Thursday 16 January 2014

Skeuomorphs 2: Clothes

Why did a lady’s dust coat (long, shapeless, invented to keep the dust off clothes in early 20th cent open cars) become a “duster” coat – still waistless but knee-length? A similar coat that stops at the hips is called a car coat. But we don’t need to keep out the dust any more, or restrict them to in-car wear. And they’re never made out of dusters.

Men’s trousers were designed to have a high waistband, attached to braces. They were baggy and had pleats. The waistband and braces were hidden by the waistcoat. Waistcoats and braces went out, so the waistband had to be tight enough to keep the bags up. The waist moved lower in the 70s and again in the 90s (after the “baggy trousers” 80s), but the pleats stayed, now looking rather ridiculous. And there’s no room to put anything in your pockets. Americans are terrified of something called “highwater pants”.

In the 18th century, ballerinas daringly shortened their long skirts to show their (gasp!) ankles. By the 1840s tutus had become knee-length, by the 1890s thigh-length – but they were still a “cut-off” ordinary dress. In the 1950s, stiff nylon net transformed them into a ridiculous saucer shape (sometimes with an 1840s bodice). Couldn’t they at least go back to the knee-length style for 1840s ballets?

The same thing happened to tennis dresses. They were floor-length, then knee-length, and you wore pants underneath. The skirts got shorter and shorter, but the pants were still pants, not shorts, made more decent (but more underwear-like) by rows of frills or lace. Odd, in the prudish 50s.

A tea gown was a kind of posh dressing gown which a woman could wear at home but not out, and probably not when company was present. According to etiquette guru Emily Post, tea gowns were “made of rather gorgeous materials” and “went on easily”, and if you were dining at home you could keep it on for dinner. You could wear gorgeous materials (velvet) at home because they wouldn’t get damaged en route to someone else's house, and the garment was probably warm and looser than your normal clothes and you might even leave off your corset. Also the tea gown had a high neck and long sleeves, unlike chilly evening dresses. It mutated into a quilted housecoat which the 50s housewife would keep on for breakfast and to wash up, sweep and make the beds. Then she would get dressed in a jumper, skirt and stockings, do her face at the dressing table, and put on a hat and gloves to go out shopping.

Boys’ shorts originally reached the knee, meeting stockings gartered above the knee. By the 1970s, this ensemble had morphed into ankle socks and very, VERY short shorts. (Hems rose with miniskirts and didn’t immediately descend when skirts fell.) The child’s entire leg was exposed to snow, rain and wind. Schoolboys now wear trousers.

More here.


  1. I can't believe how much she is wearing to play tennis!

  2. Those schoolboy shorts were ridiculous. When I was in primary, a young boy joined us from far off parts - I think he was Spanish. He was allowed to wear long trousers even though no other boy could, because he wasn't used to the cold. Unfair on home-grown boys! I am always fascinated by teagowns and what exactly they imply. Teagowns and housecoats sound as though they should be opposite ends of the spectrum, but are not...