Friday, 2 August 2013

Fashion Has Always Been Screwing Us Over

Oh hey there everyone. I'm a blogger, and it's been... almost two months since my last post. Shocking, I know. But I'm back! And I come bearing a new blog post.

So, in the modern world, we talk a lot about extreme fashions, and how they are super bad for us. You know how high heels will destroy your feet? And how tanning will give you cancer?

These are often represented as a thoroughly modern phenomenon. People in the past were much smarter, much more natural, far better in tune with their own bodies, right? That's what the palaeo-dieters would have you believe, anyway.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much wrong. Fashion has always been difficult, counter-intuitive and occasionally harmful. Here are three fun examples from history, though they're not all ancient.


We've talked about Septimius Severus before, right? Haven't we? Well, we'll talk about him at some later date, since he was pretty cool. But in the mean time, he had a wife called Julia Domna. Now, while we're gonna be talking about her hair, I need to state that she also had power, intelligence and ability. She was more than just her physical attributes, you guys!

Anyway, besides her awesome capabilities, she also had lovely hair:

These elaborate finger waves can be replicated in a modern salon, if you've got wave clips, an experienced hairdresser and a ton of hair product. But, to get them this lovely, you'd need a lot of hair and a lot of time. And, as Empress, there were a lot of women trying to copy her. 
But you know what? It's a wig! A damn good one, too. This wasn't a widely known fact however, and it's not hard to imagine many fashionable Roman ladies spending hours with their hairdressers trying to replicate this beautiful hair. 

Here's a video of someone trying to replicate Roman hairstyles from the Severan period: 

She even had several statues made with detachable hairpieces. This meant that lackeys could go out at night and change the hair, so she was always in fashion! Devious. 


So, we're out of the ancient world now and into the Elizabethan era. We've all seen that bit of Blackadder where Percy wears a ridiculously large ruff:

 "Do you like my new ruff?"
"It makes you look like a bird that's swallowed a plate"

As funny as this scene is, very large ruffs did become the fashion. They were initially as small ruffle of fabric at the top of a shirt/ chemise to protect the clothing of the wearer from any small food or drink spills, so were detachable and laundered separately. In this sense, they were a sort of fashionable bib.

Here's Queen Elizabeth I wearing one in c.1575:

File:Elizabeth darnley portrait ruff.jpg
Elizabeth I The Darnely Portrait attrib. F. Zuccaro

It's a lot more than just a polite ruffle now, but it's not so large as to be cumbersome. She could still reach her face, and (apparently) it only required ten yards of fabric for both neck and wrist cuffs. However, when they discovered they could use starch to stiffen the ruffs, they grew much larger. Here's Phillip III of Spain's ruff in c. 1615:

 Portait by D. Velazquez

The largest ruffs were called cartwheel ruffs and, supported by a rigid structure, could be as much as one foot in diameter. Wiki says "or more" without providing any further dimensions.  Ruffs began to go out of fashion by the end of the 16th century, though they remained popular in Holland: 

File:Anna Rosina Marquart.jpg
Portrait of Anna Rosina Marquart, née Tanck, wife of johann Marquard, mayor of Lübeck by M. C. Hirt, 1642

One might consider the ruff a harmless, if amusing, fashion. But just think for a moment. How would you get through doors? How would you kiss folk upon the cheek in greeting? How would you eat

Kathy Elgin (author of Elizabethan England) says that there are stories of special long spoons being used to guide food into their mouths, but there's no real proof of this. However, it does make sense. And imagine: how messy would this have been? Ruffs must have reprised their role as bibs. 

Still, what's the worst that could happen? Well, according to Phillip Stubbes in 1583, ruffs were the work of the devil! 

These quotes are a little long, and since the spelling isn't conventional to modern standards, I'll forgive you if you skip them, but they are worth it. 

On men's ruffs: 

"They have great and monsterous ruffes, made either of Camericke, Holland, Lawne, or els of some other the finest cloth that can be got for money, whereof some be a quarter of a yard deep, yea, some more, very few lesse; So that they stand a full quarter of a yarde (and more) from their necks, hanging over their shoulder poynts, instead of a vaile. But if Aeolus with his blasts, or Neptune with his stormes chaunce to hit uppon the crafie bark of their brused ruffes, then they goe flip flap in the winde, like rags flying abroad, and lye upon their shoulders like the dishcloute of a slut. But wot you what? The devil, as he in the fulnes of his malice, first invented these great ruffes, so hath hee now found out also two great stayes to beare up and maintaine that his kingdome of great ruffs : the one archor piller wherby his kingdome of great ruffes is underpropped, is a certaine kinde of liquide matter which they call Starch, wherin the devill hath willed them to wash and dive his ruffes wel, which when they be dry, wil then stand stiffe and inflexible about their necks. The other piller is a certain device made of wyers, crested for the purpose, whipped over either with gold, thred, silver or silk, and this hee calleth a supportasse, or underpropper. This is to be applyed round about their necks under the ruffe, upon the out side of the band, to beare up the whole frame and body of the ruffe from falling and hanging down...So few have them, as almost none is without them; for every one, how meane or simple soever they bee otherwise, will have of them three or foure apeece forsayling. And as though Cambrick, Holland, Lawne, and the finest cloth that mayebee got any where for money, were not good inough, they have them wrought allover with silke  woorke, and peradventure laced with golde and silver, or other costly lace of no small price. And whether they have Argente to mayntaine this geare withall, or not, it forceth not much, for they will have it by one meane or another, or else they will eyther sell or morgage their Landes (as they have goodstore) on Suters hill & Stangate hole, with losse of their lives at Tiburne in a rope.& in sure token thereof, they have now newly found out a more monstrous kind of ruffe of xii. (12) , yea, xvi (16) lengthes a peece, set 3 or 4 times double, & is ofsome, fitlie called: "Three steppes and a halfe to the Gallowes". "

And on women's ruffs:  

"The women use great ruffes, & neckerchers of holland, lawne, camerick, and such cloth, as the greatest thred shall not be so bigge as the leasthaire that is: then, least they should fall down, they are smeared and starched inthe devils liquore, I meane Starch: after that, dryed with great diligence, streaked,patted and rubbed very nicely, and so applyed to their goodly necks, and, withall, underpropped with supportasses (as I tolde you before) the stately arches of pride: beyond all this they have a further fetch, nothing inferiour to the rest; as,namely, three or foure degrees of minor ruffes, placed gradatim, step by step, onebeneath the other, and all under the Maister devil ruffe. The skyrts, then, of these great ruffes are long and wide every way, pleted and crested ful curiously, Godwot. Then, last of all, they are either clogged with golde, silver, or silk lace of stately price, wrought all over with needle woork, speckled and sparkled heer and there with the sonne, the moone, the starres, and many other antiquities straunge to beholde. Some are wrought with open woork down to the midst of the ruffe and further, some with purled lace so cloyd, and other gewgawes so pestered, as the ruffe is the least parte of it self. Sometimes they are pinned up to their eares, sometimes they are suffered to hang over their shoulders, like windmil sayles fluttering in the winde; and thus every one pleaseth her self with her foolish devices, for as the proverb saith: "everyone thinketh his own wayes best"."


Wheel Farthingale Skirts

Ever wonder how those Elizabethans got their dresses into that cone shape? They used a device called a fathingale. This was a series of hoops, connected by fabric which was worn under another skirt. 

Now these aren't too uncomfortable to wear (and I got to try some one this week, courtesy of the Buckland Abbey Costume Group), but you do have to walk pretty slowly. However, as the ladies of the costume group told me, if you were going to wear this for any length of time, you'd have to go around without your underwear. Now, before you sleazy types start chuckling and saying "easy access, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN", that's exactly why. But easy access for going to the loo! Believe me, you definitely can't reach your knickers in one of these. 

Distressing? Only if you can't manage without your pants. Which, to be honest, I probably couldn't.

So, next time some angry person gets all up at you about how people in history were so much better than us at dressing for our bodies needs, you guys just remember, they're an idiot. Also, that tanning really does increase your risk of skin cancer.

1 comment:

  1. I have been really enjoying your writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I would encourage you to spend a little more time wearing a set of hoops. I have spent many, many hours in historical costume, wearing hoops and corset and have never found it difficult to tend to my personal needs in the washroom. With a little more practice I'm sure you could find your nickers too.