Tag Archives: antique dress

Were People Really So Much Smaller in the Victorian Era?

Wow. Once again, I must apologize for not posting. I have a good excuse this time. I spent some time in the hospital, lost a bit of weight, and now I have to rebuild my energy. To tie this into vintage clothing – I can wear my vintage dresses again! But I don’t recommend disease for weight loss. Although health, nutrition, and lifestyles are among the many reasons antique and vintage clothing is considered so tiny today.

“People were so much smaller back then!” One thing about working in a retail setting, I heard that statement AT LEAST once a day.

I used to display antique dresses for sale in my antiques shop. Waaay back when I first opened my shop, I thought that people really wanted to learn about these beauties so whenever someone would utter those words I tried to use the opportunity to talk about their history. Who can resist talking about them?

From the Way Back Machine:  Antique Dresses displayed in my shop back in 2004

From the Way Back Machine: Antique Dresses displayed in my shop back in 2004

Nine times out of ten the exchange would go like this:

Visitor: Oh my! Have you seen the size of that waist?
Me: Um … (thinking to myself – yes, I dressed the dress form … how do I answer this one?) Yes. It’s a lovely dress isn’t it?

Visitor: People were so much smaller back then. How horrible it would be to wear a corset!
Me: Actually, a properly fit corset is not uncomfortable at all and females wore corsets from such a young age that their bodies and minds were used to them.

Visitor: They were shorter back then, too.
Me: Not necessarily. I’m 5’ 1” and all these dresses are too long for me. The shoulders on the dress forms are all set higher than my shoulders are – in heels!

Visitor: (blank stare) (silence) Well, ALL these dresses are so tiny!
Me: There can be many reasons for that. Think of your own closet. Have you saved a dress or two from the past? What dresses were they?

Visitor: Only my wedding dress.
Me: That’s pretty typical. We tend to save a dress worn at a special occasion or time of our life. USUALLY that’s when we’re young and … well, at our smallest adult size.

In the 19th century it wasn’t uncommon for a young lady to be married in a new “best dress” instead of a special, white wedding dress. The newly married lady would then probably continue to wear this “best dress” for special occasions and to church on Sunday. It probably wasn’t long before the bride became pregnant with her first child and .. before long she couldn’t wear it and put it away to wear after the baby came. For many reasons, that dress might not come out of storage and these are the wonderful, near perfect dresses we love so much today.

As time passed, new dresses that were at least somewhat larger (you know, the “huge” ones with the 28” waist LOL) were made and remade into more current styles. Lots of bodices still exist without matching skirts because the skirts had larger spans of fabric that could be used to make other clothing – probably for children – when they became worn or stained. And sadly, a greater number of women died at a younger age then and it’s likely that their clothing was put away and left for sentimental reasons.

There are many other factors that contribute to our larger sizes such as better nutrition, portion sizes, and our sedentary lifestyles. Plus, the shape of a corseted body is much different than the natural shape our bodies take today.

Visitor: ZZZzzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZzzz……

After having this exchange with few variations over a period of years, the exchange has become much more concise.

Visitor: Oh my! Have you seen the size of that waist? People were so much smaller back then.
Me: (Smile) Well, they never met a Big Mac.
Visitor: (Smile) That’s true!

Visitor: I wouldn’t wear a corset. That would be so painful!
Me: (Smile)

I’ll share the death by corset article next time ….

“Chic Chicago” Exhibit at the Chicago History Museum

Why has my blog been so silent the past couple of weeks?  Other than being busy beyond belief, we took our annual mini-vacation to Chicago.  It’s a treat for us all and a “thank you” to my son and his girlfriend for helping at the vintage clothing shows throughout the year.  We started the tradition about 3 years ago and had so much fun we can’t stop ourselves now!

The museums in Chicago are superb and there are always new, rotating exhibits to see.  Pierceton is close enough to Chicago that we have some Chicago stations on our cable system so we always pick up new ideas of places to go and things to do.  As if there could ever be any boredom there!  Yes, we love to visit the Windy City.

If you hang out with me very long, you’ll find I’m torn between food and fashion.  (Here’s where I have to maintain a little dignity and mention that I CAN still wear vintage clothing, but a girl’s gotta have some fun!)  We discovered Tuscany on Taylor Street in Little Italy.  You know you’re in for a treat when the basket of fresh Italian bread is delivered to the table with a huge roasted garlic bulb that the waiter mashes on a plate and mixes with olive oil.  Oh my.  And accommodating!  My son prefers white sauces and asked if a particular dish could be served with white sauce and before he knew it, the entire dish had been personalized for him.  Our waiter was a complete doll.  We are going back soon, even if we have to make a special trip.

But I digress …

Other than finding a couple new POPs (Pig Out Places) one of my favorite exhibits was at the Chicago HistoryMuseum.   Here’s where I beg everyone’s pardon for the lack of graphics since, understandably, no photos are allowed of the museum collection.  BUT the Museum of Science & Industry has an  Old Town area where fotofanatics can run amok and I got a nice picture of some shoes!

The exhibition “Chic Chicago” displays an exquisite selection of beautiful designer dresses that include antique Worth gowns from as early as 1861, early Chanel – a personal favorite,  Madame Grès, Poiret, Christian Dior’s early New Look, Halston, Givenchy, Vionnet, Versace, Mugler …. plus so many more.   And ohhhh … I was particularly taken with a 1938 evening gown by Gilbert Adrian influenced by Cubism and intrigued by the 1954 “Butterfly” ballgown by Charles James.  The “Butterfly” gown exhibit included a smaller, touchable version that I really appreciated because the wings and bustle are truly a feat of engineering.

Then there was the Fortuny Delphos gowns.   Sigh ……

They had to call the janitorial staff to follow me around to mop up the drool.  Those museum people are so fussy.

Imagine the thrill discovering that there was yet another special exhibition there at the same time, “Bertha Honoré Palmer” that included more breathtaking gowns worn by Mrs. Palmer, wife of Potter Palmer who built The Palmer House hotel.  This exhibition featured antique gowns and personal items owned by Mrs. Palmer that dated from the 1880s to the early 1900s.  Particularly enjoyable to see were more unusual items such as a winter coat, circa 1885, a court presentation gown from 1892 with a 9 foot train, a 1908 teagown, and circa 1910 red velvet shoes.  Remarkable fabrics … fabrics which are so sadly unavailable today.

Yeah, the janitors mopped up there, too.

So if you’re anywhere NEAR Chicago, be sure to take the opportunity to check these two exhibitions out at the Chicago History Museum.  “Chic Chicago” is only open until July 26, 2009 so HURRY!  The Bertha Honoré Palmer exhibition will run until January 4, 2010.

Both exhibition catalogs are available at the Chicago History Museum.  Janitorial services extra.

Women With Bad Attitudes

I have a Wall of Fame.  Or maybe it’s the Wall of Infamy.  Here at the shop, the wall behind the counter is covered with hats, purses, bodices … and Women with Bad Attitudes.

How it came to be was purely accidental.  I had come across a modern decorative tile that depicted a Victorian woman giving the proverbial “look that could kill” with the inscription, “Everyone’s entitled to a hissy-fit now and then” and it just seemed to address my … shall we say, state of mind … at the time.  I hung the tile on the wall behind the counter.

She has ATTITUDE - "Patience"

She has ATTITUDE “Patience”

Not long after that, I added a wonderful hand-tinted photograph of a Victorian lady in a beautiful gold oval frame to my inventory.  Being too lazy to haul out the ladder and out of space near the floor to hang the photo, I put it on the wall behind the counter.  One day, I realized that the lady in the oval frame looked like she could have been the woman on my tile!  Evil stare and all.  I call them Patience and Mercy.

Is this the same lady, or what? She *definitely* has ATTITUDE!

Is this the same lady, or what? She *definitely* has ATTITUDE! This is “Mercy”. Reeeally?

"Bonnie" definitely has attitude!

“Bonnie” definitely has attitude!

As happens in a vintage store, more and more things accumulate.  Occasionally, an item comes in that just SPEAKS to me.  A particular chalkware statue of a girl called to me.  Chalkware (really plaster of paris) was commonly given as an inexpensive prize at fairs or carnivals between about 1910 and 1940.  This particular piece is fairly common  – she stands about 16″ high and wears a cute pink jacket and wide legged, cuffed pants with a matching cap cocked at a rather sassy angle and a green striped (with glitter!) turtleneck.  Her hands are in her pockets and she has a sort of pouty “don’t mess with me” expression painted on her face.  Since she came to live here, I’ve mentally compared her to others I’ve seen out and about and no others have this pouty expression!  She sits on a shelf on the wall behind the counter – I call her Bonnie.

Back in 2006 the dear lady, Nedra Beebe, who owned the building my shop is in passed away.  I made a copy of her obituary that included her photo on pretty paper and put it on the wall.  Nedra and her husband had a very successful and well-known antique store here since May 1, 1940.  She was LEGENDARY.  I could do an entire blog about her.  She was quite the lady and one heck of a good businesswoman with a loyal following.  Countless of her customers have come in and the stories they tell … oh my.  She had THE attitude!  One story that has been told quite often was that occasionally a customer would invoke her ire.  Consequently, if that customer attempted to purchase something, it was no longer for sale!

About this time, it occurred to me that I had unintentionally covered this wall with photos of Women with Bad Attitudes.  And yes, my photo was already there.

Some years ago my husband and I had one of those old-timey black and white photos taken where you “dress up” in costumes.  Yeah … we did Bonnie & Clyde (don’t get me started on everything wrong with the styles portrayed there!).  That photo also hangs on that wall.  Now you know why I’m qualified to ascertain “attitude”:  It takes one to know one.

Bad attitude, for sure!

Bad attitude, for sure!

So what does all this have to do with vintage clothing?  Since realizing that I have this absurd collection of Women With Bad Attitudes, I’ve consciously collected a few more photos of Women With Bad Attitudes to study and admire the hairstyle, the dress, the hat, or some other fashion attribute. I find that old photographs are an excellent window into the past that, over time, becomes a learning tool that helps us understand a lot of the whys of fashion, such as how hairstyles affected hat styles and how certain types of jewelry were worn during a particular time period.   I’ll be posting these photos  soon with some thoughts and comments and, hopefully, some information about the fashions depicted.


Stay Tuned!

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