An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion

Apologies to our visitors expecting our normal Sunday morning blog. Things got a bit complicated in the hive this week, and there was no time to prepare a proper blog.

Instead, for an improper (and late) blog, I offer a few pretty pics, especially for those who like our costume series. And normal service will be resumed next weekend 😉

That poor seamstress again?

My blogs have often mentioned the poor seamstress who made those fabulous gowns and, probably, received a pittance for her work. Below are some examples of embroidery from the Hereford museum collections. I don’t know whether these are the work of a seamstress or by a lady, sitting comfortably by her fire. They’re worth a look, whoever did them. [Click to enlarge]

embroidery with flowers

Beautiful flowers, and a finely stitched edging (above).

embroidery with looped edging

The edging on this bolder one is amazingly intricate.

delicate embroidery

Again, amazingly delicate work which you can see better in the close-up below:

close-up of embroidery

The colouring on the leaves is exquisite, don’t you think? But the fine silk is showing its age.

These examples above may have been used as table linens, though I’m not sure the second one, with the looped edging, would have been.

Embroidery and fashion

But embroidery was also wearable, if you were up for it—

embroidery on stomacher    embroidery on stomacher

These embroidered stomachers must have taken hours and hours to finish. And they are stunning. The only drawback is that they had to be held taut and straight, with no awkward protrusions of flesh. That usually required a degree of stiffening, with something pretty uncomfortable for the wearer. For example, these busks, made of wood!
What some women will do for a fashionable figure, eh?

wooden busks

And finally, a brain teaser from the Berrington Hall collection (below). What do you think this is?
Hint: it IS to do with fashion.

puffed sleeve stiffener, late 1820s, from Berrington Hall collection

Answers once I’ve seen the guesses from our visitors.
No prizes, but kudos and congratulations if you can work it out.

Joanna, in a bit of a rush

Postscript—And the answer is…?

I cheated a little—but only a very little—since these items come in pairs and they’re not as round as the image above suggests. They have a flat side, presumably to fit against the body. They would normally come like this:stiffeners for puff sleeves

And as at least two visitors guessed—congrats to both—the items are stiffeners for puffed sleeves, fashionable in the late 1820s and 1830s. The stiffeners are framed with thin cane, formed into the mostly-circular shape, and joined by thick waxed paper, carefully folded to make the requisite puff and to join to the smaller circles where the arm went through. The stuffing shown in the images is a museum addition to preserve the shape.

The whole design is very clever because it’s light and airy. If the sleeves had had to be fully stuffed to ensure that puffed shape, imagine how hot the gown would have become.

The wonderful V&A collection has produced some prints to demonstrate the puffed-sleeve style. And those hairstyles! One day, I must do a blog about them. The ones in the prints below are astonishing and must have taken for ever to create, probably with the addition of lots of false hair.

If you enlarge the prints [just click], you’ll see amazing detail of gowns, accessories and hair. And the lady in the purple day dress in the final print appears to be wearing half-boots 😉

1828 white ball dress, puffed sleeves, La Belle Assemblee © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1828 white ball dress, puffed sleeves, from La Belle Assemblee © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1829 orange ball dress, puff sleeves, "Apollo knot" hair © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1829 orange ball dress, puff sleeves, “Apollo knot” hair Paris print © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1829 ball dress, puffed sleeves, lace hat © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

1829 ball dress, puffed sleeves, lace hat Paris print © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

13 thoughts on “An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree about the needlework, Liz. I’ve been doing some long and short stitch embroidery in lockdown and finding how difficult it is to meld the various colours and keep the correct stitch slant in that kind of almost free hand work.

      I’m not going to comment on any of the guesses about the mystery object until I’ve had quite a few.

  1. Rosemary Gemmell

    Beautiful, though complicated, embroidery! The only thing that springs to mind about the mystery object is: could it be used for making puffed sleeves, or a kind of shoulder pad?

  2. Jan Jones

    Heavenly embroidery. Wonderful to see the photos. As for the object, my first thought was that it could be a cunning device to puff out one’s natural hair for those highly elaborate and ornamental hair arrangements

    1. Joanna Post author

      Very interesting, Jan. Thank you. So now we’ve got bonnets, sleeves, and hair. I wonder if I’ll get more, and different, suggestions? Fashion is definitely a minefield, isn’t it?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Um. Are you looking at the last picture, Elizabeth, or the one before? There is certainly an image of two busks but that’s not my brain teaser

  3. Joanna Post author

    I said I’d provide the answer here in the comments. In fact, I’ve done it as an addition to the blog, so that I could show you some fabulous prints of costumes that would have included my mystery item. Congratulations to Rosemary and Louise, who both identified the item as a stiffener for puffed sleeves.

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