Monday 19 October 2020

Skeuomorphs and Fossils: Clothes 3


Skeuomorphs are objects based on earlier forms, sometimes made in a different material, or for another purpose. Sometimes earlier forms become fossilised.

The Scythians made jackets with narrow, useless sleeves that were just for decoration. These turn up in Hungarian military uniform until the 19th century.

Theatrical makeup stuck in the 50s. It was designed to make the features visible and the complexion look healthy under early stage lighting, we were told. At school we were made up for plays with tanned faces, red lips, black eye liner and blue eye shadow. Theatrical handbooks recommended outlining the nostrils with crimson, and putting rouge on the earlobes, under the lower lip, and under the chin. Opera singers looked like Kabuki or Kathakali actors, with ridiculous winged eye-liner at the top and bottom of the eye. When did all that go? (In films and TV of the 60s/70s, if a Caucasian actor played a Chinese man, he was given blue eyeshadow. In The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – stories from the late 19th century – both women and men wear green eyeshadow.)

In the 50s, little girls’ wore party shoes in a style preserved from 1840s women’s slippers. They were flat, and had a rose or bow attached at the front. They even had the slightly square toes of the 1840s and earlier. The bow was a fossil in itself – they had a drawstring that you could tie in a bow to keep them on, like ballet slippers. This never worked, and ballet slippers (and sometimes party shoes) would have an elastic strap added over the instep, or else ribbons that you crossed several times round your ankles (and tied in a bow).

In the late 18th century women wore ludicrously big hair, but they still tied ribbons round it and balanced caps on top. There was a moment when they wore hats, but pinned to the front of the beehive so that the brim shaded their eyes. The hats were now vertical, but nobody thought this was silly.
I spotted something similar in the background in The Ipcress File (1966) – a woman with a headscarf worn vertically on the front of her beehive hairdo, with the point of the triangle in the air.

WWII ATS hats were a WWI design.

The Duchess of Sussex was seen wearing a trench dress with a gun flap. The original trench coat was designed for the trenches of WWI, and the gun flap creates a double layer of fabric where you rest the butt of your rifle.

1920s fashion was a cut-down version of the teens, just as teens fashion was a cut-down version of the 1900s, retaining a vestigial bustle and drooping blouse front. 1920s fashion also borrowed from underwear and children's clothes. Bobbed hair was originally worn by children – see Christopher Robin. Some mid-20s evening dresses sported tiny cubist “trains”.

The triangular head scarf tied under the chin, originally featured in Vogue as an exotic accessory, was so useful and soon became so familiar that it was a negative status indicator. (Alison Lurie)

Court dress continued unchanged for most of the 18th century, with women forced to wear the court mantua with huge panniers, a fossilised version of a 50-year-old fashion. Panniers were eventually laughed off the stage, but court dress continued to preserve archaic features. Debutantes in the 50s wore white ball dresses and opera gloves to be presented to the Queen – at teatime. (She put an end to the ceremony.)

Raine Spencer was brought up to be a debutante, and with her bouffant hairstyle, swirling chiffons, pearls and perfect grooming, always retained something of the style fashionable in her youth. (Times) Her hairstyle became fossilised in the early 60s: a very back-combed version of her earlier style. Her mother, Barbara Cartland, froze her look around the year 1935: hat, curls, mask-like make-up. She kept her 30s eyebrows, as did Edith Piaf, Fanny Cradock and Margaret Leighton.

Girls still get the Louise Brooks “helmet” bob (pictured) even though the cloche hats that made it fashionable have long since disappeared.

Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd ditched the full-bottomed wig and wore a skirt, and nobody has readopted the headgear since. Her successor John Bercow swapped knee-breeches for trousers. Some parliamentary roles are now taken by women – who wear 18th century male dress.

Anello and Davide character shoes were unchanged from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Why did silent film directors and chauffeurs wear jodhpurs? (The riding breeches were a tailored version of Indian baggy trousers.)

And when did hotel staff stop wearing quasi-military uniforms with pillbox hats?

Nurses' caps became vestigial, then disappeared.

Dressage riders wear a fake bun in a net – a miniature form of the 1860s chignon.

Scottish dancing shoes are a formalised version of the Celtic pampootie (a 5,000-year-old design).

Insoles are still modelled on early 1960s winklepicker shoes.

Mrs Lycett ... wearing two little strips of lace on her hair to represent a cap.
(Mrs Craddock, Somerset Maugham)

Have bishops' mitres shrunk? Will they eventually disappear? And will vicars drop the chasuble?

Clerical collars
were just one variety of stand-up starched collar – now the only one left. (Or do lawyers wear them?)

used to wear wigs and large white muslin sleeves (the “bishop sleeves” of the 1840s and 50s). They were given permission to ditch the wigs in 1830. Archbishop Howley was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to wear one, and he died in 1848. Martin Routh, 1755-1854, President of Magdalen College, Oxford from 1791 until his death, was the last man in Oxford to wear a wig. When will barristers catch up? In 2008, judges dropped wigs for civil cases and adopted a new gown without a wing collar.

Archbishops carried on wearing a top hat with streamers, a purple cassock with an “apron”, and gaiters into the 1960s. Michael Ramsay wore a cassock, and subsequently archbishops have worn business suits.

Why did footmen go on wearing 18th century dress, including powdered wigs? When did they stop?

Musicians and magicians
traditionally wore evening dress – this made sense when the audience were all in evening dress too. Musicians are slow to change: orchestras and choirs allowed women to wear trousers about 30 years after they became everyday wear at work and play. In the late 60s, women in “trouser suits” were chucked out of restaurants. One woman in a frock coat just took her trousers off and was admitted.

City types dropped their bowler hats in the early 70s, and teachers shed their mortarboards and gowns.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown used to turn up at banquets in a business suit. Be like Gordon.

More here.


  1. Lovely.
    I read of an order of nuns who originally wore a very simple form of cheap peasant dress as part of their unworldliness. As the centuries went by, they never changed and by now it was really expensive and difficult to keep reproducing these robes, with some very particular kind of buttons. But on they went - presumably Vatican II put an end to all that.

  2. I met some nuns in Ireland who said they'd gone through a "navy anorak period" after Vatican II. Then they started buying more fashionable clothes, and put on a fashion parade for their pupils to see if they approved! They were quite groovy.