March 28th, 2017

Me 2012

Corsets & Codpieces, by Karen Bowman

This is a book on fashion in England from the Roman invasion to the present. The author's primary focus is on the most elaborate trends, and on women's fashion in particular. She does discuss some of the elaborate things men did in the name of fashion: codpieces, for example, which were often absurdly suggestive, and the trend of shoes with points so long they were hard to walk in. And powdered wigs that required hairbags to keep the powder off the wearer's clothing. But mostly it's women's fashion: farthingales and half-farthingales and ruffs and corsets and stays and crinolines and bustles and so forth. The author pretty much gets to Regency England, and says "Beau Brummel pioneered a relatively simple, clean look similar to the modern three-piece suit, and men's fashion has been boring ever since so it's all girls from here on."

It's interesting, though the narrow focus on "English middle and upperclass women" made it less informative than I would have liked. There's most of a chapter that is just "crinolines were freakishly dangerous clothing in the 19th century", primarily because (a) women of every class wore them, as opposed to the even more unwieldy farthingale, which was worn only by the upperclass and the (then very small) middle class of the 16th century (b) crinolines were made of highly flammable materials, and women are working around all kinds of open flames.

There is an anecdote about a woman deliberately wearing a bustle that had a mouse nest in it. She cut a little hole in it so she could feed the mice at the dinner table. I am pretty sure this is apocryphal but I am in love with this woman anyway.

There is a lot on the politics of fashion, and denunciations of various trends (also, sumptuary laws!) One thing I found interesting was that the author described some of the most extravagant trends in women's fashion as extremely unpopular with men. The ginormous skirts of crinolines and farthingales and panniers (in various different time periods), for example. Or, on the simple side, the straight silhouettes and short hair of the 1920s. That men decried these trends did not apparently deter women from wearing them, however. I wouldn't want to draw conclusions from one book, but it did reinforce my own belief that women dress to please themselves* and impress other women. Impressing men is not irrelevant, but it's not the dominant goal for most women.

* not to be confused with "for their own comfort".

Anyway, if you want to know about upper & middle class women's fashion in England from the16th century to the mid-20th, this is pretty good. Also good for some ancillary anecdotes on other trends impacted by clothing. (Thieves hiding their goods under the massive crinolines! Armless chairs designed specifically for farthingales!) For the rest of the time period and for men, it's got some information but not much. Other nations are only mentioned insofar as impact English fashion. It's written in an engaging manner with a good number of illustrations. It is clear the author did considerable research, but this is not a heavily-footnoted scholarly work.