Thursday, March 13, 2008

Perspective: Bustling about at the old courthouse

In my time I’ve worn shoulder pads quarterback Jake Delhomme would envy, so I don’t fault our foremothers for their bustles. It’s just that I had never actually seen an underpinning such as the two artifacts (shown here) being catalogued by another volunteer at our workday recently at the old courthouse building.

Busy with my own work, I didn’t have a chance then to examine them closely, but the thought occurred they seemed a little narrow to fit across one’s…ah…beam. Perhaps they’re panniers, I mused.

Precursor to the bustle and immensely popular in England and France in the mid-1700s, panniers were attached at the sides of one’s hips, sort of like side baskets (and indeed some had pockets for carrying things). For reasons I can’t fathom, women piled on bigger and bigger panniers to have wider and wider hips, with one outcome the development of French doors and broad staircases so women could get about. (I am not making this up.)

The artifacts in the courthouse didn’t look like any pannier I found in an Internet search – even a look at items the U. S. Patent Office classifies as “distenders.” But I did learn a lot about bustles, hoops, and other antique undergarments.

I found, for example, that prestigious museums, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, take them very seriously as part of costume and art history. Erudite thematic essays on the Met’s Web site, such as “Eighteenth Century Silhouette and Support,” tell of the fashion evolution. And the great Victoria & Albert South Kensington Museum in Great Britain devotes Web pages to the path from crinolines to corset, bustle and beyond.

So returning to the courthouse on a subsequent workday I took a closer look at our bustle artifacts. They were donated in 1981 by Howard and Alice Ward along with several other vintage clothing items. The larger bustle indeed had printing on its waist strap: The Health Braided Wire Bustle. Patented Jan. 19, 1886… and a maker and patent number I couldn’t decipher.

With this additional information in hand, I researched again. Eureka! There on the Web site of a British antique clothing shop was a a bustle just like ours. It’s described as dating from the late 1800s and made from criss-crossed wire allowing one’s back to “breathe.” But in fact, the site says, “most women just wore it with their old bustles to bulk up the size, making their backsides even bigger!”

It’s true that our bustles here in Cleveland County are not quite as fancy as some models. The V & A Museum reports:

The New Phantom bustle, dating from about 1884, had a special feature. The steel wires are attached to a pivot so that they folded in on themselves on sitting down and sprang back when the wearer rose. A novelty bustle made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations contained a less useful device. It was fitted with a musical box that played 'God Save the Queen' each time the wearer sat down.

On second thought, our bustles here will do just fine.

Contributor: Pat Poston

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