Ryerson Fashion Research Collection

Opening the closet door to a Canadian fashion archive


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A Weston & Wells Reversible Plated Bustle

by Christine Gow

Much like the clothes that parade down the catwalks of the world’s fashion capitals, the fashionable female body is also subject to the cyclical whims of taste. When we manage to attain the unattainable—that year’s bump, lump, or lack thereof du jour—we tire of it and move on. Take, for example, the statuesque supermodels of the late 80s, who gave way to heroin chic’s Kate Moss in 1993; she, in turn, conceded the crown to a gravity-defying Gisele Bündchen at the end of that decade. While boy-slim silhouettes still dominate the pages of high fashion magazines in 2017, pop culture has permeated the arena of health and beauty and overinflated boobs and butts provide a shapely foil to the tiny waists of a million social media feeds.

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Reversible Player Bustle c.1885

It is with this in mind that I ask Ingrid Mida, curator of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection and author of The Dress Detective, to show me the selection of bustles in her care. The idea of temporarily exaggerating one’s shape with a strap-on 3D form appeals, having once had a costly brush with dermatological fillers (lips, $1600, looked like a platypus for six months). “Bustles,” Ingrid replies, “are so fun. We have a whole variety of them—in different materials, shapes etc. I will bring out the whole box.” She is right—the collection hosts a plethora of styles from the bustle’s hey day in the 1870s and 80s. Here, I must note, that bustles were conceived as a way to support the elaborate and heavy draping and embellishments of the dresses of the time, not as a way to give the impression of a larger-than-average bum. In Victorian Fashions & Costumes from Harper’s Bazar: 1867-1898, Stella Blum explains that “the knees had been freed by this time, and the trains for day disappeared for easier walking, but the weight of these costumes and the structures needed to support the huge rear extension added little to increase mobility. Many of the fabrics were upholstery like in quality, made heavier by the profuse use of beading, fringes, braids and furs” (1974). When viewed from the side as was intended this rear profile looked like the backend of a horse.

Blum also describes how our perpetual ennui is the primary catalyst of change in fashion, stating how “it often manifests itself as a dissatisfaction with the original shape of the body and seeks expression in a wide variety of anatomical constrictions and distensions.” From her vantage point in the 1970s, she felt that “of these deviations from the natural, none is so difficult for the modern eye to justify in terms of esthetics, comfort or practicality as the form considered fashionable in the mid-1880s.”  Ms. Blum clearly did not anticipate the impact Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj would have on the desired female form in the new millennium at the time of her writing.

The mid-1880s is known as the high bustle period, as in the 1870s a much lower profile was in fashion (Peteu and Gray 2008). Harold Koda, curator of The Met’s Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed exhibition in 2001, explains how “the silhouette of the 1880s was created with corsetry and “dress improvers” such as (the) wire-mesh bustle. Structured foundation garments exaggerated the sexually-dimorphic curves of the female body.” What was then achieved with wire mesh is now the domain of gym squats and implants, but Koda points out that the shape women sought with the bustle was nothing new, even then: it was a “deliberate revival of the “bum rolls” and “half-farthingales” of the Baroque era. The height of this style peaked in 1887 and 1888 and “can be explained by the competition between Thomas P. Taylor and Henry O. Canfield (both of Bridgeport, Connecticut) to invent a viable folding bustle” (Peteu and Gray 2008).

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Label on bustle FRC2013.99.001

The bustle I find the most interesting within Ryerson’s collection is precisely this type, though not because of the wire-mesh, double croissant-like shape, or intriguing combination of straps and laces. This one is the only one with any sort of maker’s mark. “THE REVERSIBLE PLATED BUSTLE”, proclaims the neat red print on the cotton twill tape used to secure the wire form to the wearer, the vestiges of a patent number barely visible in faded ink below. “MADE ONLY BY THE WESTON & WELLS MANUFACTURING CO.” in Philadelphia, P.A., by “AN AMERICAN BRAIDED WIRE CO.”, this bustle speaks of American ingenuity in a newly industrial world, and thus, in a sense, of the American dream. I love the perky sense of optimism this fashion invention projects. Dated to circa 1885, the bustle’s original owner is unknown, having come to Ryerson through the vast Cleaver-Suddon donation, a collection of artifacts amassed by fine arts librarian Alan Suddon and acquired in 2001 by Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver on his passing.

As you can well imagine, a rigid metal structure strapped to your behind would make sitting rather awkward, and innovations in bustle making stemmed from inventors looking to solve this problem. Koda explains that these were normally “attached only by a waistband, so that they could shift or lift when the wearer sat. Frequently, they were collapsible, but even in those cases, a woman was required to shift her bustle to the side and perch on the edge of her seat”. It seems ironic that at this time women began to actively participate in sports, even daring to try such masculine pursuits as yachting and fencing. It mattered little what a woman was doing; in order to remain fashionable she still had to wear a corset and bustle—even when running around a tennis court (Blum 1974). This sport, I posit, could well have been the purpose of my ‘reversible plated bustle’, though a little further research tells me that her manufacturer was a purveyor of “torsion braided wire springs for carriage cushions and backs” (Fitz-Gerald 1896).

Perhaps Weston & Wells were only concerned with the comfort of a lady’s backside while seated; of the bustles patented between 1887 and 1888, “when the most extreme protruding bustles were in fashion, 44% were for folding bustles to aid in sitting.” Innovation in this area required engineering adeptness, as these contraptions needed to be robust enough to offer significant support, fold when the lady sat, and spring back into shape when she rose. In an 1888 bustle patent, inventor Alice White described the extreme “mortification of the wearer” should her bustle tangle and not regain its intended shape (Peteu and Gray 2008). Though bustle patents outnumber those of other shaping garments (there were 261 between 1846 and 1920, versus 205 hoop patents in the same period), it is only after 1890 that patent records show a major turn in attention to skirts designed for sports and professional activities. “Shaping devices followed the generally accepted timeline for fashionable silhouettes, indicating market demand as a patent incentive” (Peteu and Gray 2008).

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Did the wearer of this bustle use it in her attempts to chase a ball around a clay court from the confines of a corset and gown? If she did, this lightweight add-on would have been the least of her worries. The light soiling on the straps suggests excessive perspiration did not manage to escape her corset and petticoat, which could mean the sport was played at a more leisurely pace, or that the corset had formidable powers of absorption (the torn loop where the bustle would attach to the corset and missing stainless cap at the end of one lace indicate that perhaps she did engage in athletic pursuits of some kind). A certain level of plainness was mercifully acceptable in sporting ensembles at this time, but it could well have been that this lady’s greatest concern was not how many points she could win but simply how best to sit. Although extreme rear profiles were only favored for a short while within the two decades of the bustle’s prime, the undergarment itself would remain fashionable in much subtler incarnations into the next century. Surprisingly, Peteu and Gray found that four patents were filed between 1921 and 2007, indicating there exists those who still champion its cause. In any case, it is either the masterful engineering or the short time this bustle was on trend that accounts for its relatively well-kept condition.

American anthropologist Igor Kopytoff writes: “commodities must be not only produced materially as things, but also culturally marked as being a certain kind of thing. Out of the total range of things available in a society, only some of them are considered appropriate for marking as commodities. Moreover, the same thing may be treated as a commodity at one time and not at another. And finally, the same thing may, at the same time, be seen as a commodity by one person and something else by another.”

From valued undergarment to artifact—practically overnight, in the grand scheme of things—I am thankful that when millions of these bustles were relegated to the scrap heap in 1889 or 90, a lady somewhere tucked this particular one into the farthest reaches of her closet, perhaps hoping that it would one day again come back into fashion.

Works Cited

Blum, Stella. 1974. Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazaar, 1867-1898. Dover Publications.

Fitz-Gerald, William N. The Automotive Manufacturer. Vol. 37. New York City, N.Y.: Trade News Publishing Co., 1896.

Koda, Harold. Extreme Beauty: the Body Transformed (The Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 6, 2001 – March 17, 2002). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.

Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.

Mida, Ingrid, and Alexandra Kim. 2015. The Dress Detective: A practical guide to Object-based research in Fashion. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Peteu, M. C., and S. Helvenston Gray. 2008. “Clothing Invention: Improving the Functionality of Women’s Skirts, 1846-1920.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 27 (1): 45–61.

Sloan, Will. “A Stitch from Time” Ryerson University. December 12, 2014. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.ryerson.ca/news/news/General_Public/20141212-a-stitch-from- time/.

Christine Gow is an MA Fashion candidate and communications professional, researching how the fashion industry could actively subvert dominant cultural narratives surrounding female consumers over the age of 40 and this market’s digital engagement within omni-channel fashion retail.

This blog post was part of an object-based research assignment for MA Theory II and has been edited by Collection Co-ordinator Ingrid Mida. 


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A Child’s Paisley Dress from the 1850s

The following children’s short story “Frankie’s Party Dress” by Pam Johnston is a creative interpretation of an object analysis exercise.  

This story is based on a child’s paisley dress in the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection (FRC2014.07.196) dated to the 1850s. The dress was donated by Katherine Cleaver in 2014 as part of the Suddon-Cleaver Collection. The dress originally had a matching cape, but at some point before the transfer, the cape was lost.

Pam Johnston was inspired by her object analysis to create a fictional story about a making and initial wearing of a new dress in the mid-19th century. This story is told in the voice of a little girl named Frankie (Frances), only 3.5 years old. Although one might argue that a very young child would not notice such subtle details of cut and construction, I have known a couple very precocious children that noticed everything. And while it is also more likely that the dress was cut down from a larger garment instead of being made from a new bolt of cloth, I think Pam’s charming story serves to show how an object-based analysis might be used to creative ends.

 

Frankie’s Party Dress

by Pam Johnston

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Sketch of Paisley dress back 2014.07.196A by Pam Johnston

Mother is going to make me a new dress! This morning, Mother tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin, made sure my little straw hat was secure, and took my hand to walk across town to Mr. Whitely’s General Store. Mrs. Whitely had told mother that some new fabrics had just arrived at the shop from Britain.

Yesterday, my flat, black ankle-boots got muddy squishing in the rain-softened road, but today my boots, eyelet-trimmed drawers and white stockings stayed clean. The dirt road was firmly packed, the sun glowed bright and the breeze was fresh this late-summer morning. Soon it would be September, and Aunt Martha, Uncle Peter and Cousin Sarah would be moving West. I would miss my cousin Sarah, one of the only girls close to my age whom I had loved for as long as I could remember.

A brass bell tinkled as Mother swung the door open at Mr. Whitely’s. The leather soles of my boots made a stiff padding sound on the general store’s hardwood floors. Mother was wearing a low heeled boot which announced her presence with staccato-like steps (Severa 1995, 103). Mrs. Whitely greeted us warmly and immediately set to pulling the newest fabrics from their neat stack on the shelf. She smiled from behind the counter as she spread brightly coloured cotton calicos from Lancashire and fine worsted wool plaids and prints from West Yorkshire for us to see.

Even standing on my tip-toes, I could not see the top of the counter, so mother hoisted me up on a bent knee so I could see some fabrics made especially for little girls and boys my age. They were printed with patterns of tiny dots, triangles, stars, toy boats and balls (Severa 1995, 108). While mother rubbed the material between her fingers and thumb, and stretched out lengths to examine the patterns and quality, my eyes wandered to other fabrics still stacked on the shelf behind the counter. One pattern seemed to jump out at me.

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Pattern detail 2014.07.196A Photo by Pam Johnston

The fabric looked very familiar. Its pattern was bit like the swirling tear-drop shapes I had seen so often on the shawls many ladies in town wore. Mother and all the grand ladies wore those big shawls folded in a triangle shape, draped around their shoulders. They think these shawls are very special (Hiner 81-2), though I overheard Mother telling Aunt Martha that Mrs. Field’s shawl is even more special because it is made from soft goat hair, comes all the way from India, and cost Mr. Field a lot of money. I loved to lean on Mother’s shoulder when she wore that shawl. It felt so soft! Sometimes I would gently pull the fringes through my fingers, or pick up a corner in my hand. The fabric was smooth like silk, but slightly downy too, and hung heavily on my hand.

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Paisley Shawl, Wool, ca.1850. Met CI 2009.300.2962 Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Celeste H. Chasmer, 1921.

I had seen those same swirly sprigs and curled teardrops, in various sizes, on fabrics that covered cushioned chairs and dressed windows at Aunt Martha’s house, and our neighbour Rosa’s (Rossbach 10-11). Dresses made up in calicoes or worsted wools, block- or roller printed since well before I was born in 1849, were decorated with those same motifs (Johnston 104).

Despite its familiarity, somehow I knew the pattern was special, as if those who wore it were particularly respectable or rich or worldly (Hiner 82, 86). Though the fabric was not designed especially for little girls, I wanted to be like the grown ladies, and to be seen as special and smart.

I turned to Mother and whispered in her ear that I would like to see the fabric with the red and pink swirly branches on it. Mother searched the shelf with her eyes until she found the fabric and, when she did, a smile spread from her lips to her eyes. She seemed to approve, and accordingly asked Mrs. Whitely for a closer look.

The fabric was creamy white, like freshly shorn sheep, with alternating dense and sparse bands of pattern printed in stripes. A purple-red colour dominated the fabric, but as I looked closely, I saw that dusty rose, marigold, periwinkle blue, maroon, olive green and bright red interlaced the purple-red outlines. The motifs in one band looked like fans of leaves and grasses crawling up over each other in waves, while the other band depicted heads of grain and cut flowers reaching upwards and outwards, vine-like. Mother unrolled a few feet of cloth as I reached my fingers out to touch it. It was thin and smooth with a slight nap that was at the same time mildly scratchy.

“This is a fine worsted wool,” Mrs. Whitely informed us. “It should be good to keep little Frankie warm in the fall. And if you line it with cotton muslin, it will be comfortable.”

Mother agreed. She and Mrs. Whitely discussed the dress Mother was envisioning and Mrs. Whitely offered some pattern-making and construction advice. She then cut two and a half yards each of the Paisley wool and cotton muslin and a length of narrow cord, and found five small metal hooks for closure at the back. Mother had some cream coloured thread left at home from a dress she had made for me at the beginning of the summer, so, having all we needed, Mother paid Mrs. Whitely, and took my hand as we strode out the tinkling door of Mr. Whitely’s General Store.

Frankie dress resized

Paisley Dress front 2014.07.196A                                                              Photo by Pam Johnston

By Friday morning the dress was complete and it was time for the final fitting. Mother slipped the dress over my head, over my cotton bodice, drawers, and starched petticoats, closed the back with hooks and hand-stitched eyes, and spun me around to look in the mirror.

I squealed with delight, jumping and spinning to experience a transformed me in this new dress. I loved how the skirt puffed out over my petticoats, ending at just the right spot below my knees, and how it swished around my thighs when I spun. I could run and jump freely in the full skirt; the cotton lining felt soft on my neck and arms; the puffed sleeves made me feel like a butterfly with wings; and the high belted waist and pleated bodice made me feel like I belonged among the other girls my age (Severa 1995, 128). Then mother surprised me with another part of the outfit she had kept secret. She came from behind me and wrapped a matching collared cape, trimmed with black velvet ribbon, around my shoulders. Oh, how perfect!

dress and cape

Dress and Cape, Suddon-Cleaver Collection File Photo

After what seemed like only moments of dancing and spinning in my new outfit, Mother told me that was enough, and made me change back into my everyday clothes. This dress would be for special occasions and Sunday best only. The good news was there was a special occasion tomorrow night and I could wear my new dress for the first time. I would be transformed into a lovely flowering, butterfly-winged creature, frolicking about with cousins and friends.

Afterward:

Frankie’s mother saved the dress and cape to give Frankie when she was married. Frankie then dressed her first daughter in the dress, and it continued to be passed down from generation to generation until it was finally recognized as an important piece of material culture by the late Alan Suddon, a former fine arts librarian at the Toronto Reference Library, who added it to his collection. When Mr. Suddon passed on, Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver acquired his collection, and she later donated some of the collection to Ryerson.

Works Consulted:

Buck, Anne. Clothes and the Child: a handbook of children’s dress in England, 1500-1900. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1996. Print.

Buxton, Alexandra. Discovering 19th Century Fashion: A look at the changes in fashion through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Dress Collection. Cambridge, UK: Hobsons Publishing, 1989. Print.

Hiner, Susan. Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Print.

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. London, UK: V & A Publishing, 2009. Print.

Koptytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process”. The Social Life of Things. By Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.

Parry, Linda. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: British Textiles from 1850 to 1900. [London, UK]: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1993. Print.

Rose, Clare. Children’s Clothes Since 1750. New York, NY: Drama Book Publishers, 1989. Print.

Rossbach, Ed. The Art of Paisley. Scarborough, ON: Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd., 1980. Print.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1995. Print.

                          . My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2005. Print.

Sloan, Will. “A stitch from time”. Ryerson University: News & Events. 12 December, 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Wass, Ann Buermann and Michelle Webb Fandrich. Clothing through American History: The Federal Era through Antebellum, 1786-1860. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. Print.

Pam Johnston is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts (Fashion) programme at Ryerson University, focusing her research on Biblical references to clothes and dress in comparison with written histories of ecclesiastical influences on dress in the Western world. She has an Bachelor of Fine Art from NSCAD University with a major in Textiles and a minor in Fashion, and lived in Halifax for ten years prior to returning to her home province of Ontario to study at Ryerson.