Discovernet: Waisted and Busted

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from the collections of Narryna Heritage Museum, Powerhouse Museum, Macleay Museum, Queensland Performing Arts Museum and Warrnambool Art Gallery

One thing we can be sure of - fashion constantly changes. Yet clothing doesn't just show us what is fashionable. By studying the clothes and fashions of the past we can learn about people: we can find out about their laws, customs and activities. To give you some examples of learning about people through studying their clothes let's go back about one hundred and forty years. From 1860 to the early 1900's there were vast changes in fashion, especially for women and children. Some of the garments thought to be necessary fashion items in 1860 had totally disappeared by 1910. Let's find out why.

The first picture on the right is of an 1860's dress. It was fashionable in the 1860's to have a small waist and lots of gathered material in the skirt so that the dress could form a large bell-shape. At their extreme, these dresses could measure up to 5.5 metres across their diameter. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to play sport, bicycle or even walk through a doorway and sit down in a dress this wide? In the 1860's women rarely participated in active sports and the modern bicycle had not yet been invented. Women did not venture very far from the home and family. It would be rare to find a woman who had paid employment - unless she were poor, and rarer to find a woman who was educated in a skilled occupation.

Under the bell-shaped dress women wore undergarments called crinolines. Crinolines were like large cages that fastened at the waist and held the petticoats and dress out. They were usually made of whalebone or steel and fabric. Another undergarment, called a corset, was used to squeeze the waist in to make it look smaller. Imagine wearing all these heavy underclothes in an Australian summer! Corsets, which were also made of whalebone and fabric, buttoned or hooked up at the front. There were laces attached at the back that were pulled in tightly. This meant that someone had to help you dress - perhaps a sister, mother, or if you were wealthy, a maid. Breathe in girls! It may be surprising to know that little girls wore almost exactly what their mothers' wore - yes, that meant a corset and crinoline!

By the 1880's the crinoline had disappeared, or rather it shrank to a quarter of its size and was called a bustle. The woman fishing in the painting on the right is wearing a fashionable 1880's dress with lots of material gathered at the back. This material was held out from underneath by a bustle. Bustles, like crinolines, were made of steel and fabric. They were attached at the waist and sat over the bottom. Many things were starting to change for women of the 1880's. By the early 1880's public high schools and universities were open to girls for the first time. Women were starting to work in a variety of jobs such as shop assistants, clerks and teachers. Ladies were also starting to question why they did not have the right to vote. For these women even the cumbersome bustle must have been a much more practical garment to wear than the crinoline of the 1860's.

The bustle shared a similar fate to the crinoline, shrinking in size till it became, by the late 1890's, a little pad of material that tied at the waist and sat over the bottom. This pad was called a cul.

Notice something missing in the photograph taken at a Manly beach in 1890? No one is swimming! It was illegal to swim in public from 6 a.m. till 8 p.m. and it wasn't until 1906 that the law changed.

The 1906 postcard of Nellie Stewart shows how women's bodies were bent in to an S curve by the wearing of a rigid corset. This type of corset, fashionable in the early 1900's, did terrible damage to the body because it pushed the chest out at the front and the bottom out at the back. Nellie was a well-known Australian star of the stage, famous for wearing large feathery hats that sometimes measured a metre wide! The next image shows you the type of dress Nellie might have worn over her corset and petticoats. Notice how much more practical the design of the dress is. By 1902 Australian women could vote. Gradually more women were entering universities. They rode bicycles, played sport and more were employed in a variety of occupations so there was a need to design outfits that did not restrict the wearer's movements.

Did you know that just over a century ago it was common practice to tightly wrap a baby's abdomen in a strip of material called a binder? Binders were approximately 30 inches long and four inches wide. It was around this time that one in ten children were dying before they turned five! To improve the health of children, doctors and dress reform groups advised parents not to dress children in tightly fitting clothes. Instead they encouraged the wearing of comfortable smock dresses - that is why you see the two little girls, photographed in the early 1900's, wearing smocks.

The last two photographs are of university students taken from 1914 to 1920. As the century progressed women started to wear everyday outfits that were a little like a man's business suit. Usually the outfit consisted of a jacket, skirt, shirt and sometimes a waistcoat. Having a shirt that looked obviously separate from the skirt meant that you could wash, repair and interchange the clothing more readily. This is useful for someone living an active life: studying, working and playing sport.

So as you can see, fashions change for many reasons. Without the invention of boil-proof elastic we would not have small and comfortable underpants. Without the invention of the zipper, would we have blue jeans? There are many influences that shape the clothes we wear just as there are many influences that shape our lives.

So what are you wearing?

1860s dress
A crinoline and several petticoats would be worn under this 1860s dress.

A collapsed crinoline
A collapsed bird cage? No - a collapsed crinoline!

Notice the little hooks that did up at the front of this corset.

1880s fashion
Bustles, highly decorative hats and parasols were very popular in the 1880s.

1890s costume
In 1890 your costume could take between 5 to 9 metres of fabric to make - but remember, you would have to swim in the dark!

Edwardian corset shape
Nellie's S shaped figure is the result of a rigid Edwardian style corset.

1900s mono-bosom style
The mono-bosom style of the early 1900s meant no hint of cleavage could be seen. Notice the high collar and the gathered chest panel.

Smock dress
A smock dress for a little girl.

1900s girl's dress
In the early 1900s it was fashionable to dress little girls in white.

Students and staff at Sydney University
Students and staff at Sydney University. Notice the central female figure is wearing a suit.

A sensible oufit
A sensible oufit for ladies at the university!

1914 hats
For university students in 1914 it was fashionable to wear hats.


Ordinary Women/Extraordinary Lives: Women First in their Field
Browse through the many stories and photographs of exceptional women at the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame.

Federal Fashions
Visit this online exhibition at the National Library of Australia and discover what people were wearing at the time of the Federation of Australia.

The Guilded Age
View a collection of rarely exhibited costumes from The Museum of the City of New York designed by Charles Frederick Worth, the founder of haute couture.

Things to do:

Design your own clothes
Try designing your own outfit using fashions from the past for inspiration. The 'Costumers Manifesto' website has free patterns online. GO!

Make a paper doll
Visit this site and try making your own paper doll collection. 

Find out about the past
This Museum Victoria activity sheet uses photographs as a source of information about the past.