Myth Information – The Merry Widow Hat

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow, 1907

Exaggerations of truth plague the history of fashion, none more than the Merry Widow Hat. The story is that Lily Elsie, the English stage actress (and Kardashian of her day), donned a large hat to play the lead in the hit play The Merry Widow in June 1907. Elsie’s hat, by English designer Lucile, reportedly inspired fashionable ladies in London and New York to wear similar sized hats of up to an unbelievable 36 inches or more in diameter.

The silhouette, 1905

The fact is that there were already large hats fashionable in the years before the debut of the Merry Widow, but of a slightly different shape. Before 1907 hats were worn atop upswept hair, canted over the face. However, balancing this cantilevered topper was a blouse pouched at the front of the waist, and a skirt trained at the hem. The overall silhouette was overtly curvaceous. To add to this, skirts were often ruffled, flounced, or pleated below the knee to add volume to the bottom, creating a balanced silhouette.

The silhouette, 1907

1907 saw the debut of a slightly altered silhouette. The skirt became plainer and a bit slimmer; the bodice lost its pouching over the waist. Coats and jackets often took on shapeless, kimono cuts, de-emphasizing the overall silhouette. The higher, more heavily emphasized bust line created a cameo effect when balanced by an even larger hairstyle and voluminous hat sitting further back on the head. In reality, it is the volume of hats, and hair, worn in combination with a slimmer silhouette that makes the ‘Merry Widow’ hat appear larger than previous hat styles. The beautiful Lily Elsie was the ultimate model for this look, which lasted until 1911 when hats began to reduce in size.

Comic postcard, 1908

Most large hats from this period are never wider than the shoulder’s breadth, the largest I have ever measured was 22 inches in diameter. But the myth for hats of up to 36 inches in width or more dates back to the era itself from newspaper and magazine reports of what was being worn in ‘other’ cities. The Los Angeles Herald reported on March 22, 1908 (see below) that the sidewalks on Broadway need to be widened to accommodate the new fashion for Merry Widow hats that measure 36 – 40 inches wide. Dipped in sarcasm, the report goes on to say the widest hats available in Los Angeles are only 21 inches in diameter at most. Aside from comic postcards, those elusively wide hats never seem to get photographed. Despite this, the massive Merry Widow became a fashion myth as real as the 18 inch waist.

Myth Information – Quant and the Miniskirt

An oft-told tale is that Mary Quant ‘invented’ the miniskirt – a myth she didn’t readily deny, but when pressed she admitted she did not invent it anymore than Courreges or anyone else, and I agree with her. The mini was an ‘air du temp’ development that was already around in little girl’s dresses, performance and sportswear. Many designers picked up on the knee-baring hemline for town wear around the same time in 1964 – but it was really the teenaged girls, especially in Britain who also bought a lot of Quant clothing, that hiked the hemlines up higher, exposing the inner thigh.

14657311_10154032252626270_7300984314602835059_nRegardless of the facts, the myth continues, but thanks to Daniel Milford-Cottam, a friend of mine who works at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the myth can now be unravelled from the facts. I think one of the biggest culprits for the miniskirt myth is the illustration to the left that first appeared in a 1973 retrospective exhibition catalogue at the Museum of London entitled ‘Mary Quant’s London’ but has also appeared in several other fashion histories. The three dresses pictured are of popular early Mary Quant designs dating from (left to right) 1958, 1960, and 1963.  The image was supplied by Mary Quant for the exhibition catalogue, who, I have been told, also supplied some of the dresses in the 1973 exhibition – many recreated by Quant specifically for the exhibition in shorter lengths than originally designed,  emphasizing the mini myth. These dresses are now residing in the Museum of London or the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The original designs can be seen in these three images, showing their more modest, and accurate ‘just below the knee’ hemlines. The first dress shows the knees, but that’s because Mary Quant, who is wearing the dress, is sitting down:

What surprises me…

Queen Maxima of the Netherlands was in Germany two days ago wearing this grey coat. Many noticed that some of the star designs on her coat resembled swastikas, which lead to criticism of the Queen. What I find surprising about this whole brouhaha is that:

  1. The crosses are largely made up from cheap hardware hooks and screws
  2. Judging by the picture that shows the edge of the coat sleeve, the coat is badly finished or shows considerable wear
  3. That a Dutch queen would wear something by a Danish designer (Claes Iversen) rather than something by one of the many talented Dutch designers
  4. That there are enough people in Germany to create a stink over an obviously unintentional oversight
  5. That there was an oversight – Come on! someone didn’t notice the resemblance?
  6. That people still confuse the Nazi swastika with the Buddhist symbol of rebirth/eternity

Myth Information – Queen Victoria was the first bride to wear white

English illustration of wedding dress from Ackermann's Repository, June 1816

English illustration of white wedding dress from Ackermann’s Repository, June 1816

Weddings didn’t used to be a big thing. In the 18th century, weddings were usually held in the morning. They consisted of a solemn religious ceremony followed by a wedding breakfast for everyone in attendance at the church – maybe a dozen people. Brides wore their best dress and although white wedding dresses have survived from the 1700’s, they are rare. Most Georgian wedding gowns  are made of anything but white silk: yellow taffeta, brocade green twill, cotton calico…

By the early 19th century the white dress was in fashion – they were the ‘little black dress’ of their day and could be found on the ballroom floor as easily as at the breakfast table. A woman’s best white dress, in cotton or silk, was often used as her wedding dress. Royal brides however, wore gowns that more closely resembled court wear – ornately embroidered in silver thread and having long trains.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day, February 10, 1840

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their wedding day, February 10, 1840

When Victoria married Albert in 1840, it was expected she would wear something regal. Instead, Victoria wore an elegantly simple dress of English-made cream silk with a honiton lace flounce, trim, and veil. Instead of a tiara, she donned a wreath of orange blossoms. The hand-made lace would have cost a fortune even in 1840, and there was a train 18 feet long, but with these exceptions, any middle class bride might otherwise aspire to wearing a silk wedding gown just like Victoria’s.

The white dress went from ‘probable choice’ to ‘mandatory wedding garment’ and the colour given significance. By 1849 the American publication Godey’s Lady’s Book was proselytizing: “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”

Glossary – Size Zero

For such a recent term, there are already apocryphal stories about its origin including that it was invented for Twiggy. The truth is that it first appeared in about 2000. American designer Nicole Miller is credited with its first use by one writer, and when asked Miller explained “One year, our sales manager wanted to size the clothes bigger and we started calling the size 8s a 6… Then the result of that was losing the smaller customer, so we had to add the zero.” Although Miller admits she is not sure if she was the first to adopt the ‘zero’, as many manufacturers picked up the term at about the same time.

By early 2001 the term is in common usage and is becoming the source of debate and comic comment. Ellen Degeneres was noted in a February 1, 2001 magazine for joking about the term “I don’t understand the sizes anymore. There’s a size zero, which I didn’t even know that they had. It must stand for: ‘Ohhh my God, you’re thin.”

Myth Information – High Heels Required

24HEELS-master675I heard a rumour a few months ago that at the Cannes Film Festival several women were banished from entering a gala for the film Carol (about lesbians in the 1950s) for wearing rhinestone flats. Apparently the Festival had a rule requiring women wear high heeled shoes.


The source for this story came from a movie industry daily where the “journalist” never cites any names or sources. In a follow-up article in another paper Thierry Fremaux, the festival director for Cannes, is cited for asserting there is a dress code for entry, but the height of heels are not a part of that code.

The story created an artificial controversy over a social issue that doesn’t exist. Like I really think someone is going to say “Excuse me Ms. Deneuve but your shoes aren’t appropriate for this event, please leave the red carpet…”

Victorian Button Strings

A button string (not the one in the FHM collection)

A button string (not the one in the FHM collection)

Recently, the museum was given a rope of Victorian buttons. At first I thought it was just one person’s collection but I have now found several others in museum collections. It turns out ‘button strings’ as they were called, were popular pastimes made by girls in the late 19th century. A large button tied to one end of a piece of string anchored a collection of small, usually glass and metal-faced buttons with shanks. These types of small metal shank buttons were commonly used for closing bodices from the 1860s to the 1890s, which coincides with the same period button strings were popular.

001There is romantic folklore associated with button strings and how unmarried girls would collect 999 buttons, no two alike, only accepting buttons as gifts from family or exchanges from friends. I haven’t found a period reference for the meaning of 999 buttons, but some have speculated that the thousandth button was either a harbinger of imminent marriage or eternal spinsterhood.

The earliest reference I found for button strings comes from the lyrics of an 1870 song entitled ‘Give My Button String to Sister’, a maudlin ballad about a dying young girl and her wishes for her button string to be given to her baby sister upon her death.

“Give my button string to Sister,
I’ll not want it any more.
Ere the morrow sun is shining
I’ll be on the Golden Shore.
Tell my sister when she’s older,
When she first begins to sing,
That her angel sister left her
All her pretty button string.”
Metal shank buttoned bodice, c. 1890

Metal shank buttoned bodice, c. 1890

There is a collection of 90,000 buttons that came from button strings in The Museum of Connecticut History at Hartford. The collection came from John Tingue and has an interesting provenance. Tingue was showing his prize angora goats at the Connecticut State Fair in 1883 where he saw the display of a button string consisting of 1,432 buttons. Intrigued by the collection, Tingue offered a prize of $50.00 to young ladies under 20 years of age who could produce a string of at least 2700 buttons within 30 days. Tingue was inundated with button strings but honoured his commitment and paid out the prize money to all the entries. (He probably didn’t consider that several young ladies might combine their button strings and share the prize money…) In 1884 the collection was presented to the Connecticut State Agricultural Society and placed in the State Capital until it was transferred to the State Library in 1943 and later the State Museum.

The most recent reference I found for a button string was of one in a museum collection that came with a note dating it to 1899. The pastime died out at about this time, just as metal shank buttons were being displaced by hidden closures, or the popular decorative use of shell buttons with 2 or 4 sewing holes on the face.

For more info

Big hair is racist?

Boston-MFA-racismI missed this story when it was in the news a month ago… The Boston Museum of Fine Arts had an interactive display where you could try on a reproduction of the kimono that appears in Monet’s 1875 picture ‘La Japonaise’, until some overly-sensitive politically correct watchdogs decided to protest in the galleries because they thought the activity was racist… HUH? It certainly can’t be the act of wearing a kimono, since around the time this painting was done by Monet, Japanese women were beginning to appropriate Western dress – and I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that was a form of Occidental racism.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts cancelled the interactive display and APOLOGIZED to anyone who was offended. However, nobody should have, or needed to, apologize for Monet’s painting.

E7714CR-d1The match that ignited this brouhaha was an incorrectly worded interpretation by the curator who identified the model as Camille, Monet’s wife, and suggested she is wearing a blonde wig to “emphasize her Western identity”. Suddenly the painting became a statement about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and put the image into a category of racist art alongside minstrel shows. This is bullshit. Camille is likely wearing her own hair, not a wig, in a manner that could be considered Japanese, but that was a la mode in the early 1870s. Even if it wasn’t in fashion, putting her hair up in a Japanese manner is not the same as smearing burnt cork onto your face for a blackface routine.


Big Hairstyles in 1875


Japanese women in Western dress, c. 1887 – an act of Occidental racism?

Most hairstyles of the early-mid 1870s were influenced by Japanese and 18th century French styles of hair dressing – BIG hair was in. In fact everything Japanese was in fashion at the time – the entire late 19th century (and much of the early 20th century) was heavily influenced by Japanese styling, decorative motifs and colour palettes. Despite what any overly-sensitive protestor wants to whinge about, fashion is not about racism, it is about inspiration and appropriation. Fashion has historically looked to ethnographic dress: kimonos, saris, turbans, moccasins, sarongs, dirndls, clogs, parkas, and even tattoos for style inspiration in the past and it will continue to do so in the future.

The penny just dropped… I bet this was spurred on as a ‘me too’ to the corn-rowing discussion…

Myth Information – Bridal Fingerless mittens

UnknownI have read and heard it repeated that fingerless mittens were invented for brides so they would be able to put their ring on during the ceremony. While it is true that many brides did wear fingerless mitts for this reason, the style was originally developed for keeping the hands warm while doing work that required the fingers to be free. Delicate versions were worn for writing or needlework, while sturdy wool or leather mitts were worn by both men and women for various other jobs.

Myth Information – Roger Vivier’s Coronation shoes

It has been repeated many times that Roger Vivier designed the shoes worn by Queen Elizabeth for her Coronation in 1953. Although he designed sandals for the event, the shoes were not worn by Queen Elizabeth nor even made at the time. Vivier’s design was purely intended for self-promotion – something at which Vivier has proven to be even better than shoe design.

 Roger Vivier's design for coronation sandals, 1953

Roger Vivier’s design for coronation sandals, 1953

Roger Vivier is more of a mystery than most fashion histories reveal. To begin with, his birth date varies between 1907 and 1911, and his curriculum vitae before 1953 is sketchy, made up mostly of freelance design work for various shoe companies and designers, including the American shoe firm of Delman, the Swiss shoe firm of Bally, and the French couturier Schiaparelli. There was also a brief stint when he worked as a milliner in New York in the mid 1940s.

1953 was the turning point in Vivier’s life. The sketch he did of a pair of sandals encrusted with rubies and diamonds for the Queen’s Coronation was mistakenly reported as having been made for the Coronation – a misconception Vivier never corrected. The thought of the queen wearing a pair of shoes designed by a Frenchman using real jewels, when the English people were still subject to postwar meat and sugar rationing is tantamount to a Marie Antoinette bread recipe. The big spend was on the coronation dress by English-born designer Norman Hartnell – heavily embroidered with gilt thread, crystals, sequins and beads but not rubies and diamonds.

Reproductions of the coronation sandals by Roger Vivier, c. 2012

Variation of the coronation sandals by Roger Vivier, reproduced in 2012

Never-the-less, the royal design propelled Vivier’s name and that same year he was hired to make a line of shoes for Delman in the U.S., and later, a line for Dior, via Delman. From this opportunity Vivier began creating an exclusive line for Dior in 1955, which bore Vivier’s name on the label alongside Dior’s, and from 1955 to 1962, when Vivier left Dior to work on his own, Vivier’s shoes became famous for their luxurious embellishment and innovative heel designs. Although these attention grabbing bespoke designs appeared in magazine pages, few were ever ordered. The vast majority of VIvier’s shoes were ready-to-wear and plain.

Arriving at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation

Arriving at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation

As for the Queen, considering the amount of preparation she did and precautions she took to avoid any potential problems at the coronation (including wearing the crown around Buckingham Palace for weeks before the coronation) it seems unlikely that she would even consider wearing high heeled shoes under the long, full dress that entirely hid her feet. In a recent discussion I had with Alexandra Kim, a former curator at Kensington Palace, Kim said: “there are no surviving (coronation) shoes that they know of and no record of them being Vivier… it seems highly unlikely that the queen would wear the shoes of a French shoemaker for this event and I also think that she might have chosen more comfortable/practical shoes for an event which was long, with a heavy crown to worry about and shoes that wouldn’t be seen.”