Category Archives: Early Victorian fashions

Cloth Bonnets for Sun or Indoors

A vintage sunbonnet, which shows signs of wear.

I know next to nothing about millinery. However, a recent conversation with Linda Rahner about sunbonnets reminded me that I photographed several from a collection that has since been sold. The same collection had Victorian cloth bonnets which may have been made to be worn alone indoors, or under a hat, and it seems logical that their construction would inspire the cloth bonnets used for sun protection. So here are a few sunbonnets and — perhaps — some of their antecedents.
[Tip: If you ever try to search for sunbonnets online, be sure to limit your search by adding “-sue -baby.” Otherwise, Sunbonnet Sue quilts will dominate your results…. ]

This American photo from the late twenties or early 1930’s shows a woman, on the left, wearing a sunbonnet; on the right, her daughter wears trousers.

It's the 1930s. The woman on far right is wearing trousers. Her mother, far left, wears a sunbonnet.

Trying to date vintage sunbonnets must be a nightmare, because sunbonnets are still being made and sold. The needs of re-enactors, docents at historic sites, and participants in local history days have resulted in many commercial patterns for sunbonnets.

I’m pretty sure this one is “the real thing,”  because it is almost worn out.

A threadbare sunbonnet in grayish brown cloth. Its brim is stiffened with padding and diagonal machine quilting and sticks out quite a way to shade the face.

A close up of the worn sunbonnet. Some white selvedge shows in the ruffle.

Back of the worn brownish sunbonnet. The neck cover is not very long. I have no idea about its date except that it’s machine stitched.

This checked gingham sunbonnet is in very good condition — which makes me wonder if it was really worn for working outdoors.

This sunbonnet is made from striking fabric, so perhaps a reader can identify when it was probably made. It does appear to have been worn more than once. It is stiffened with padding and parallel rows of stitches.

Even this blurred photo shows that it would give the back of your neck good protection.

The rickrack trim on this blue sunbonnet makes me think it may be from the 1930’s — but other opinions are welcome!

This crisp sunbonnet is made of blue chambray and trimmed with rickrack. Perhaps it was a gift — “too good to wear” for yardwork.

Little girls continued to wear variations on sunbonnets in the 1940s.

My friend’s collection also included some white bonnets, definitely vintage, which I am utterly unqualified to date. However, some have long back flaps (like sunbonnets;) some have been stiffened with parallel rows of cording or quilting; and the basic coif shape goes back a long, long way. If you recognize the period for any of these, feel free to share your knowledge:

The simplest white bonnet or house cap:

One piece of fabric forms the front; another is gathered into a back. The stripes are woven into the cloth. The seam between the front and back is piped.

The front has a single ruffle trimmed with lace framing the face.

A closer view of the lace and fabric. Is it machine lace?  The ruffle is actually pleated into place rather than gathered.

Here’s a close up of the fabric — badly mended in one spot:

The fabric looks like linen to me. A hole was badly mended.

There is a drawstring in the back casing (and a French seam.)

Like the front, the back is trimmed with a single ruffle.

A more complex cap or bonnet looks similar from the front:

The front of this bonnet or cap is very simple . . .

But from the side, it’s another story:

Parallel rows of cording stiffen this cap. It also has a long flap in back, pleated rather than gathered.

A closer view of the cording.

The cording appears to be hand stitched.

I just discovered that a similar bonnet was illustrated in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine in 1857.

Is a cap like that one the ancestor of those sunbonnets?

This one — perhaps a house cap? — is too elaborate for farm work:

Definitely meant to be seen, this bonnet has ruffles and cording everywhere — even running down its back.

The be-ruffled bonnet seen from the front. If it was intended to be starched, what a nightmare to iron!

This is the ruffled bonnet seen from the rear. It has a long neck flap, too.

For all I know, one or more of those is really a night-cap….

It’s not quite fair to judge this last masterpiece (and it is one!) without starch, but, since starch attracts insects, it was washed thoroughly before being put into storage. Try to imagine the hand-embroidered lace freshly ironed and standing crisply away from the face:

A front view. The ties are very long.

A closer look at the hand-embroidered cutwork lace.

The same hat viewed from above; in addition to the long ties that go under the chin, there are ties ending in a bow on top.

A close up of the quilting which stiffens the brim.

A very chic cap or bonnet in profile — I’ll go out on a limb and say “probably late 1830s.”

The voluminous crown suggests that it was made to be worn over a hairstyle like this one:

Fashion plate from La Mode, Sept. 1838. The Casey Collection.

Back view of a tulle bonnet trimmed with marabou, The Lady’s Magazine, Feb. 1837. Casey Collection.

An assortment of bonnets from World of Fashion, Nov. 1838. Casey Collection.

An earlier cloth bonnet or coif can be seen in The Bonnet Maker, Costumes d’ouvrieres parisiennes, by Galatine, 1824. (Zoom in to see the details of her embroidered bonnet, and the corded bonnets in her hand.)

I no longer own my Godey’s  or Harper’s fashion plate anthologies, so I present all these photos for the enjoyment of those who do. Happy hunting.

P.S. If you have never visited the Casey Collection of Fashion Plates, there’s a link in my “Sites with Great Information” sidebar.

 

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Fashion Plates (for Men and Women) from the Met Costume Institute

1921 fashion plate from the Metropolitan Museum collection. Click here to see it in larger versions.

1921 fashion plate from the Metropolitan Museum collection. Click here to see it in larger versions.

The Metropolitan Museum continues its generous policy of sharing images online; “Fashion plates from the collections of the Costume Institute and the Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art” are now available (and searchable) at http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p15324coll12

Click here, and scroll down for a lengthy list of sub-collections of fashion plates: menswear, children, wedding, women, headgear, etc., organized by date or range of dates.

What really excited me is the large number of men’s fashion plates, many dated very precisely, like these tennis outfits from 1905-06.

Men's tennis outfits, 1905 1906; Metropolitan Museum Fashion Plates collection. Plate 029.

Men’s tennis outfits, 1905-1906; Metropolitan Museum Fashion Plates Collection. Plate 029. For full image, click here.

If you need to skim through a year or a decade of men’s fashion, this is a great place! It’s also going to be very helpful to collectors who are trying to date specific items of men’s clothing. Sometimes the date range given is very narrow (e.g., 1905-06) and sometimes it’s rather broad (e.g., 1896 to 1913) but menswear is neglected by many costume collections, so this is a terrific resource.

Vintage vests for men. Undated. Details like the lapels, the shape of the waist, the depth of the opening, the buttons, etc., will help to date them from reference materials

Vintage evening vests for men. Undated. Details like the lapels, the shape of the waist, the depth of the opening, the buttons, etc., will help the collector to date them from reference materials.

In addition to full outfits, like these evening clothes …

Evening dress for men, 1909-1910. Met Museum Costume Plate.

Evening dress for men, 1909-1910. Met Museum Costume Plate.

… individual items like vests can also be found:

Men's vests; fashion plate from the Met Museum fashion plate collection category "1900-1919 men"

Men’s vests; fashion plate from the Met Museum fashion plate collection category “1900-1919 men.” The vests on the left have five buttons.

Undated vintage vests. Both have high necklines, but one has seven buttons instead of six.

Undated vintage vests. Both have high necklines, but one has seven buttons and one has six. You could probably date them from the Met’s Fashion Plate Collection.

Men's vests 1896 to 1899. The red one reminds us that vests (aka weskits) sometimes had sleeves.

From “Men 1896 to 1899.” The red one reminds us that vests (aka weskits) sometimes had sleeves. The red one with vertical stripes may be a footman’s or other servant’s vest. This plate is dated February 1898.

Of course, fashion plates that have been separated from their descriptions in text are less useful than a complete magazine or catalog. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the chance to see these rare collections, especially because the men are not forgotten.

This delightful plate reminds me of an Edward Gorey vamp — like the ones dancing through the credits on Mystery on Public Television.

A long evening gown from the House of Worth, 1921. Met Museum Costume Collection Fashion Plate.

A long evening gown from the House of Worth, 1921. Met Museum Costume Institute Fashion Plate.

I’ll add a link to the collection to my “Sites with Great Information” sidebar. (There are other treasures to explore there….)

 

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Museum Online: The Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg

Found via Two Nerdy History Girls:  The Online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg.

18th c. dress in the Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy.

18th c. dress #1975-340 in the Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy.

Williamsburg, Virginia, may be strongly associated with the American colonial era, but the museum has clothing from the 1600’s through the Victorian Era. Now, a sizeable portion of its collections has been photographed and put online.

The Online Collection gives us a chance to sample the Museum’s holdings without buying a plane ticket. The online collection is searchable: Click here:  http://emuseum.history.org/  You’ll find clothing and accessories, including shoes, fans, and children’s clothes; paintings, ceramics, silver and pewter; there are also quilts, furniture, “household necessaries,” etc.  — quite a treasure trove.

The online Costume Collection contains photos of 385 items — with excellent enlargements and alternate views in the Costume Collection, and the Costume Accessories Collection online shows 444 items: hats, shoes, gloves, buttons…. When you visit the site, you can enlarge the images to see details more clearly.

This man’s three piece suit from the colonial period has a vest with attached linen sleeves:

Man's suit, 18th c. from the Costume collection at Colonial Williamsburg, online. Please do not copy.

Man’s suit, 18th c. from the online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Search for # 1994-1862. Please do not copy. The breeches lace up the back, so their size is adjustable.

This child’s plaid Victorian dress can be seen more closely; search for # 1997-158.

Child's plaid Victorian dress, #1997-158 at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

Child’s plaid Victorian dress, #1997-158 at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

The Museum also has stays (a corset) for a child, circa 1740-1760. Search for #1964-405.

This roller printed dress is from the 1830’s:

Roller printed dress circa 1830s. Online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

Roller printed dress circa 1830s. # 1972-126. Online Costume Collection at Colonial Williamsburg. Please do not copy this image.

And this 1880’s bustle dress is # 1998-240.

1880's bustle dress, #1998-240, Colonial Williamsburg Costume Collection online. Please do not copy this image

1880’s bustle dress, #1998-240, Colonial Williamsburg Costume Collection online. Please do not copy this image

To see the collection, or any of these items in more detail, go to Costume Collection and search by the number.

Don’t forget to visit the Costume Accessories, like this pair of embroidered gloves dated 1630-1650.

Mid 17th c. gloves, # 1974-1101, in the Costume Accessories Collection at Colonial Williamsburg, online. Please do not copy this image.

Mid-17th c. gloves, # 1974-1101, in the Costume Accessories Collection at Colonial Williamsburg, online. Please do not copy this image.

 

 

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The Evolution of the Shirt and Cut My Cote: Book Recommendation

I’v been wanting to recommend this little book, Cut My Cote, for a long time, and, since I showed some Victorian era men’s shirts in a recent post, this seems like a good time to share some things Cut My Cote taught me about the evolution of the shirt.

Shirt spun, woven and stitched by Elizabeth Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum.

Shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings in 1816. Metropolitan Museum Collection.

“This shirt was created, from the linen fiber to the finished garment, by the donor’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Wild Hitchings, for her husband Benjamin Hitchings, a sea captain, in 1816.”

Cut My Cote, by Dorothy K. Burnham, is more of a pamphlet than a book, but its 36 pages are packed with useful diagrams and thought provoking information. For me, it was one of those “whack on the side of the head” books, because I had simply never considered how precious cloth was in the pre-industrial age, or how garment construction was influenced by the size of the handwoven cloth available. Making clothes from Burnham’s diagrams is a real education.

This book expands on  some themes from Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber. Barber, an archeologist and a weaver, estimated that it takes a woman seven hours to hand spin enough thread to weave for one hour. For the woman spinning and weaving and sewing a linen shirt like the one above, every scrap would represent days of labor. You can understand why “zero waste” clothing is not a new idea.

Diagram of Man's shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how none of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Pleas do not copy this image.

Diagram of 16th c. man’s shirt, by Dorothy Burnham, showing how not a single inch of the handwoven linen was wasted. From Cut My Cote. Please do not copy this image. The cloth was 27 inches wide.

In the shirt above, the sleeves (B) narrow from below the elbow to the wrist. The triangles of fabric (C) trimmed from the lower part of the sleeves are used to widen the upper part. The neckline is slit straight across, and gathered into the collar at front and back. This gives ease across the back. (Modern shirts have a center back pleat for the same reason.) Notice how similar it is to that shirt made by Elizabeth Wild Hitchings nearly three hundred years later.

“I shall cut my cote after my cloth.”

Burnham examines this proverb and finds it true:  “I shall cut my cote after my cloth.” ( Haywood’s Proverbs, published in 1546) You may have heard a variant of the proverb:

“You must cut your coat to fit your cloth.”

The size of the cloth often dictates the shape of the garment. Using her measurements of rare surviving garments, Burnham charts their cutting patterns. In examples that trace the development of the European shirt, for instance, you can see how reluctantly the cloth is cut at all, and how every inch is utilized.

The Loom and The Shirt

Burnham explains the various types of looms used from place to place, and how the physical requirements of the loom (width, portability, number of weavers) dictates the width of the cloth. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt [all slave-owning societies, as it happens] used very wide, vertical or horizontal looms; some needed two weavers passing the shuttle back and forth. The Greeks wove big, wide pieces of cloth, and wore them sideways, wrapped around the body with one selvage as a hem and the other at the top, usually pinning (rather than sewing) the garment at the shoulders. Excess length was controlled with belts, or by folding the top down, or both (below right.) It didn’t need cutting or sewing.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Greek charioteer, ca 475 BC; Roman dancing girl, before 79 AD.

Nomadic societies had to use looms that were portable and easy to set up. Sometimes a waist strap (or back strap) loom was used (Click here to see one being used.) When fabrics began to be worn vertically, instead of having the selvage as a hem, their width was dictated by the weaver’s reach when passing the shuttle from one side of the loom to the other. Since shirts made from narrow cloth were also worn very long, added width was needed for walking, so the sides had to be open at the hem, or the front and back were slit and godets inserted, as below. The fabric for this 13th century shirt was only 22 inches wide. Fabric (C) left over from the sleeves (B), which narrow toward the wrist, is used for godets (C) to widen the bottom of the shirt.

Burnham's diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram for a 13th century French shirt. The wedges (C) cut off the fabric used for sleeves have been inserted into the bottom of the shirt front and back. Please do not copy this image.

This drawing of a medieval farm worker shows a similar garment, with tapered sleeves and a very full skirt.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300's c. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Harvesting barley in a long, belted, shirt-like garment. Late 1300’s. From 20,000 Years of Fashion, by F. Boucher, p. 199.

Shirts for the 1700’s

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Late 18th c. shirt in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I have made late 18th century shirts like this one using Cut My Cote as one source, and, while perfectly authentic, they did not always behave well on sweaty actors and singers.  You can see that the shoulders of the shirt are much wider than the shoulders of the wearer, and in the diagram there is no shoulder seam. Even on a motionless mannequin, the shoulders fall forward, twisting the sleeves.

Also, when the neckline is cut as a straight line, like this one …

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

Shirt, late 16th c. Diagram by Burnham. Please do not copy.

… it doesn’t take into account some facts about the human body. First, flat rectangles of cloth are relatively two dimensional; we are three dimensional. Second, we are not symmetrical when seen from the side.

Left, and illustration from Walt Reed's book The Figure; Right, an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jank Hamm.

Left, based on  an illustration from Walt Reed’s book The Figure; Right, based on an illustration from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm.

Our necks are lower on the body in front than in back. The measurement from the base of the neck to waist (CF measurement) is always shorter than our Center Back measurement (CB). If you cut your shirt’s neck opening in a straight horizontal line, the opening will be forced down in the front, and the shirt will twist on the body. The shoulders of the shirt will want to move forward, while the back rides up. (Actors will be more comfortable with a modern curved neckline on an otherwise “period” shirt.”)

Another problem that had to be solved was the trapezius — the muscle that connects your neck with your shoulder.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a more complex figure, bottom.

Geometrical stick figures (top) and a stick figure adjusted to treat the neck and trapezius more realistically (bottom). Photo from Walt Reed’s book The Figure.

It took a long time for most shirt makers to solve these problems, although this woman’s smock from 1630 has a triangular gusset at the side of the neck; that was part of the solution.

This shirt, which belonged to British banker Thomas Coutts, has triangular pieces at the neck, either side of the collar.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

Early 19th c. shirt belonging to Thomas Coutts, Metropolitan Museum Collection.

This 19th century shirt with a neck gusset was collected by a friend.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side.

Linen shirt, 19th century. The collar has a gathered triangular gusset at each side. inserted in the straight, slit neckline.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius.

The triangular gusset is an attempt to solve the problem of the trapezius. It just didn’t go far enough.

The collar, hand sewn, of a finer fabric than the shirt's body.

The collar, hand sewn, is a finer fabric than the shirt’s body.

This shirt, from the same collection, has a shoulder yoke and a different way of using a triangular gusset:

Yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke.

19th century shirt with a yoke across the shoulders and a gusset below the yoke. Apparently the shirt body was cut straight across, but did not match the shape of the yoke without piecing. The neckline seems to be curved in front.

These collars with a wide gap between the wings were seen from the 1820s through the 1850s, persisting among older men. They could be starched and worn turned up, or worn turned down.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre's self portrait at age 79, 1859.

Shirt collars with a wide gap in front: a fashion plate, 1849, a sketch by Ingres, 1826, an older man, 1859, and Ingre’s self portrait at age 79, 1859.

This shirt, also owned by Thomas Coutts, has a yoke. So did the shirts worn by Mississippi boatmen in the 1840’s and 50’s, as painted by George Caleb Bingham; their shoulder seams drop far down the arm. (Shirts were one of the few ready-made garments available. But they were not sized to fit before the Civil War, when statistics that made standard sizing possible were collected.) The boatmen’s shirt size was probably dictated by the width of the cloth available.

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Bingham

The Jolly Flatboatmen, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1846.

The problem of the too-high-in-front neckline was solved by wearing the shirt unbuttoned at the throat. There are no other buttons, except at the wrists, and shirts were pulled on over the head.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb Bingham, 1850.

Another problem for shirtmakers was that, if the sleeves were tight, it was hard to raise your arm.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby's book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this was difficult.

Photo from Erik A. Ruby’s book The Human Figure. If your sleeve was tight, raising your arm like this pulled your shirt up several inches.

Some cultures — like Japan — left the underarm seam open. Europeans wanting to wear tighter sleeves without losing the ability to raise a sword or a tool, wore a very full sleeved shirt underneath a tight outer sleeve that was attached only at the shoulder, or tied on just at the top.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lade by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400s.

A young man by Memlinc, and a young lady by Ghirlandaio. Both are late 1400’s. Her sleeve is also open at the elbow, so she can bend her arm easily.

But the best solution was a square gusset (C), inserted in the underarm seams so that the bias stretch would accommodate movement.

Burnham's diagram of a 17th century shirt with underarm gussets. Please do not copy this image.

Burnham’s diagram of an early 19th century shirt with underarm gussets (C) and neckline gussets (F). Please do not copy this image.

The shirt above, diagrammed by Burnham, was one of several owned by Thomas Coutts (d. 1822); the survival of his large wardrobe is a boon to historians.

Victorian era Shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt diagrammed.

Victorian era shirt with underarm gusset. It also has neckline gussets, like the Thomas Coutts shirt Burnham diagrammed.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neck gusset in a Victorian era shirt.

Neglected Treasures

For the most part, shirts are not beautiful; they are not collected; they get worn out and used as cleaning rags; they get passed down to be worn as work clothes, instead of being wrapped in tissue and passed down as heirlooms. That is why very old shirts in very good condition are really, really rare! And a very old shirt with provenance can end up in a museum’s Costume Collection.

This wedding shirt from 1841 has a curved neckline; like a formal dress shirt, it opens down the back. It’s in the Victoria and Albert collection.

I’m not sure whether the dealer who bought my friend’s collection had any idea about how rare documented Victorian era shirts are. Here for example, is a lace embellished shirt that my friend was able to document, because it was made for a wedding and remained in one family.

A wedding shirt dated to 1871.

A wedding shirt of Davenfort Harrold, dated to 1871. The neckline curves and is deeper in front. A separate collar could be worn.

Eureka:  Shirts That Fit

I think the ultimate solution to making shirts that fit arrived along with the industrial revolution, when spinning and weaving became mechanized, lowering the price of cloth. Before that, as Dorothy Burnham says, “an extreme economy of material was practised in the cutting of traditional garments…. In ancient times, weaving far outstripped the techniques of cutting and sewing….”

Once people realized that cut cloth will not unravel after it’s been sewn, and that a certain amount of wastage is preferable to a poorly fitting shirt, the problems of the neck and trapezius fit were solved by a diagonally cut shoulder seam and a curved neckline that was cut deeper in front than in back. (The triangular neck gusset was, in a way, included in the new seam across the shoulders, which creates a triangle.) a seam across the shoulders

Using statistics collected for the manufacture of military uniforms, a range of sizes and a closer fit became possible.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor.

Shirt diagram from the Cutter and Tailor. It is essentially a modern shirt.

This heavy cotton flannel shirt, made in Sherborne, England, ended up in California. It is factory made, with a curved neckline, sloping shoulders, and a double layer of fabric for warmth. But its one-size-fits-many sleeve length had to be adjusted with a tuck. (Office workers could shorten their sleeves with a sleeve garter.) Also, like earlier shirts, this one pulls on over the head.

Vintage flannel factory made work shirt made in Sherborne, England.

Vintage flannel factory-made work shirt, probably from Sherborne, England. The label says “N. E. Strickland & Co., Shirt Specialists, Sherborne.” Strickland shirts are still being made, but not necessarily by the same company.

There is a good review of Cut My Cote at The Perfect Nose. (Click here). It shows several different illustrations from the book and encourages the stitcher to dive in and use them instead of patterns — “mark it onto your fabric in chalk/ marker and have at it with ruler and rotary tool.”

I have done this (using a #2 pencil and muslin), and I learned a lot about the evolution of the shirt from making smocks, blouses, and shirts from Cut My Cote. My old copy was covered with measurements in pencil! You can find used copies for about $15.00 — Click here. — Or you could buy it new from The Royal Ontario Museum, which has kept it in print since 1973! Cut My Cote at ROM– Click Here.

For serious research into 18th century and early 19th century shirts, follow the links at 18th Century Notebook. An entire list of links to shirts in museum collections can be found by clicking here.

The TwoNerdyHistoryGirls wrote about 18th century shirts (and why the hems were so long — ick!) here.

It’s easy to see why this 1630  embroidered smock at the V & A Museum didn’t end up as a dishrag. And its
gorgeous blackwork embroidery probably saved this going-on-500-year-old Tudor shirt, circa 1540. It’s in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Read more Here.

But spare a thought for the uncollected, hand spun, hand woven, hand stitched, everyday shirts that were made and worn and finally worn out.

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Sewing Shirts for Soldiers: Women’s Work in the 1860’s and World War I

Derek Watson’s book Munby: Man of Two Worlds continues to be fascinating reading. Munby’s diaries record hundreds of conversations with Victorian working women.

The ghost ini the Looking Glass, cartoon by John Tenniel, Punch magazine, 1863. From Victorian Working Women

“The Ghost in the Looking Glass,” cartoon by John Tenniel, Punch magazine, 1863. From Victorian Working Women. A lady glances into the mirror and sees the starving milliner who made her ball gown.

In 1860, a “sewing machine hand” told Munby that she earned 16 shillings a week, “working from 8 to 8 with an hour for dinner” — “she keeps the machine going with her feet,” he noted.  (Munby, p. 84)

A milliner he met, who had a steady job making “shirts, collars, gloves, anything!” said she also worked as a charwoman (house cleaner) on Saturdays, because she could not “make my living by needlework.” She earned 9 or 10 shillings a week. (Munby, p. 46) [“Milliners” made clothing, not just hats.]

Another needlewoman worked at home, making men’s waistcoats for 12 1/2 shillings per week, from which she paid rent of 4 shillings per week.  (Munby, p. 82)

Arthur Munby took a lasting, charitable interest in a gravely disfigured woman named Harriet Langdon. Because her face was so difficult for people to look at — it resembled a “Death’s head”– she couldn’t find work. (The disease lupus vulgaris, or lupus tuberculosis, had completely destroyed her nose and one lip, and from the age of eight she “had lived as a leper.”) Munby befriended her, took her for medical treatment which halted the progress of the disease, and tried to find some employment by which she could support herself. Perhaps his only successful attempt to get her work was as a home seamstress for Mary Stanley’s “Repository for Work,” in York Street, London.

Mary Stanley and the Repository for Work

Man's shirt, machine stitched, Victorian era.

Man’s shirt with pleated front, machine stitched, Victorian era.

This passage from Munby’s diaries is dated Friday, 10th April, 1863:

“About noon I went to call by appointment on Miss Stanley, at her ‘Repository for Work’ in York Street Westminster. It is a mean house like the others near it. The door opened straight into a small narrow shop, in which there was barely room to stand:  for the floor was piled high with heaps of cotton shirts. Behind a counter, also full of shirts in progress, sat Miss Stanley, stitching away at a wristband, and two women who were doing the like.

Thirty Thousand Shirts for Soldiers, 1863

“She is that Honorable Miss Stanley, who was with Miss Nightingale in the Crimea:  and here she now sits, day by day, looking after the making, by poor needlewomen at their own homes, of some thirty thousand soldiers’ shirts per annum. A quiet self-devoted woman of forty or so: slight and worn, with traces of past beauty in her calm and ladylike and unpretending face. A woman worthy of deep respect, and of a certain desiderium too, when one looked at her busy hands — thin, uncaredfor, dignified by no wedding ring.

“She very kindly promised to give immediate work to Harriet Langdon, upon my undertaking for the safety of the materials: and added, that as Langdon was so disfigured, she might come for the work privately, & not with the crowd.” (Munby: Man of Two Worlds, p. 155.)

Man's shirt, machine made, Victorian era.

Man’s shirt, machine made, Victorian era. The initial is embroidered by hand.

The next day, Munby walked to Harriet’s house to tell her the good news — but it was qualified by the financial reality:

“And so, after a year’s effort, I am able to gladden this poor creature with the hope of earning — five shillings a week!”

There were jobs in London that paid even less; since Harriet was living with her sister, earning enough for her own food was an improvement in her whole family’s condition.

In May of 1864, Munby campaigned to have Harriet accepted as a pensioner of the Royal Hospital for Incurables, and was successful, “and so my two years’ effort on her behalf is ended, and this poor penniless object, this hideous unpresentable woman, is made for the rest of her life happy. Happy? Yes, for she is to have twenty pounds a year. . . .” [about 8 shillings per week.]

Munby continued to visit her, even after she moved out of London, bringing her masks, and false noses from France, although she never found one that satisfied her. He noticed, too, that almost everything she wore was a hand-me-down from his mother or sister, which Harriet remade to fit herself. Sadly, as Munby was the only man who took an interest in her, she developed a strong, probably romantic, attachment to him: “She would so gladly hear from or see me oftener: she disdains pity, yet says, ‘You neglect me — you don’t feel for my wretched lonely condition!’ and the tears run down.” It was a painful “scene” for both of them. [Munby: Man of Two Worlds, p. 237.]

A Living Wage in 1860’s London

It’s always difficult to calculate wages from other times, but Mrs. Beeton estimated that a household needed a minimum income of 150 pounds a year (in 1861) to afford even one servant/maid-of-all-work, who could expect to earn 9 to 14 pounds per year, in addition to her room and board. There were twenty shillings in a pound, so 13 pounds would be about 5 shillings per week, plus “board” (the master’s leftovers for meals,) and “room” (sleeping space on a cot in the kitchen or a bed an unheated attic.)

Munby, himself, in a civil service post, earned a salary of 120 pounds per year in 1860, and needed financial help from his father to live as a gentleman in London. His rent was 50 pounds per year. Munby couldn’t afford to quit his job and marry his servant/sweetheart, Hannah Cullwick. He would have lost both his job and his father’s support if he married a woman who was not “a lady.”  After a courtship of almost twenty years, they married, but the marriage was kept secret from his family until he died.

Another fascinating book with passages from the diaries of both Munby and Hannah Cullwick is Love and Dirt, by Diane Atkinson. Read a review by clicking here.

Sewing Shirts for Soldiers, First World War

Knitting for Soldiers, Delineator, Aug. 1917. p. 41

Knitting for the Navy, Delineator, Aug. 1917. p. 41. “Any one who wants to help the Navy win the war can join in this work.”

"Remember, if you begin to knit, your six best girlfriends will follow your lead." Delineator, Aug. 1917, p. 41

“Remember, if you begin to knit, your six best girl friends will follow your lead.” Delineator, Aug. 1917, p. 41

A Hospital shirt and robe for volunteers to sew, Red Cross article in Delineator, Dec. 1917. p. 51

A hospital shirt and a convalescent robe for volunteers to sew, Red Cross article in Delineator, Dec. 1917. p. 51. This article ran simultaneously in several women’s magazines.

Since the story of Harriet Langdon is so depressing, this tongue-twisting song about “Sewing Shirts for Soldiers” in World War I may cheer us up:

“Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers
Such skill at sewing shirts
Our shy young sister Susie shows!

Some soldiers send epistles,
Say they’d sooner sleep in thistles
Than the saucy, soft, short shirts for soldiers sister Susie sews.”

You can hear Al Jolson sing it (click here) or watch a video (with poor sound quality) showing vintage film footage of women volunteers sewing for the war effort, and convalescent soldiers sewing as part of their therapy. (Click here.) Perhaps for the sake of alliteration, the song includes a mention of Singer sewing machines.

I first heard the music hall song “Sister Susie” with many other WW I songs in Joan Littlewood’s innovative theatrical production, Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963)  A recording of the stage production exists; sadly, the movie version directed by Richard Attenborough doesn’t have the impact of Littlewood’s low-budget staged version.

POST SCRIPT, Nov. 3, 2015:  Thomas Hood wrote a poem about Victorian seamstresses sewing shirts by hand. If you’ve never read “The Song of the Shirt,” find it by clicking here. It begins:

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

 

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Victorian Flounced Skirt and Pagoda-Sleeved Bodice, circa 1850’s (?)

Victorian era flounced skirt and jacket, circa 1856. Private collection.

Victorian era flounced skirt and jacket, circa 1856. Private collection. This is close to accurate color, a dark cherry red.

The fabric and fringe on this vintage outfit are really lovely, and the presence of what may be the original detachable inner sleeves and neckline fill made it memorable to me.

The sheer tulle or netting used for the neckline and the sleeves was not ironed or cleaned for these quick photos.

Bodice detail, black/ dark red changeable taffeta with black and dark red fringe. Circa 1856.

Bodice detail, black/ dark red changeable taffeta gown with black and dark red silk fringe. Circa 1856. Top button missing from white fill.

Netting and lace fill for the square necklne of the Victorian outfit. It would have been basted into place on the bodice, and removed for washing.

Netting and lace fill for the square neckline of the Victorian outfit. It would have been basted into place on the bodice, and removed for washing. It has a button placket down the center.

Sadly, this outfit showed signs of being reconstructed:   a modern grosgrain waistband on the skirt (visible in the photo above,) and small holes in the skirt where stitching was unpicked. Either the top flounce (and perhaps others) had been moved down to make the skirt longer, or the holes were left by the original cartridge-pleated waistline on the skirt, which may have been shorter in front than in back when it was made. The outfit also deserved a fuller crinoline to properly display the skirt, but these photos were purely for the purpose of inventory.

Illustration from Le Bon Ton, January 1 edition, 1859. From the Casey Collection of fashion plates at LA County Public Library.

Illustration from Le Bon Ton, January 1 edition, 1856. From the Casey Collection of fashion plates at LA County Public Library.

It’s possible that the top of the top flounce was originally hidden by the long, jacket-like bodice, as in the blue outfit above. (That’s a thin line of black ribbon trim on the flounce, not a seam.) The Casey Collection is a wonderful online resource, searchable by date. Click here to see more of it. The plates can be enlarged and magnified; the detail can be amazing. This gown, also from January 1856, is rather similar in color to the one I photographed.

Our changeable taffeta two piece dress bears a slight resemblance to this sketch by Ingres of Mademoiselle Cecile Panckoucke, which the artist dated 1856. However, we should never suppose that women only wore dresses in the height of fashion, or that dresses based on fashion plates were made within weeks of publication, so “our” dress may be later. I photographed it as part of a private collection in the U.S.

Portrait sketch of Mlle Cecile Panckoucke, Ingres, 1856.

Portrait sketch of Mlle Cecile Panckoucke, Ingres, 1856.

The painter Ingres sketched this dress, which seems to have a lower-cut jacket-like bodice, and signed his drawing in 1856.

The “peplum” of the dark cherry-red and black changeable taffeta dress is shaped to have a squarish section below the waist in front and a smaller one in back, but not at the sides; the patterned trim and fringe continues all the way around the bodice bottom.

Front detail of bodice showing long, square front and fringe trim.

Front detail of bodice showing long, square front and black and red fringe trim.

Back detail shoeing fringed waist trim and Center back long "tail."

Back detail showing fringed waist trim and a peplum-like “tail.”

The fringe alternates red and black. The ground fabric for the dress is changeable taffeta, with the warp and the weft different colors:  one is black and the other is dark cherry red. The flounces are the same mix, but have a jacquard pattern woven into them.

Close up of jaquard woven pattern in changeable taffeta. Probably1850s.

Close-up of jacquard woven pattern in changeable taffeta. Probably 1850’s.

Detail of the fabric's woven pattern on flounce and sleeve trim. Photo enhanced.

Detail of the fabric’s woven pattern on flounce and sleeve trim. Photo enhanced.

Strips of this patterned fabric trim the neckline and center front of the bodice, the bottoms of the sleeves, and the bottom of the bodice “peplum.” The trim may be the border of the fabric, not used on the flounces.

Cherry and black changeable taffeta sleeves, trimmed with strips of a coordinating jaquard woven pattern. The bodice is also trimmed with two kinds of silk fringe, both alternating black and red.

Cherry and black changeable taffeta sleeves, trimmed with strips of a coordinating jacquard woven pattern. The sleeves are trimmed with two kinds of silk fringe, both alternating black and red.

The fringe above the elbow, arranged in two layers for a checkerboard effect,  is shorter and thicker than the fringe used elsewhere. It is also less “curly” in texture.

Detail of two kinds of fringe used on 1850's changeable taffeta dress.

Detail of two kinds of fringe used on 1850’s changeable taffeta dress.

The pagoda sleeves are lined with cream silk, and finished with a matching, pleated cream self-trim:

Inside of pagoda sleeve, showing pleated trim on the lining. The inside of one sleeve was stained.

Inside of pagoda sleeve, showing pleated trim on the lining. The inside of this sleeve was stained.

You can see how sheer the detachable tulle inner sleeve is. I love the pleated detail on the lining, since the inside of a pagoda sleeve would be very visible when the wearer gestured, poured tea, etc.

This 1855 pagoda-sleeved plaid dress is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Pagoda sleeved dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital archives.

Pagoda sleeved dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital archives.

Plaid taffeta dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital collection.

Plaid taffeta dress, France, 1855. Image from LACMA digital collection.

Click here for more views of this dress; unfortunately, none shows the insides of the sleeves. The “buttons” on the front are actually small silk tassels.

The use of coordinating fringe on silk dresses was not uncommon; I once rescued a fan-fronted bodice, entirely hand-stitched, from a Goodwill Halloween rack. The silk had “Granny Smith apple” green stripes on a cream background, accented with thin stripes of peacock (Prussian) blue. The pagoda sleeves were trimmed with a matching fringe, but it was purpose-made, not just the dress fabric with the weft unravelled, and the half-inch stripes in the fringe were mostly peacock blue and apple green.

This portrait of Madame Moitessier in a fringed dress, also painted by Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, was finished in 1857.

Detail of Mme. Moitessier, by J.-A.-D. Ingres, circa 1857. From Portrait of Ingres: Image of an Epoque.

Detail of “Mme. Moitessier,” by J.-A.-D. Ingres, circa 1857. From Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoque.

Her dress shows a Rococo revival patterned silk that became popular around 1855, according to Gary Tinterow, writing in Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoque, p. 440. Her dress is trimmed with silk fringe made from the same colors as the dress fabric, plus coordinating ribbons.

It took Ingres a famously long time to complete this portrait, first commissioned in 1844. Around 1847, Mme Moitessier’s little daughter Caroline was in the picture, leaning her head on her mother’s lap. It isn’t true that Caroline had to be painted out of the picture because she kept growing, although by the time Ingres was adding the final touches, in 1857, Caroline had grown up. (She was three in 1847, and nearly fourteen when the picture was finally completed!) In fact, Ingres made many changes as the portrait progressed. Caroline was too young to hold long poses (Ingres called her “impossible” [insupportable] and wiped her out early in the process.) In 1852, he asked Madame to wear her “yellow dress” to a posing session — not this dress, so he apparently made changes later, to be sure that the finished painting [1857] showed her in an up-to-date fashion.

I wish I had taken interior photos of this dark cherry dress; I’m just glad I had these pictures to share.

Front and back views of a dark cherry red changeable taffeta dress, circa 1856. Private collection.

Front and back views of a dark cherry red changeable taffeta dress, circa 1856. Private collection. The color on the left is more accurate.

NOTE:  I did not examine this dress with a magnifying glass. Except for the stain in one sleeve, and the alterations to the skirt, it was in remarkably (almost suspiciously) good condition. Once I saw the alterations, I didn’t check for other machine stitching. I couldn’t ask the owner about it, so I can’t be sure if it is authentic, or a very elegant reproduction that fooled her, too. The dating is hypothetical and may be later than the 1850’s, for many reasons. Wherever this dress is now, a fabric test might be interesting.

Expert advice is always appreciated!

I’ve written about other Victorian Era dresses that I’ve met:

To see inside a brilliantly colored roller printed dress, Click here.

For a details of a lightweight, plaid fan-fronted dress, Click here.

For a bustle dress with beautiful buttons, Click here.

And, for the much less beautiful lives of Victorian Working Women, click here.

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Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley (Book Recommendation)

"Pit Brow Girls" working at coal mine, Wigan, 1867. From Victorian Working Women.

“Pit Brow Girls” working at coal mine, Wigan, 1867. From Victorian Working Women.

When we think of the Victorian era, we usually think of lace and silks and cashmere shawls, of crinolines and bustles. That’s because rich people can afford to have their portraits painted. They have the leisure time to write memoirs. But rich people were a very small sample of Victorian life.

"Tip girls" (they work unloading mine refuse onto the "tip" or mountain of coal mine waste. Tredegar, Wales, 1865. Photo by W. Clayton from Victorian Working Women.

“Tip girls” (They work unloading mine refuse from rail cars onto the “tip” or mountain of coal mine waste.) Tredegar, Wales, 1865. Photo by W. Clayton from Victorian Working Women.

The clothes worn by ordinary people usually get worn to rags; they rarely wind up in museums. Pictures and displays of  clothing worn by the wealthy minority give us a false impression of the past. And any woman who thinks she would prefer to live in Victorian times should think again.

If you want food for thought, I recommend Victorian Working Women: Portraits from Life, by Michael Hiley.

Front cover, Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley.

Front cover, Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley.

We seem to be fascinated by the separate world of “downstairs” in PBS television fiction. This book has plenty of information about — and photographs of — housemaids and domestic workers.

Housemaids, early 1860's. They are dressed in their best for the photographer, but look at their hands. From Victorian Working Women.

Housemaids, early 1860’s. They are dressed in their best for the photographer, but look at their hands. From Victorian Working Women.

I repeat, “Look at their hands.”

We don’t hear or see much about other Victorian women who did hard manual labor. The genteel life we picture as “Victorian” only applied to the upper classes; the lives illustrated in this book are shockingly different.

1842. A bare-chested woman dragging a mine cart, with text from the report. Form Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley.

1842. A bare-chested woman dragging a mine cart, with text from the report. From Victorian Working Women, by Michael Hiley.

” Girls were to be seen half-naked, with their breasts exposed . . .  dressed like boys in trousers, with belts round their waists, and chains passing between their legs’  as they drew loaded wagons along mine passages. . . . ‘The chain, passing high up between the legs of two of these girls, had worn large holes in their trousers… indecent… revolting…. No brothel can beat it.’ “

In theory, this 1842 employment report put an end to that particular form of child & female labor, but women were still working at coal mines in the 1860’s. Many were proud of their strength and ability. Because photography then required long exposures, these women miners were asked to pose in their work clothes inside photographers’ studios.

South Wales Mine Tip Girls, 1865. From Victorian Working Women

South Wales Mine Tip Girls, 1865. From Victorian Working Women

Other jobs — hard manual labor — done by Victorian women included garbage collection, done by “dustwomen;” the streets were full of horse manure, which had to be collected. Women made bricks; a thirteen year old brickyard girl spent 6-day weeks carrying 25 pounds of clay on her head and another 25 pounds in her arms to supply the female brick molders.

Women hammered hot metal into nails at a blacksmith’s forge. Women collected limpets and other shellfish, sometimes scaling cliffs to reach them.  Milkwomen carried 80 to 100 lbs. of milk through the streets of London.

London Milkwomen in 1964 and 1872. From Victorian Working Women.

London Milkwomen in 1864 and 1872. From Victorian Working Women.

Factories — including glue factories, where animal hooves and offal were the primary ingredient — also employed women.  In the countryside, women were usually responsible for collecting milk (It’s heavy!), churning butter, and working alongside men in the fields.

Traditionally female jobs, like doing laundry and cooking, also required physical strength.

Photo by Rejlander, 1854 to 56. From Victorian Working Women.

Photo by Rejlander, 1854 to 56. From Victorian Working Women. This picture was posed in a photographer’s studio.

The older woman on the left is agitating the dirty clothes in a barrel of soapy water using a wooden “dolly;” it makes me appreciate my electric washing machine. Wet laundry was heavy, so “washerwomen” had muscular arms.

Housemaids were responsible for building fires in bedrooms and other rooms before the family rose in the morning; that meant carrying heavy scuttles full of coal upstairs every day.

Footman carrying tray and housemaid carrying coal scuttle. Cartoon by George du Maurier, 1863. From Victorian Working Women.

Footman carrying a tray and housemaid carrying a coal scuttle. Cartoon by George du Maurier, 1863. From Victorian Working Women.

Without hot running water, gallons and gallons of water for baths was heated in the kitchen (usually below ground level) and carried upstairs by maids. I suppose the cold water had to be carried back down, to0, until “water closets” with flush toilets and sinks became common. (Many working-class British homes had outdoor toilets until after World War II.)

Victorian Women in Trousers

Two Victorian women, undated sketch by Arthur Munby from Victorian Working Women. The muscular woman with her face and arms blackened by coal dust is “about to oil the wheels of an upended wagon.”

Two Victorian women, undated sketch by Arthur Munby from Victorian Working Women. The muscular woman with her face and arms blackened by coal dust is “about to oil the wheels of an upended wagon.” [I think Munby wanted to contrast the size of their boots. The woman on the left is probably a respectable young lady.]

Those of us who are interested in the history of trousers for women should find plenty to think about in Victorian Working Women.

women nimers in trousers at Wigan, 1860s. From Victorian Working Women.

Women mine workers in trousers at Wigan, 1860s. From Victorian Working Women.

In addition to the young women dragging mine carts in the 1840s, women miners at Wigan wore trousers in the 1860’s, although this was not the case at all mines, as shown in the studio portraits above.

A woman, otherwise respectably dressed, who exposed her legs was an obvious prostitute in Victorian London:  these signal their profession by exposing just part of the calf:

A glimpse of stocking signals that these women are prostitutes. From London Labor and the London Poor, Vol. IV, p 260. "The Haymarket -- Midnight."

A glimpse of stocking signals that these women are prostitutes. From London Labor and the London Poor, Vol. IV, p 260. “The Haymarket — Midnight.”

Fisherwomen also had to expose their legs, often by pulling up their skirts into their belts and tying them around their knees. Not being women of the middle classes, their modesty was not a consideration.

Yorkshire girls collecting limpets and other fishbait; 1860. From Victorian Working Women.

Yorkshire girls collecting limpets and other fishbait; 1860. From Victorian Working Women. Their skirts and petticoats appear to be tucked up into their belts in back.

Hiley does discuss the indignation caused by “Bloomer girls;” but a fisher girl or a mudlark might have to expose her legs up to the thigh; class is a big element in “shock value” and notions of indecency.

"Mudlark girl. Coalheaver gives her remains of his dinner. From life. 1855." Sketch by Arthur Munby from Victorian Working Women.

“Mudlark girl. Coalheaver gives her remains of his dinner. From life. 1855.” Sketch by Arthur Munby from Victorian Working Women.

“Mudlarks,”  male or female, looking for anything that could be salvaged and sold, waded through the refuse in the Thames, a tidal river. (All the raw sewage of London flowed into the Thames.)

We owe many of these fascinating photos, sketches, and detailed descriptions of Victorian working women to Arthur Munby, who interviewed many, and collected their photographs as well as their stories.

Arthur Munby standing beside Ellen Grounds, a "pit wench" at Wigan. 1866. Right, a photo of Ellen Grounds in her "Sunday best."

Arthur Munby standing beside Ellen Grounds, a “pit wench” at Wigan. 1866. Right, a photo of Ellen Grounds in her “Sunday best.”

Munby stood next to Ellen in this photograph to show how tall she was.

A Strange Romance

The story of Arthur Munby, barrister, Cambridge M.A., civil servant, diarist, poet, friend of many other writers and of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, popular in high society, and obsessed with Victorian working women, is almost incredible. Utterly middle-class, but not wealthy enough to cut loose from the conventions of society, Munby fell in love with a “maid of all work” — about the lowest form of domestic servant — named Hannah Cullwick. They were both in their twenties. After a chaste courtship of almost twenty years, they married in 1873, but — as much by her wish as by his — she continued to pretend to be his servant.

Hanna Cullwick, maid of all work; right, Hannah "in her dirt." from Victorian Working Women.

Hannah Cullwick, maid of all work; at right, Hannah “in her dirt.” from Victorian Working Women. She was strong enough to lift her husband off the ground and carry him around. He liked it.

“Ours is a story that, a hundred years hence, no one would believe!” — Hannah Cullwick after her (secret) marriage to Arthur Munby.

“Not so: perchance they shall both know and believe it; and if they honour her as she deserves, it is enough for me.” — Arthur Munby in his diary, May 7, 1874.

Michael Hiley has drawn heavily on the Munby and Cullwick archives (she, too was a diarist.) Consequently, Victorian Working Women recounts much of this story of the bizarre relationship between two people whose lives were governed by the rules of a society which treated working women as a different species from “ladies,” although both Munby and Hannah Cullwick felt they were made for each other. Munby was entranced by her muscular arms, her strength, her intelligence, her dignity, her “dirt,” and her voluntary servitude. (She insisted on calling him “Massa.”) After their marriage he sometimes persuaded her to eat dinner with him, instead of in the scullery, but she ate off a plate on her knees, and would not sit at the table like him. She hated being “shown” to — i.e., meeting on an equal footing — the few of Munby’s friends who were in on the secret.  The Munbys could only admit to being man and wife when they traveled — where no one knew them. When they returned to London, she walked behind him and carried the luggage.

This peculiar (that’s an understatement) love story makes Victorian Working Women an especially engrossing read.

I confess:  I have not finished re-reading Victorian Working Women, because I stayed up until 2:30 a.m. reading Munby: Man of Two Worlds, by Derek Hudson, as soon as I brought it home from the library.

They didn’t teach history like this when I was in school!

Victorian Working Women is for sale in used hardback or paperback for very low prices. Costumers interested in “distressing” will love the illustrations.  Other books about the Munbys include Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, by Diane Atkinson (read a review by clicking here) (It’s a very informative review….) and Munby: Man of Two Worlds,  by Derek Hudson. Wikipedia lists several other publications. A PhD dissertation by Cathy Carter can be read at Google Books (click here); the introduction discusses the difficulty of accessing the vast Munby/Cullwick collection (now on microfilm), and I’m hoping to read the rest of the dissertation (but I hate reading on the computer screen….) For those of us who need to costume servants correctly, Carter’s list of sources may be very helpful.

Another engrossing — and very detailed — account of Victorian working people is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, in four volumes, published between 1851 and 1861. Mayhew’s interviews with “crossing sweepers,” milliners, fly-paper makers, rat-catchers, prostitutes, criminals, street sellers, bone-grubbers, cigar-end finders, and every other obscure way of scraping a living is encyclopedic and overwhelming — it’s like reading Dickens, but with more statistics. Illustrated with black and white drawings — and republished in paperback by Dover Books. Want to write a novel about Victorian London? There’s plenty of inspiration here! Read a retrospective review in the Guardian by clicking here.

 

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Filed under 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 19th century, Early Victorian fashions, Late Victorian fashions, Resources for Costumers, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, vintage photographs, Women in Trousers