It’s time to jump forward a hundred years from the subject of my last post. Here’s a peek at a pleasing, albeit staged, scene of domestic happiness. I love these old stereoviews because the photographers often took such pains with the props, trying to tell a story. And if the subject is sewing or 19th century domestic life, that makes me very happy!
In this picture, it looks like Mama is mending Papa’s pants. Her daughter seems barely old enough to hold a needle, but is earnestly attempting to help. Is Mama wearing an apron over her silk dress? It certainly looks like she’s sporting a fashionable chignon. (That late ’60s, early ’70s hairstyle was sometime over-the-top and subject to ridicule.)
She may be seated in a woven cane chair, and she definitely has a sewing basket beside her on the table. It looks like the kind with small pockets fixed to the sides. The little girl’s checked dress may be an apron or pinafore, though I can’t quite tell.
This card is dated 1872, but I’ve seen another version dated 1871. Mama sewing, daughter sewing: seeing double indeed!
How have I missed this for so long? It’s been reviewed elsewhere – when it was new – but I just can’t resist sharing, even belatedly, whenever I find a gorgeous book.
Published in 2009 to accompany an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, it was my Christmas present last month and all I want to do is rave about how brilliant, beautiful, and beguiling Mrs. Delaney & Her Circle is. And not just the book, I think Mrs. Delany herself must have been an astonishing woman.
She can’t be considered a polymath, or even an opsimath (don’t you love that one?), but in an 18th century upper-class lady’s world of art, learning, and taste, it seems like she dabbled in it all – at least, all my favorites! From craftwork to costume, needlework to natural philosophy, her interests included everything beautiful.
The image on the front cover and first words of the jacket blurb were enough to get my attention. “At the age of seventy-two, Mary Delany, née Mary Granville (1700-1788), embarked upon a series of nearly a thousand botanical collages” – what, she only started her paper flowers at that age? I can still hope?
Indeed, the book is packed with illustrations of her stunning “mosaicks” of botanical beauty. There is a wealth of information on her floral collages. From an experiment in reproducing them, to an explanation of period paper-making techniques, the text answers all questions that come to mind.
But that’s not all. She had many more interests which are covered in detail in the 12 essays, all written by experts in their fields. She was a member of the Bluestocking circle and lived a rich life in a fascinating era, counting as friends some of the most notable figures in art, science, society.
Oh, did I mention The Dress? Mary Delany lavished her black satin court dress with the most exquisite, scrumptious, dazzlingly beautiful floral embroidery I’ve ever seen. There’s a whole essay devoted to it. Other illustrations include workboxes, tools, patterns, fashion plates, cartoons, etchings, prints, shells and shell art…. In all, enough to keep me fascinated for a long time.
The bad news is that the book is out of print. The good news is that the museum bookstore has (or had before Christmas) copies in stock. Whether you find it in a library, or track down this treasure for your own, I think you’ll fall in love. Opsimathematically, I did!
Wouldn’t you know it? Maybe there’s a Murphy’s Law of blogging. Just after proclaiming in my last post that there were no noteworthy distinctions in French and English chemises, I came across the illustrations you see below.
The only difference mentioned in the accompanying text is that the English style is for “skinny persons.” There may be more clues in the cutting directions, but with no knowledge of French, I’ll have to let that pass. The book was published in 1847, and is surprisingly primitive, at least compared to the detailed and beautifully illustrated French magazines of the same period.
However, I still can’t determine that English-made shifts were of one particular pattern, and the French used another. It seems more likely that a lady cut her shift and its gores according to the size of her fabric – and herself! But in the interest of Truth in Blogging, I submit the following:
Language is a funny thing. I suppose we’re all guilty of following fads in our choice of words, and we all have particular phrases we find irritating or amusing – in other people. I recently came across an example by Jane Austen, written in 1817, just as the polite name of a woman’s undergarment was changing.
So presumably Miss Austen was still wearing shifts, when other ladies were beginning to wear chemises. She wasn’t alone, however, in her annoyance with linguistic affectations. Pantalogia, a New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Human Genius, Learning, and Industry, Alphabetically Arranged; with a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Words (1819) has this to say:
CHEMISE, the French word for that article of linen under dress which when worn by men is called a shirt, by women a shift. Some few modern English ladies, with an affected squeamishness of delicacy, restrict the term always so as to denote the article of female dress chemise de femme; but as every one knows what they mean by the expression, and we see no reason why every one should not know what they mean, we recommend the use of the old English term, and the abandonment of the corresponding French word.
Was there really any difference between a shift and a chemise? Well, yes and no. No, because they both referred to the same lady’s undergarment. Yes, because when the word “shift” was used (up until the early 19th century), the garment was usually made of linen and was simpler in cut. As the word “chemise” became standard, variations in pattern and trimming were increasing and the chemise was more often made of cotton.
So much for the term; now was there any significant difference in the French and English methods of making this garment? I haven’t found anything consistently, unmistakably, irrefutably, definitively identifiable. When I examine an old chemise, whether in a book, online, or in person, I can’t raise an eyebrow knowingly and say, Ah yes, English, 1832.
But with the interest and expertise I see popping up in blogs and books, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has – or will – come up with a list of distinguishing features.
If you are curious (or courageous) and would like to compare for yourself, below is a pattern and description, 1840, from a French periodical. (Please excuse my awkward translation. If you are fluent in French and English, I beg you to let me know and help me correct it!) English patterns and instructions of the same date are available in the Workwoman’s Guide.
No. 8 is a woman’s chemise. For ten chemises, purchase 25 meters of percale; take off a meter, and cut the rest into ten pieces; fold these pieces into two; on side No. 1, cut the gore that you add to the other side, cut by a thread as shown in No. 2; inside cut two gussets; indent around the neck; this is shown in No. 3; the sleeves are cut on the bias. Gather slightly on top of the arm and hem the bottom with backstitching. The armholes have to be a little curved under the arm. Take the remaining meter, measure a narrow band along the edge, then cut twenty pieces for double shoulder straps; these pieces are indicated by dotted lines; place a narrow piece of tape between the shoulder strap and its lining, there you insert the sleeve and backstitch, and you fold the lining over; gather the top of the chemise, as indicated, and insert a narrow tape of a meter in length; then cover this piece of tape with a band of percale; using backstitching and hemming, then fold under. Mark the chemise over the left gusset.