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Entries in victorian (25)


Keeping Up With the Ironing

My third New Year’s resolution this year was to keep on top of my ironing – rather than letting it pile and pile into monstrous proportions for months on end. I am happy to report that my habits have improved (cough, cough) to the point where they pile up for only weeks on end. The garments in this picture taken in January, for example, have long since been pressed and put away.

At least we can be thankful irons have evolved from this cast-iron monstrosity from 1850! I once lifted an antique iron and it was incredibly heavy – you really would have got a workout using one of those!Ironing is such a boring chore. I know many people who find it so boring they don’t even bother with it at all. But I hate to wear wrinkled clothing, especially to work. It looks so slovenly. (Sorry, but it does.) Click here for an object lesson. Others (fashion editors) swear by the efficacy of hanging unironed clothing in the bathroom while they shower, saying that the wrinkles magically drop out with the steam. Pfffft! That is an outright fantasy. I’ve tried it, and it does not work at all.

A work colleague swears by her steam iron, a magical laundry gadget judging by her description. Sadly, I do not have room in my tiny studio apartment to store such a piece of machinery, although I suppose I could consider a portable version. 

Making ironing look beautiful: A Laundry Maid Ironing, Henry Morland 1716–1797This Victorian woman uses an iron similar to the cast iron version pictured aboveObviously a good iron is preferable, but one thing that really makes a huge difference in completing this tedious business is a high-quality ironing board that doesn’t wobble and threaten to collapse with every movement, and which has a good cover on it with plenty of padding. Little padding beneath the cover means quite often you can iron the grill pattern of the board into your clothes.

one thing that really makes a huge difference … is a high-quality ironing board

Once I determine to tackle one of these big mothers (as above) though, I set to with a will. Often I will put on a DVD for entertainment relief, although it’s better I choose something I have watched before, so that I am not pulled into the story and distracted from the main task at hand. This was how one year I got through all the documentaries and commentaries on The Lord of the Rings. I’m vaguely interested in the commentaries, but I certainly don’t want to sit down and watch them exclusively. Another time I found myself rediscovering that old classic, Dirty Dancing very late at night. I hadn’t watched that film since I was a teenager!

Sometimes I will simply listen to quiet music while I iron, and find that combined with the hush and hiss of the iron put me into a soothing, meditative state where my mind wanders down pathways I seldom visit during busy days. It’s a great way to do some creative thinking.

Even Ava Gardner did the ironing (in heels of course)!I have this childhood memory of my mother doing the ironing in the lounge room in the evenings: she would turn on the radio to the old 3AK radio station, an easy-listening music station, and work at one end of the L-shaped room under the lights, while I would lounge on a couch at the other end of the room in the dimness, daydreaming in a somnolent state prior to going to bed. There is something very comforting about that memory. That’s probably why to this day I prefer to do my ironing late at night, with the lights turned down low.

Speaking of which, I just happen to have one of these monsters breeding on an armchair: something I should tackle this weekend. I will wear slippers however.


A Bevy of Burlesque Beauties

Rose Hamilton in a fetching striped corsetThe other day, while doing some research online, I came across this bevy of burlesque beauties from 1890. These risqué Victorian pictures of ‘loose women in tights’ come from the Charles H. McCaghey Collection.

The pictures were mass-produced on tobacco and cabinet cards for the delectation of Victorian men everywhere starved for images that showed the female form. It was not the quantity of naked flesh that was titillating – there barely was any on show – but rather that shapely and curvaceous limbs were revealed encased only in tights, tightly-laced corsets and outlandish costumes.

Miss Murdock plays Cupid – undeniably the slimmest of this lot, and arguably the prettiestBurlesque took off in the US after Lydia Thompson brought her troupe, the British Blondes to New York City in 1868. Proper ladies dismissed them as common as street prostitutes, but men adored them. But by the 1920s, burlesque was out of fashion when moving pictures, vaudevillian theatre and Broadway revues took off.

Perceptions of beauty have certainly changed over the centuries – Dita von Teese and her ilk are as different from these voluptuous ladies as chalk from cheese. The costumes are still enormous fun however – I can’t decide which is my favourite however – a knight in shining armour, a horse, or a striped sailor outfit?

Scroll through this little selection below, or click through and visit the Ohio State University Library for more. 

I love how cross and defiant Viola Clifton looks!Eliza Blasina in horse costumeMademoiselle Conalba sports a fetching take on a policeman’s uniformElla Chapman is a knight in shining armourRoman gladiator Emma Burgess means businessJennie Lee is draped in tissue lamé and pearlsAn unidentified woman (possibly Camille) is wearing an adorable striped sailor-inspired outfit


Clutching at Straws

Here’s the perfect summer bag for a summer picnic: vintage woven straw embroidered with orange blossoms on front and top. All the more perfect because it looks just like an Asian lunchbox! At 20cm x 20cm (8" x 8"), it’s also large enough to take on a Sunday stroll through a flea market, and to be filled with more vintage goodies.

Too adorable and inexpensive to resist, I recently purchased the bag for $20 from Etsy store Junky Monkey (who specialise in vintage clothing patterns). The seller listed it as a 70s item, although to me it is more reminiscent of the 1960s for some reason – how cute would it look with a vintage silk cheongsam of that era?

Here’s to delicious sunny days … bon appétit!


You Can Leave Your Hat On

The Vintage Hat Series: Victorian miniature velvet top hat, sequin trimmed

The top hat, also known as a beaver hat, high hat, silk hat, cylinder hat, chimney pot hat or stove pipe hat, and sometimes simply as a ‘topper’, is predominantly a man’s hat. It first appeared atop men’s heads around the end of the eighteenth century and continued to be worn until the middle of the twentieth. Today it is worn chiefly by magicians, bridegrooms, and doormen.

But way back in the nineteenth century, in Victorian times, a London milliner pooh-poohed this blatant sexism and created this saucy little miniature topper. Decorated with sequin trim, it’s patently an evening hat and is best worn on a rakish tilt. It must have been rather racy back then, perhaps something only an actress or demimondaine might have worn.

A Victorian illustration of hat-tippingWhile tipped hats look becoming on a woman, back then ladies generally didn’t tip their hats to passers-by. This gesture of respect belonged almost exclusively to the male domain, and was a non-verbal greeting between friends or acquaintances, made during encounters on the sidewalk, or at social functions, or as a respectful acknowledgement when meeting a lady. One possible explanation of why women did not tip their hats could be that their hats, being far more elaborate, were often anchored firmly to their hairdos with hatpins.

The style of hat-tip could also indicate differences in social class: the subordinate was obliged to make a more elaborate gesture, such as entirely removing his hat while the superior merely touched his – assuming an appropriate lordly and lofty manner.

The origins of hat tipping are thought to be the same as the military salute and hark back to medieval times when knights wore visors. They would raise them to show friendliness. (Unfriendly ones raised their lances.)

Today’s version of the hat tip is the nod, and is restricted only to those who have a head on top. 

Read more about men’s hat etiquette here

Fashion Notes

I purchased this Victorian hat online from the UK. I haven’t been able to find any references to indicate how common this kind of hat was in that era. However, women then certainly wore full-size top hats either when horseback riding, in vaudeville, or as a fashion statement. 

Marlene Dietrich wears a top hat in the film Morocco, 1930




Historically, petticoats were a woman’s undercoat worn to be displayed beneath an open gown; or a tight, usually padded undercoat worn by men over a shirt and under a doublet (jacket). The origin of the word is the late Middle English period: ‘petty coat’, literally meaning small coat. Later, worn under outer garments, the function of the petticoat was to give warmth, or to create a fashionable shape by adding volume beneath a skirt or dress – rather than from notions of modesty.

The petticoat has gone in and out of mainstream fashion since the sixteenth century to Christian Dior’s New Look in the mid 1940s and 50s, and to the present day with subcultures such as gothic, steampunk and Lolita.

Arguably today the most popular notion of a petticoat must be the full, ruffled shape associated with Victorian times, or the tulle crinolines of 1950s prom queens. More often than not, these were white. In previous centuries though, petticoats were worn to be seen, either deliberately revealed by openings or draping of the overskirts, or by accident with the force of a high wind lifting a hooped or crinoline skirt. Petticoats were therefore highly decorative, made from beautiful fabrics in glorious colours and trimmed with ribbons and lace. They were gorgeous enough to be worn as skirts in themselves.

Petticoat, probably French, 1870s; click image for more information and alternate viewsCotton and linen petticoat, American, 1883; click image for more information and alternate viewsSilk embroidered French petticoat, 1895-98; click image for more informationSissi, Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, wears a gown fully supported by petticoats in 1859Fashion that bustles, from The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, November 1869Susan Lawrence (from Ipswich) wearing a dark coloured dress, with many folds of fabric pulled up over a large bustle at the rear, c 1887


By contrast, the bustle was a rather unattractive foundation garment with little or no grace, in fashion predominantly in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Worn at the back, just under the waist, the primary function of the bustle was to preserve the shape of full, draped skirts and keep them from dragging. The heavy skirts of the day tended to flatten from sheer weight during everyday wear, even merely sitting or moving about.

Different styles of bustles came and went over the decades, initially evolving from a crinoline in the mid 1860s when the shape was worn quite low and often fanning out to form a train. It was then lifted to form a pronounced hump shape immediately below the waist, with the skirts falling sharply to the floor, very much changing the silhouette. It grew to monstrous proportions in the mid 1880s but was out of fashion by the end of the decade.

British bustle made from cotton and metal, c 1871; click image for more information Linen and metal bustle, American, c 1885; click image for more information

The attractive ‘S-shape’ figure of the day that accentuated a tiny waist meant that a curve at the back of the skirt balanced the curve of the bust (exaggerated by corsets in their turn), and gentler versions of the bustle were worn into the early twentieth century.

Today bustles are rarely seen except in the realm of sensationalist haute couture, bridal fashion and the aforementioned subcultures – petticoats, with their more uniform silhouette are easier on the eye and more forgiving to wear.

Fashion Notes

My vintage petticoat was borrowed from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s costume department to give fullness to my own 1920s skirt, which made part of my Queen of Hearts costume for the theatre’s Christmas party last year. The full skirt is gathered at the waist, with rope sewn into the hem to create shape and give weight. There is also what I have dubbed a ‘mini bustle’ at the back.

When I first donned it, the petticoat felt quite heavy, but I became accustomed to it surprisingly quickly and managed to spend quite a bit of time on the dance floor without feeling the weight at all – it created a pleasing swing in fact. The camisole, possibly 80s or 90s, is my own, and was bought in a charity store years ago. 


(Left) wire and cotton American bustle, c1880; (right) cotton and metal bustle, probably American, early 20th centurySilk petticoat, British mid-eighteenth century; click image for more information and alternate views(Left) American silk petticoat from the early 1900s; (right) cotton and silk petticoat, American, 1900-1948

* All images in the above gallery are from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York