Saturday, 19 July 2014

Historical Clothing for Sitters at the ROM's New Fashion Exhibition

Recently, the Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume at the Royal Ontario Museum had been closed in preparation for a new exhibition. As a volunteer who is personally a bit more on the introverted side, I'm always aware of what goes on there, seeing as it is one of the quietest and most tucked-away areas of the museum. Well, as of June 21, it's re-opened with not one, but TWO new exhibitions. The first, Cairo Under Wraps: Early Islamic Textiles features some fascinating textiles and clothing from the 7th to 14th centuries. However, this post is about the second new exhibition that's opened up: Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting.

The exhibition focuses on the work of Canadian fashion designer Izzy Camilleri, especially her line IZAdaptive, which was developed specifically for the convenience of wearers in wheelchairs. To do this, she drew off historical examples of clothing that were also designed with sitting in mind: riding habits, breeches/trousers, bustles, etc.

Now, I do not yet have images of Camilleri's own designs and pieces just yet: history nerd that I am, my first visit to the exhibition focused primarily on her historical sources of inspiration. So, here are some of the highlights from that particular subset.

Here, we have a 1770s English riding habit that was designed for a woman to wear sidesaddle. You can see that it was made in multiple pieces that simulated the coats and waistcoats worn by men. However, shorter's women's jackets were worn during the 18th century as well, so it's not simply about emulating menswear by any means.

Speaking of 18th century menswear, this was also a piece that was displayed as part of the exhibition. It is also English, and dates back to 1750. What served as Camilleri's inspiration here were the breeches. 18th century breeches were tailored very closely to the wearer's thigh. But can you imagine wearing skintight breeches made out of silk, wool, cotton, or linen? Those fabrics were less forgiving and elastic than today's synthetic materials, so trying to move in something that was too tight would be a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen. So, in order to give a reasonable amount of manoeuvrability, 18th century breeches were also cut to be quite baggy in the rear.

You can really see the bulk in the derrière on this example: a pair of American breeches made between 1775 and 1799. So what's an elegant 18th century gentleman to do? Well, the long, flared skirts of the coat would have covered up this unsightly concession to practicality, thus enabling the wearer to keep up the well-tailored silhouette favoured at the time.

In fact, the coat's skirts also served another purpose re: sitting. There are slits on the side and back of the coat that allowed the skirts to be spread outwards while the wearer was seated (ex. in a chair or on horseback). This meant that sitting down did not entail sitting on a bunched up mass of fabric: again, a design created for comfort.

(On a side note: those slits also made it easier for the 18th century gentleman to wear his sword, which was a key part of formal court dress at the time!)

Now, moving on to one of the classic moments in 19th century women's fashions: the bustle.

This 1880s bustle was made in Canada, and is an example of the underpinnings worn by women in the latter decades of the 19th century. The bustle created a silhouette that emphasized the rear: instead of a bell-shaped skirt, the fabric would be swept backwards to drape down to the floor. Such a look, one would imagine, would make sitting difficult. But in this case, the bustle's structure made things easier: it is made in the style of a crinoline: rather than a solid piece, there are a series of metal pieces connected by strips of fabric. This meant that the bustle had sufficient give and freedom of movement to make it capable of bending when its wearer sat down.

Following along with the bustle silhouette, jackets like this 1887 dolman (of either English or American origin) were designed to flare outwards in the rear as well. Pretty, eh?

So where am I going with all of this? Namely that fashions for sitting are not a recent concession for accessibility or ergonomic purposes. There are plenty of historical instances when people have done the same, seeking to combine fashion with considerations of practicality. Yes, I know that from a 21st century perspective, the vast majority of 18th and 19th century fashions would not seem practical - but these pieces, in the eyes of their original wearers, were.

Image Credits

All photographs shown here were taken by Kita Inoru

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