Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Magpie 49


Willow’s prompt this week got me to thinking of the number of centuries women had to wear such voluminous, all-enveloping dresses.

There’s not all that much difference between the clothing of a lady of the time of the prompt (1905) and a woman of Shakespeare’s day. In both cases, everything was covered; it was a moral issue.
Cole Porter: “A glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking.”
But that took me back to my early days of Shakespeare studies. What must it have been like for a lady to go out into the world wearing, for instance, the garment known as a “farthingale,” the name given to the style of female clothing that was fashionable in England in the 1590s?

The English got it from the French. In most cases, for most Elizabethan women, the farthingale was a fairly simple article of clothing. But for someone like the Queen, it was a production.
It consisted of, inside, one or more large hoops with horizontal stiffeners that radiated from around the waist in order to produce a flat platter-like shape when supported by the "bumroll." That word is not just me being vulgar; it was the actual term used by the English to describe the rear end of the farthingale – that covered the rear end of the woman.

In a well-made English farthingale a fashionable silhouette was created by having the dress worn at an angle ("low before and high behind"). In the original version, the French carried this to an extreme – as one might expect? :-)
As long as we’re discussing women’s unmentionables, there’s a natural segue to another equally unmentionable topic: how, and where, would such a lady, out for an afternoon on the town in Elizabethan London, go to the bathroom?
It seems there were few, if any, public toilets. What might be described as public urination was evidently more or less acceptable. For a man, you just found a vacant space on a lawn or field. For a lady, it is quite possible that the design of the farthingale was a great help in such a situation. She would find a suitable spot and there she would kneel, spread her clothing about her in a way that provided complete modesty and privacy, and then take care of nature’s call.

To change the subject just a bit, the whole topic of how audiences in Elizabethan theatres and playhouses, two or three thousand people, would go to the restrooms when there were no restrooms, is quite interesting and worth a future post.

27 comments:

Margaret Bednar said...

...and think of all the drinking that was going on at the theatre - and NO bathrooms! One had to truly be careful where they trod!

Nanka said...

That was a lot of thinking that you have done for the distressed women of Elizabethan London. :)

jijie said...

I'm your newest follower from ABC-WED, hope you will follow me back here@ Step Up
Take Care

Jijie :)

kathew said...

oh lordy....thanks goodness we dont have to wear those clothes now-

Brigid said...

I was starting to like the 'farthingale' as a fashion option until you mentioned the bathroom problem. Dread to think what the theatres were like, the last time we went to the London Palladium, my daughter couldnt get over how small the seats where, how did they fit into earlier built theatres with their farthingales on? I wont be able to sleep tonight thinking about that.
Great post!

Berowne said...

Nanka: "That was a lot of thinking that you have done for the distressed women of Elizabethan London."
Yes, I never thought I'd be commenting on women's fashions, but that was the prompt this week...

Berowne said...

Very true, Margaret B. I don't feel dull, I don't feel hollow, I found myself in your "Blogs I Follow." :-)

Tess Kincaid said...

You did manage to slip Shakespeare in there. I'm impressed, Mr. B. Interesting post.

Berowne said...

Tess K.: "Interesting post."
Interesting prompt.

Helen said...

... and I thought it was tough wearing starched crinolines in the 50's!!!

Paul C said...

You provide a worthy description of the Elizabethan dresses to match that excellent illustration of the Globe theatre!

thingy said...

As modest as one can be crouching in a field or street. Ugh.

Better to have been a peasant back in the day.

lightverse said...

Hmmm...The Globe must've been an interesting place. Gives new meaning to the terms 'theatre in the round' and 'pit orchestra', eh? ☼

hedgewitch said...

Fascinating look at how fashion works, and how roles impact how it works. Riding sidesaddle, which was how most ladies rode in Elizabethan times, yes? is another amazing skill women had to perfect to preserve their so called modesty--much harder than dancing backwards in high heels like Ginger Rogers, I'd think. AFA the sanitary arrangements--I don't think kneeling is actually an option I would choose--maybe they had little chamber pots discreetly concealed somewhere? ;-)

Carrie Burtt said...

I could have used one of those dresses back in 1975 4th of July....watching fireworks and no public bathroom....this was fascinating and fun Berowne as always, and thank you for the kind words over at my blog! :-)

Kristen Haskell said...

Yikes you can imagine the smell in those theaters? I am not sure I would have made a good Elizabethan.

signed...bkm said...

I do not know if I can or want to imagine where all these people went to the bathroom....maybe that is why so many died of kidney failure ...trying to prevent the need of its relief....bkm

Mary said...

Interesting post. I cannot imagine the smells all around, as I know these dresses would have SELDOM, if ever, washed!

Sue J said...

This is very interesting. The audience probably all went outside and peed in the gutter. It probably stunk to high heaven.

Berowne said...

Mary: "I cannot imagine the smells all around."
Yes, a number of folks mentioned this. If anyone today has a romantic notion of time-traveling back to Elizabethan England, they would find it a bit of a shock, the huge variety of powerful, never-ending odors and smells that you'd have to put up with. Most Elizabethans, on the other hand, having lived with such all their lives, probably just ignored them.

jinksy said...

Interesting view of how costumes change...

Mary said...

So much for the good old days, eh?

Bee's Blog said...

This is so interesting. I've always had a horror of Elizabethan fashion and wondered how on earth they managed in such unsanitary conditions! Won't even talk about the days before dry cleaning! I suppose the tried to overcome the odours with heavy perfumes!

Lovely post.

Nana Jo said...

What a delightful piece of writing. Thank you for introducing me to the word 'bumroll'! I can't wait to use it one day.

I read somewhere that during Elizabethan times, many women kept peeled apples in their armpits to absorb the odor. I don't imagine this was terribly effective!

Eliza said...

It's the day-to-day issues and how people coped with them in days of old that I often wonder about. Thank you for a fascinating explanation. :D

Lena said...

I'd never survive a summer in those dresses! And as for the piddle problem.....I've been to an Edinburgh Hogmanay street party, where it felt very Elizabethan, I can tell you! Had to throw the boots away...!!

Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

It's a good thing I wasn't a lady of that era. While I like the look of such elaborate gowns, I run 15-20 degrees hotter than the average person and would have been miserable. Throw in menopause and it would have been worse. Come to think of it, I'm already having too many problems with menopause.

 
Blog designed by Blogger Boutique using Christy Skagg's "A Little Bit of That" kit.