It's Not All Potpouri And Lace, A Lady's Thoroughly Exhausting Day

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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania
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Era cartoon lampooning extremes in the lives of ' fashionable ' women. Her ' toilette ' becomes the concern of a small village composed of merchants, tradesmen and servants. There's an emphasis on the commerce involved, a man hawks crinoline, another jewelry, yet another holds fabric and there's a woman at her feet displaying an assortment of shoes. We bought into it resulting in an expensive, wearing and awfully busy day.

So the disclaimer here would be a good scattering of other women also exhausted by the exertions helping their employer become exhausted herself. For every lady floating off to a ball or ' morning visit ' or an outing to the shops trailing ambergris, bedecked with Brussels lace, topped by elaborate hair and hoping to heck a crinoline wire didn't snap there were quite a few left at home recovering. They'd all just crimped, sewn, washed, and finally gowned the fair beauty over several layers below. Like we could do it all themselves.


Another artist's pen suck into era extravagance, a maid in the picture.

Reenactors out there may have a fair idea of how arduous it was just being a girl 150 years ago. What one ' class ' of female missed by way of day to day housework and drudgery another's efforts were directed at holding up the whole day. I'm just wondering how any of them did any of it. Since our imaginations love lingering over our ladies of er, leisure, thought they'd be a good place to start.

One's ' toilette ' ( you only had a toilette if a certain class. Everyone else just got dressed. ) included alllll the steps involved in just making an appearance somewhere. That meant anywhere from downstairs when you woke up to stepping into a carriage for that ball. Someone had filled your jug of water ready to pour into the handy bowl- it was pretty cold. They'd also done something with the polite looking lidded pot neatly shoved under your bed but we won't look further into those mysteries. That accomplished, all that hair you'd braided into a thick rope to avoid tangles was un-done, brushed, braided or twisted and pinned into place, a few layers of cotton struggled into over which you draped your ' wrapper '. That could be it for awhile beyond one's slippers.

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A stomacher took corsets to a whole, new level of torment- it sucked you in, pushed you up and squished elsewhere, too.

How does anyone think that darn hoop was kept in place? Part of your routine was constructing the foundation over which one's various outfits could be applied, kind of like framing a house. Here's your foundation garments you wouldn't get rid of until bed.
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That supporter looks awfully strong, canvas and leather- holding up the hoop and yards of fabric. Drawers go without saying ( let's not say much, please ) and cotton chemise over the obligatory corset. I know men who love those things 150 years later and wonder why any of them are married. Those curves are bone and those pointed sticks inserted in little pockets? They're pointed sticks.
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Elegant ? Gosh no. Ouch.

Demorest's morning ' costume '- the wrapper evident although no one was allowed to see it beyond your household. As opposed to your morning dress.
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Here's your toothpaste, recipe from a book on ' toilettes ' and etiquette 1860. Chalk, charcoal and soap. Yum.
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Breakfast, while your husband propped his newspaper on the coffee pot, could take awhile. Someone meanwhile took breakfast to the kids aloft in the all-purpose nursery. You'd visit there after your toast and marmalade and conferring with the housekeeper about dinner. If you were to have morning callers, meaning anyone who stopped in to say hello, back to one's bedchamber because your wrapper was ok for family but a morning dress necessary in which to drink more tea.

The dress-after-you'd-dress-but-before-going-out- The Morning Dress.
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You could wear this if you received visitors at home- go out? A wholeeee 'nother wardrobe. Let's see-

Walking dress, for well, walks. Where, who knows?
Promenade dress, for walking where a lot of people will see you.
Visiting dress, for when you go see anyone at all.
Carriage dress, for a lot of folks seeing you in a carriage
Shopping dress, with many pockets for all the money you spend ( I just made that part up )
Dinner dress, unless you were going out.
Evening dress, not to be confused with-
Ball dress, formal dance attire.

It will get long, each dress would be replicated in the requisite colors of mourning, AND each black/gray/lavender stage of mourning if someone close to you passed away. That's a LOT of dresses in a day when it wasn't uncommon for women to only own two, one for daily wear, one for church.

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How anyone felt impelled to walk wearing all that fabric draped over everything we know was beneath is anyone's guess. That isn't critical or snarky, you really want to know. Demorest's is always a little extreme, Godey's tended to be a little more realistic albeit remained committed to a good deal of frou frou.

It gets longer. In their largely imaginary spare time women engaged- or were expected to, " Elegant Arts ". This was inclusive of painting on everything from glass to bark. You created pictures from moss and glue, poured hot wax into mold and came up with fruit, used dead stuffed birds to great admiration and knew how to tack feathers in any number of decorative forms. That's for tomorrow because I'm exhausted just reporting on someone's day- so far.

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BUT. We loved this stuff, go figure. It's not just 150 years later this mode of dress is romanticized- image from a pre-war book. Go figure.
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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016
I am so glad that I live in today’s world, not in that world.
How true - I took an Open Hearth cooking class and the one thing learned was how grateful I was for refrigeration/stoves/microwaves/dishwashers (yes we had to heat the water from a pump). It was a lot of work not to mention dangerous for the lady teaching the class who was in authentic dress and her skirts were swirling around like crazy. No wonder many ladies received bad burns when their skirts got too close to the hearth. But I suppose the bigger the hoops - the less "kitchen" work you did. And when I read Julia Grant's memoirs I remember how she called it her "toilette".


Jul 14, 2017
But seriously, the clothing isn't all that hard to wear. I never feel tortured, and, of course, the size of the cage crinolines in the cartoons are vastly exaggerated, as befits a lampoon.
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