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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 May 2009

A Pin & A Prayer

On a previous post I commented that often women’s clothing was held together by little more than “pins and a prayer”. Janet Mullany responded by asking if this was true of the clothing of the upperclass, and the answer is yes. Actually, it’s far more likely to be true of the clothing of the moneyed than of the poor (pins were expensive!).

As far back as Ancient Greece (and probably even further), gowns were little more than lengths of fabric held together at the shoulder by pins of some sort (fibula to the Romans). During the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, gowns frequently fastened with pins (generally either up the side-front of the bodice or where the gown joined the stomacher). If you look closely at portraiture of the day, you can even see these pins portrayed (usually as a series of small dots along a seam, as in this detail of a Holbein painting of Jane Seymour).

In the 18th century, it was extremely common for gowns to be held together by nothing more than pins (they were used along jacket fronts as well as in the same gown/stomacher fashion as in the 15th-17th centuries). If pins were not used, women were often sewn into their gowns by their maids (which I swear can be faster than pinning, which would also have to be done by a maid, as the angle is nearly impossible for the person wearing the gown). In the sketch of the 16th century gown shown here, the gown is laced and then the stomacher pinned in, but I have not seen similar lace holes on 18th century gowns (but I have seen evidence that the stomacher was first pinned to the stays with tabs, meaning that the gown couldn’t have been laced beneath it).

In the Regency, pins start to fall out of fashion, but you do still see gowns closed with them. In particular, the so-called “apron front” gowns had the underbodice held together with pins, and often the bib was held up with them as well. Pins were also used to close the gap between ties at the back of gowns, and to hold up trains for dancing.

All this leads me to wonder if our heroes’ historical counterparts didn’t pay a bloody price for a hasty grope . . .

9 Comments:

Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

Were the pins small like we use today, or long like hat pins? I'm wondering if they had little plugs of wood or something on their tips to prevent the wearer (and groper) from getting pricked.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

How about this scenario:

The heroine, fleeing from the villain, falls down in a stable, getting her pins dirty. When the villain catches her, he gets scratched on her pins. She escapes and he dies of tetanus.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The pins are little heftier than your modern straight pin, with a round head. You can see them depicted in this painting of the Countess of Southampton (the pin cushion is below her elbow on the dressing table):

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/Elizabeth_Vernon_big.jpg

The Victoria and Albert also has extant examples in their collection (c.1620-1800):

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/indexplus/db_images/website/large/2006AM5157-6.jpg

8:26 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

@JaneO: In order to get her pins dirty, all of her would have to get dirty, and he'd hardly die of tetanus soon enough to help with her escape . . . but it could be nasty, natural revenge for his villainy.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Kalen--and lots of great potential for stories :-). You read about the maids in ladies retiring rooms having pins to help ladies with their dresses. This makes you realize the pins could be for more than a torn flounce.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Ouch!
That was my first thought because seeing the clothes having been so fitted and tight (I assume) that must of been more uncomfy!

Love coming here to learn more!! Thanks Kalen!

11:53 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

This is fascinating, and utterly counter to what we imagine.

As for this ancient tradition of gowns being draped and pinned: art and clothing historian Anne Hollander contends in her wonderful Sex and Suits that it wasn't until the gentleman's wool coats of the early 19th century that true tailoring was born. According to her, even the elaborate gowns of late 18th century royal and aristocratic women were mostly created via the simpler matter of draping.

What do you think, Kalen?

5:03 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

At least a lady always had a weapon of sorts handy should she want to use it. However, there is the conundrum of does she make use of the weapon and risk nudity or not?

9:14 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

[A]rt and clothing historian Anne Hollander contends in her wonderful Sex and Suits that it wasn't until the gentleman's wool coats of the early 19th century that true tailoring was born. According to her, even the elaborate gowns of late 18th century royal and aristocratic women were mostly created via the simpler matter of draping.

I agree and disagree . . .

Yes, the gowns of the 18th century were draped. I took a wonderful class with Janea Whiteacre, the head modieste for Colonial Williamsburg, where we learned how it was done. It’s sooooooo much simpler than a pattern, and it ensures a custom fit every time. It’s like fabric origami.

But I don’t think tailoring dates to the 19th century. There are examples of tailored garments dating back to at least the 16th century (unless she’s using a definition of tailoring that I’m just not grasping). The real rise of tailoring to an art form happens in the early 19th century, but it doesn’t spring from nothingness.

7:40 AM  

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