1 year ago
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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.