!

On this anniversary of her birthday, I’ll leave it to Lewis Carroll to have the last word, in his acrostic poem from Through the Looking-Glass.

Alice Liddell, age 7, photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860.A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Alice Liddell as a young woman, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron.Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

Don’t forget to check out the Out-takes & Extras gallery for more homages to Julia Margaret Cameron.

A great resource with a biography and more examples of her work can be found here at Artsy.