In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.
Last fall, I was approached by historical fiction author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard to review the manuscript of her historical suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor. She had already done a tremendous amount of research but needed someone to help her fill in a few gaps as well as to ensure that she had accurately captured some of the nuances of the Edwardian era. In particular, she was concerned about subtle differences between the Victorian period, about which there has been so much written, and the Edwardian period, which was relatively short but did represent a huge shift in certain aspects of American life and culture. I soon fell into a rabbit hole of research, exploring the fascinating world of early plastic surgery and gender politics in 1907.
Conducting research for a novel, as opposed to many academic articles, had me seek out interesting details of daily life that aren’t often recorded. (Do you make note of which streets in your town are paved or unpaved? What about if there are electric street lights on the corner of your street? Did you change your clothes before you went out for a walk this afternoon, or not?) Luckily for me, the action of the novel largely takes places in New York City, one of the most documented cities in the world! Still, some details remained elusive. The Edwardian era was a time of flux when it came to technology as well as social values: an excellent backdrop for a historical drama!
A lot of research starts with a concrete question, and the author had noted in her manuscript quite a few specific ones about what she wanted me to either weigh in on or help answer with further research. Here are some of the useful resources and fascinating details I uncovered while researching The Beauty Doctor:
How do you start a car at this time? 1907 was very early in the history of automobiles, and they were largely considered playthings for the rich – and they were dangerous. One of my favourite sources for perceptions of cars in the early days was this podcast episode from 99% Invisible. But how do you operate a car from this time period? It was far from standardized like it is today. My best source was to simply go on youtube and watch people start vintage cars like this one. A picture – or video – is worth a thousand words!
What kinds of clothing would a character wear on particular kinds of occasions? What a character wears says a lot about them as a person, and it will change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Reading historical etiquette manuals helped me get into the mindset of what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear – and remember, not all characters act according to society’s wishes. This was something that the author and I discussed frequently, as she had very definite ideas about what some of her characters should and should not do or wear. I found that her instincts about such things were quite good. For example, her character Alexandra Gagarin, the Russian countess, often wore a kimono; the Asian influence actually was quite in vogue at the time. I found collections of historical fashion plates invaluable, particularly for characters from higher classes. Mail order catalogues are also very handy to see what an everyday person could buy, ready-made, and that’s not just limited to clothing! Of course, photographs of women and what they really wore, as opposed to illustrated fashion plates, are also incredibly useful, and fascinating to boot.
Would they have said it like that? How do you check and see if a word was in use over 100 years ago? The author had actually been very careful about her selection of words and researched the origins of most all of them that were questionable. However, a second pair of eyes is always a good idea! I’d often reach for two different resources to confirm or deny my gut feeling of a word or phrase sounding too modern. Google Ngram is a nifty tool that allows you to search Google Books for the prevalence of words or phrases over time, and displays them in chart form. Here, for example, is a graph depicting the published use of the phrase “makes them tick” in published material. (It seemed to come into popular use after the Second World War.) This online etymology dictionary was incredibly handy to see when a word first joined the English language and how it has evolved over the centuries. I learned, for example, that the word “concussion” has a long history: “c. 1400, from Latin concussionem (nominative concussio) “a shaking,” noun of action from past participle stem of concutere “shake violently,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + quatere “to shake” (see quash). Modern brain injury sense is from 1540s.” A lot of words that I checked because they felt too modern to me turned out to have older origins than I anticipated! The word “boss” dates from the 1640s. The word “handy” dates back to the 1300s! And sometimes it’s just the way a word sounds, rather than its date of origin. For example, the author liked my suggestion to use the word “position” instead of “job.” Either would have been perfectly correct, but the former has a more old-fashioned “ring” to it.
As for the medical aspects of the book, especially plastic surgery, the author was quite an expert in that herself. She did, however, ask for my help in finding some photos of operating rooms from the first decade of the 20th century, including how the doctors and nurses dressed. Of course, most of the medical scenes in The Beauty Doctor don’t take place in a hospital but instead in a private doctor’s office set up as an operating room. There was definitely some improvisation required!
I really enjoyed the story of The Beauty Doctor and think you will, too. The book is available now through these fine retailers!
These are examples of what is called a robe à la polonaise. As a non-native but fluent French speaker, I always mentally translated its name as a “dress in the Polish style”, like robe à la française or robe à l’anglaise. Not knowing much about the history of 18th century fashion, I just assumed that it was the style of dress popular among Polish aristocrats that at some point became de rigeur in fashionable French circles, like how “dresses in the English style” came to be popular in France.
However, last week I was drawn into Caroline Weber’s masterful work Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s a detailed, nuanced, and fascinating history of the politics of Marie Antoinette’s body and fashion choices, and how they were interpreted by the court and by the public. This particular passage caught my attention:
“… the polonaise did represent a significant move away from such [artificial, aristocratic] costumes by eliminating the restrictive paniers and train of the grand habit and the robe à la française and replacing them with a pert little bustle made from layers of glued cotton. The cut of the overdress was loose. . . and its overskirt was looped up around the hips into three jaunty swags. (These three swags were what gives the dress its name, after the three way partitioning of Poland by Austria, Russia, and Prussia. . .)” (page 147)
Weber discussed many other instances where Marie Antoinette and her compatriots commemorated contemporary events through fashion, often through the elaborate pouf hairstyle. Marie Antoinette’s body was a canvas upon which she could assert her political positions. It is in-character but adds another layer of meaning onto the dresses in this style that I found completely surprising!
Further Reading on the History of Fashion
Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Picador; Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
The “Fripperies and Fobs” tumblr for a random assortment of historical fashion pieces from collections all over the world.
The word “etiquette”, when used in the twenty-first century, seems almost invariably to have a pretentious connotation. They’re those rules that we’re almost inevitably messing up that nobody cares about anymore except when they embarrass us. “Remnants” of “sexist” etiquette, such as the idea that men should hold open doors for women, still cause anxiety today, with some men not wanting to appear rude by allowing the door to slide closed in a woman’s face but also not wanting to seem sexist by holding it open.
However, etiquette, at its root, was never meant to embarrass anyone. The idea was that if everybody followed the same set of rules, then one could go through life knowing precisely what to expect of themselves and others. Awkwardness would be reduced because everyone knew their role in a given social situation. Caveat: this did, of course, enable entrenched gendered, racial, and classed systems by making certain actions as “natural.” That being said, the general idea behind etiquette was to facilitate interactions with various members of society.
Where does one learn these rules? Generally by being brought up “correctly”: being “well-bred” and well-educated as a child. Essentials of etiquette include not drawing attention to the body (which is why, say, cleaning one’s teeth at the dinner table with a toothpick or picking one’s nose have generally been faux-pas for ages), knowing how to address others properly, and being calm and courteous in almost any situation.
Written etiquette guides, of course, spoke to the anxieties surrounding these usually unwritten rules. The bulk of these books addressed unusual circumstances like introductions and marriages, particularly in situations where one might have to address strangers. One etiquette book from 1896 actually spends over twenty pages on bicycle etiquette: how long a lady could go out cycling, whether or not it was appropriate for her to cycle unescorted, etc. The amount of ink spilled in this chapter is testament to the anxiety the writer felt about this new situation and how society should react to it.
Quick: what’s the worst possible breach of etiquette, according to Edwardian etiquette manuals? It may surprise you. Getting little details incorrect- e.g., whether or not to hold aloft the cliché pinky while sipping a teacup – may mark you out as ill-bred, but the occasional error will not put you in disgrace. No, the worst breach of etiquette is pointing out someone else’s breach of etiquette. So those folks who like to nit-pick other people’s behaviour and correct them in front of others to feel superior? They are in fact worse offenders than those they mock.
(Aside from parents or governesses teaching children etiquette, the only exceptions to this rule seems to be the authors of etiquette manuals, but they always have arrogant overtones to their writing.)
One etiquette manual asked its readers to consider how one should react in a test situation. Say you are hosting a dinner, and you, the hostess, look over and notice that one of your guests is eating his soup with the wrong utensil: a fork. The worst possible outcome of this situation would be for you to chastise this guest in front of everyone, marking yourself out as ill-bred and embarrassing your guest. Alternatively, it would be almost as bad for that guest to look over at you, the hostess, and see that he was eating with a different utensil and for him to feel embarrassed. So what does this etiquette manual recommend you do? Pick up your fork and eat your soup with it like that guest. (Besides, this situation would not have arisen if everyone knew the correct rules; if the problem was that the guest was not brought up well enough to know the correct utensils when he saw them, he should not have been invited, and if the problem was that his table setting lacked the required utensil, that was your fault as a hostess, not your guests’.)
We in 2014 do not live in an etiquette-less society. Some of our etiquette may in flux, certainly, but one of the reasons that people get annoyed is because many of us do not follow the same set of assumed rules. Take, for example, using one’s phone in a lecture hall. Texting, most of us have been taught, is incredibly rude to do when someone is speaking, doubly so if you are, say, a student in a lecture meant to be receiving information from someone with greater knowledge/power than you. However, in recent years, live-tweeting a conference talk has become more and more common; in that case, the audience member glued to their smart phone is in fact being more attentive to what the speaker is saying, not less. Nevertheless, one still can’t, at a glance, see if the person sitting in the front row staring at their phone (and not the speaker) is texting someone about how drunk they were last night or if they are in fact spreading the speaker’s message to attentive followers who couldn’t make it to the lecture.
Historical etiquette books are fascinating because just as often as they enumerate points of etiquette that seem quaint and old-fashioned (one devoted several pages to the merits of using forks or spoons to eat ice cream), much of their advice is still immediately applicable today. Watch this space for further blog entries on forgotten but still useful pieces of historical etiquette.
The internet is a fascinating place. Many imagine historians to look rather like that historian who gets slain after the fourth wall breaks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more at home in the dusty archive wearing a tweed shirt than cruising around online. But honestly, there are amazing resources in the depths of the internet that are making it easier and easier for historians to save on travel costs – and wear and tear on delicate documents. Here are a few that I feel you should know. All on this list can be accessed for free, which makes them ideal for those who don’t yet (or no longer) have access to subscription-based online databases through university tuition fees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may contain a few of the slightly less well-known free archives and collections available online.
Peel’s Prairie Provinces via the University of Alberta library and archive. A huge collection of digitized Western Canadiana. If it was published in or about Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta prior to, say, the 1950s, they probably have a copy in their full text keyword searchable database. I’ve talked about a few of their documents before – see this post on a Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book from 1912 – but the element of their collection that I have made the most use of is their postcards. Some, like the postcards of bison/cow hybrids, have been digitized: over 15,000 historical postcard entries. However, as of last year they doubled their collection, though most have not yet been described or made available online. Nevertheless, they are a hugely rich resource that is only just started to be tapped by researchers (including me for my MA research project). Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a large collection of digitized photographs apart from their postcards and a huge set of Western Canadian newspapers – even those that only ran for a few years, or were from small towns or in unusual languages. Once again, they are entirely keyword searchable!
The Rutherford House is commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the First World War through programming relating to the Home Front. To that end, just as women and children at home were urged to knit their bit for the war effort, their costumed historical interpreters are beginning to knit projects from wartime patterns. They’re also encouraging the public to do the same! I’m told that your work will actually be displayed at the historic site come November. So pick up your knitting needles and start knitting!
As an avid sock knitter (not a phrase you hear everyday, I know), I decided to use a sock pattern from this British Red Cross book of sewing and knitting patterns needed for hospitals (see also below). I intend to create a “normal” pair of socks and a mismatched pair of amputation sleeves – in essence, socks without heels for stumps.
While sock patterns may look intimidating to some people now – especially if you knit with four or five double-pointed needles – they were in fact considered a beginner’s project over a century ago. Everyone needs socks – not everyone needs scarves – and even if the project ends up being fairly ugly or misshapen, you can generally find someone that they’ll fit, and they’re hidden in one’s shoes and are still a functioning garment. (Not so with scarves, which are on display.) They are also small, manageable projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end – not endurance runs like scarves. Socks are also incredibly useful to the war effort; clean socks helped to prevent trench foot.
Here is a small gallery of images showing the step-by-step process of knitting the first of the pair. Having a visual sense of how socks are supposed to be made may help you decipher the pattern above:
The patterns are very standardized. They occasionally offer larger or smaller options while urging knitters and seamstresses to make more of the items that would fit the most people. These instructions were meant to be simple and quick to follow; there wasn’t any time for complicated patterns if you’re trying to churn out as many pieces as possible for the war effort. (Sorry, no lace edging for these socks, or cables on the sweaters!) In the words of the introduction to the pattern book above: “A committee of the British Red Cross Society beg to inform the Public that all the patterns illustrated and described in this book have been designed to combine accuracy of fit with the least possible amount of work.” (Emphasis added.)
If you’re a beginner knitter, I’m sure that there are plenty of patterns you could try to push your effort. Already a sock knitter? Why not try gloves – or fingerless gloves? Just learned how to do decreases and increases and looking to try them out? There’s a simple pattern for a knitted cummerbund! Like knitting baby caps? There’s a toq pattern in there! (Okay, they call it a “knitted cap” but it’s probably about the same.) Advanced enough to be a sweater knitter already? Why not try their cardigan! Scarf knitter? Why not try this scarf… hat… thing…? Just for the novelty? Go forth and knit your bit!
In November, while scrolling through Tumblr, I ran across this fascinating Edwardian image:
“This 1908 image of women smoking and drinking was intended to be a horrifying glimpse of a post-suffrage future. Now it just looks like an awesome bar.” – Tumblr Caption
This artist has turned what would be a typical male scene in a typically masculine environment – men hanging about a bar – and inserted women in the place of men, replicating it down to their “masculine” attitudes, postures, and mannerisms. The idea was that women entering a traditionally male public sphere by voting would become masculine in other respects: a terrifying prospect for many. Women, smoking and gambling! Children being ignored! Men relegated to the “gentlemen’s parlor!”
Women’s rights activists in the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth had to contest popular misogynistic ideas that stated that any women in public spaces – making speeches to advocate for the vote, for instance – were sexually suspect (putting herself on display) or trying to take on a masculine role for which their frail female bodies weren’t suited. Women taking on masculine mannerisms were often mocked, which was likely the intention of this anti-suffragette image.
(Though that being said, women who did something praiseworthy, like exhibit bravery, were also often said to have favorable male attributes. Make up your mind, misogynists!)
What is it about this picture that resonates with me? Perhaps it is the postures of these women: lounging against the bar, twisting in their seats, smoking with disgusted looks on their faces, ignoring the children who have somehow made it into the pub… But I especially like the confidence evident in their countenances. They look comfortable in this setting and with each other. This picture spoke to the societal fears of gender roles in upheaval: notice the “gentlemen’s parlor”? The artist was warning about the dangers of women getting the vote and overturning gender norms, but as a twenty-first century gal with an approving interest in Edwardian fashion, I can’t help but smile at these cool, confident women in a space of their own. (While I appreciate the rejection of popular Edwardian ideas about race, sex, and class, we in the twentieth century certainly need to bring Edwardian hats back into vogue!)
Note that they aren’t all young beautiful women; there are matronly types, older women, and what may even be a widow (wearing black with the veil on the left). These women are well-dressed and put together, fashionable, and probably middle-class. This range of ages and body types would be expected of men in a bar, but to our modern eyes looks, well, odd. We are acculturated by, say, beer ads to thinking of bars as being replete with sexy young people, particularly young, slender women, but why shouldn’t matronly types equally enjoy this space?
One of my favourite figures is woman in the blue jacket smoking a cigar on the right. She appears to be examining a slip of paper coming from a (telegraph?) machine – possibly the “racing reports” described on the sign in the right hand corner of the image. Gambling ladies? How gauche! Note, too, the poster of the half-dressed boxer on the wall. I love these details – even more so because the artist likely held anti-suffrage views himself. (I’m assuming it’s a he, and I don’t think I’m wrong.) I can just imagine him trying to think of shocking things for these masculine women to do.
What would have the world looked like had women held the “dominant” role in 1908? According to this picture: there would have been more free fudge and almonds in bars, certainly.
Edit: For interest’s sake and because my curiosity is never satisfied, I used this Googling technique to try to track down further information on the image, including the original artist Harry Grant Dart. This image may have first been uploaded on Reddit (click for on-point snarky commentary!) and reblogged on Tumblr from there.
One of the first challenges I came across when preparing to work as a costumed historical interpreter on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park last summer was the issue of hairstyles. Namely, when you think of the 1920s, what pops into your head? Probably something like this:
Known as the “bob”, this short hairstyle is iconic of the 1920s, a decade which saw dramatic changes in women’s fashion and attitude. As in nineteenth century dress reform movements, a woman’s fashion choices and outward appearance reflected but also affected the gender roles women would and could play. Called the “garçonne” or “boyish” look (“garçonne” being a feminized version of the French term for “boy”), or what many of us today would call “flapper style”, the silhouette of the 1920s was very slender and almost rectangular, with lean bodies, flat chests and narrow hips. This shape was achieved not through corsetting but girdling, which could be just as restrictive. Short hairstyles, like the bob or the shingle, were a significant component of this boyish look. Ironically, the obvious use of makeup such as rouge, eyeliner, and bright red lipstick among women who were not ladies of the night or stage actors became almost socially acceptable… though as with any fashion trend, the visible use of makeup was still frowned upon by old fuddy-duddies worried about the moral degredation apparent in modern society. (“Kids these days!” – said older people in every generation ever.) Youth culture was in, and nothing visually marked the dramatic change in ideas than the look of young women with short hair. Cutting one’s hair into a bob was more than a fashion statement; it was a statement about a woman’s attitude towards modernity and how they viewed their own body.
So bobs are iconic to the 1920s and of course I wanted to portray myself when in character as a modern Bright Young Thing at Fort Edmonton Park. I was provided with a lovely drop-waist dress in “modern” rayon fabric by our talented costumer, and got my dancing shoes and makeup. However, there was yet one problem to be overcome to complete my 1920s “look”: I have waist-length hair.
To put the finishing touches on my outfit, I would have to change my hairstyle dramatically. 1920s Street is in fact the only era portrayed at Fort Edmonton Park in which I have to hide the length of my hair instead of showing it off. Did I really want to chop it all off for work? No, not really. Maybe not ever. (Well, maybe to support cancer research or to create wigs for cancer patients.) I have been growing out my hair continuously since high school, and have only had the ends trimmed once or twice every few years since then. I am happy with it. It had taken a long time to get it to that length, and I like doing twists and braids and buns. I didn’t want to cut it short for what would only be a short period of time; come the autumn – and winter – I wanted my hair long again. Cutting it would cause me much anxiety and would change my fashion style and the framing of my face entirely.
But here’s the thing: my dilemma is not unique to historical interpreters. It was a struggle – sometimes mental, sometimes literal, with Victorian and Edwardian parents – that women in the past also went through. Women didn’t wake up in 1920 and go happily en masse to the hairdressers to have their hair put into bobs simply because it was the new fashion. It was far more controversial than that, particularly among the older generations. Until the 1920s, women had been raised for generations believing that short hair was a masculine trait and that real women wore their hair long. Then, they were suddenly faced with this new, extreme fashion of short hair. But was it just a passing trend? Would they look ridiculous the next year when it went out of style, after taking so drastic an action? If you cut your hair, that’s it. Going back is not as simple as parting your hair differently, or curling or straightening your hair instead, as had been the case with previous extremes in fashionable hairstyles. (I’m looking at you, awkward 1830s!) Cutting your hair is permanent and it can take years to grow your hair back to the length it once was. For women who had experienced almost nothing but variations on the theme of long hairstyles, choosing to cut your hair was a big step. There is no going back. So what do you do if you want to play it safe and keep your hair long? Can you still be a fashionable young woman?
Enter the forgotten long hairstyles of the 1920s: the nervous bob (AKA a Swaithed Hairstyle or faux bob) and Mary Pickford curls. Oh, yes, and why not the “earphone” hairstyle too? These women were doing the cinnamon bun hairstyle before Princess Leia made it cool. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s put braids and buns aside and discuss the main alternatives to bobbed hair in the 1920s – Mary Pickford curls and the nervous bob.
(Canadian born!) actor, writer, and producer Mary Pickford was famous for her long hair – she was “the girl with the curls.” In the 1910s and early 1920s, she was famous for roles that emphasized her youthfulness and innocence. With that, of course, came long hair, emulated by many a young woman, particularly in the first half of the decade. These were thick, heavy, and above all long ringlettes. When she cut her hair in the mid-1920s, it was headline news across the world – it even made the front page of the New York Times. It was probably one of the single most famous haircuts ever, and really speaks to the divisiveness and extremity that was the bobbed hairstyle.
Young women emulated Mary Pickford’s style well into the 1920s. Photographs of high school girls in Western Canada in 1928, for instance, show that well over half of the students wearing their hair in this way. However, the main reason that I didn’t do Mary Pickford curls on a daily basis is because they are a lot of work. It’s not that they can’t be done accurately in the twenty-first century – it’s definitely possible, just time-consuming. You can even use your current metal or ceramic hair curlers to achieve similar effects with less risk of damaging your hair than you would in the era you are emulating. Non-electric hair straighteners and curling irons have existed for ages. Hair irons were often literal clothes irons put on the stove and ironed on an ironing board, though metal irons and crimpers not dissimilar in design from modern ones were also used and heated on wood burning stoves as well. However, even the early electric ones in the 1920s could still fry the hair of the users. No thanks! Still, don’t be afraid to use modern electric hair straighteners in creating your Mary Pickford hairstyle – the fancy modern ceramic ones may not be period-appropriate, but the effects will be.
These curls can also be created in a different way, far less damaging for one’s hair, though too time-consuming for an impatient young thing like myself: through the use of rags. (Tutorials linked below in the “resources” section.) They work in essence like modern hair curlers and have been used for ages. (You may recall scenes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s works that show the characters creating the small curls popular during the Regency era this way.) It involves wetting the hair, rolling it up tightly with a small piece of fabric, and tying it off. Then, all one has to do is sleep and let it dry out overnight, and in the morning, when you take the rags out, you end up with ringlettes – the same scientific principle is the reason why one’s hair comes out of braids wavy or kinky. I have also done “rag curls” before, because ringlets were popular in the 1840s as well, “when” I previously worked at the park, but with my length of hair they take up to half an hour of prep time the night before and about ten or fifteen minutes in the morning… and I wasn’t a skilled enough hair dresser to make sure that they came out perfectly every time. If you mess up, there are no quick fixes, and I would often do a hasty bun if the ringlettes didn’t come out the way I wanted them to. However, rag curls are definitely feasible and easier than one might think.
Then there’s the issue of how representative Mary Pickford curls are of the 1920s period, related to issues of “historical accuracy”, which we’ve discussed before. Long hair, while accurate to the 1920s, particularly for young woman, even moreso for the first half of the decade, is just not what visitors expect. The year that I worked on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park, we had four costumed historical interpreters, several volunteers, a (male) historical worker, a roving troupe of drama people, and costumed game and ride attendants who were mostly limited to the Midway. On the street, there were therefore two full time female interpreters in costume, and so with our days off factored in, four days a week there could only be a single woman in 1920s costume on the street representing a city with a population in the tens of thousands. 1920s street is also the street closest to the entrance at the train station in the park, so we were often the first people in costume visitors see. Often, it is better to meet visitor’s expectations right away – so it’s obvious we’re in 1920s costumes – than to challenge visitor expectations right off the bat. 1920s = short hair in most people’s minds. If they’re looking at you from a distance, you want to be recognizable as an employee in costume. If we were in a large group of costumed interpreters, I would have considered doing the Mary Pickford curls in a nice contrast to the other interpreters in bobs. However, I was often alone (the only woman who lived in Edmonton in 1920, by all appearances!) and so I instead adopted the nervous bob or faux bob as my daily hairstyle. Despite the fact that Mary Pickford curls were still quite popular among young women even until the mid-to-late 1920s, historical representativeness was still a valid concern for us at the park. In my case, I was playing into visitor expectations – but only halfway. Instead of bobbing my hair with a pair of scissors, I could use my hair as a jumping off point for just how explosively controversial bobbed hair actually was. It’s stealth interpretation.
I may be getting ahead of myself. What is a nervous bob, exactly? Women who didn’t want to cut their hair – or who were forbidden from doing so by their parents, employers, or social expectations – could simulate the effects of short hair with gratuitous use of hair pins. For that reason, they are also known colloquially, at least where I’m from in North America, as “bobby pins.” (I blew the minds of many visitors with this simple fact.) It was sometimes called the “nervous” bob because those who wore it were considered too “nervous” to cut their hair into a “real” bob – though I am uncertain of how popular this term was, or if the hairstyle had a proper name at the time. In simple terms, it involves brushing out your hair, folding or curling it underneath itself, and securing it with bobby pins to create the illusion of short hair. There are numerous ways of doing so. One of my fellow costumed interpreters would curl her hair into ringlettes and pin them individually up and under, giving her hair a wavy look, which was also very fashionable in the 1920s. Her hair was just past shoulder length, but my hair, which is almost waist-length, would pull itself out of that hairstyle due to its sheer weight. I know because we tried.
I had two techniques that I found relatively simple, which became my daily hair styling staples. In one, I would braid my hair loosely and tuck the long part underneath the base, pinning it in place with large bobby pins after evening it out to hide the bulk. I would also put my hair in a low ponytail (secured by an inaccurate brown or black elastic to match my hair colour), and twist it until it folded into a bun (my usual technique), which would then be tucked underneath itself so that the hair closest to my skull covered it. This may be difficult to visualize, so to that end, I have included a photoset of what my hair generally looked like. Also included is a photograph of a nervous bob as done by another interpreter on 1920s street. In this photoset, my hairstyle is the result of a loose side braid, folded back and forth and pinned underneath my unbraided hair, creating the illusion of a short hairstyle, particularly when viewed from the front:
Caveat: as previously mentioned, my hair goes down to my waist. I have probably the maximum advisable length of hair to try to stuff into a nervous bob. This hairstyle actually works even better if you have mid- or shoulder-length hair, as it is likely to look far less bulky and more natural than my own when I dress my hair in this way. Furthermore, my hair is not layered. Layered hair may make nervous bobs and other up-dos more difficult to do, as I have found that the ends tend to flip out of areas you want to control more tightly.
Drawbacks to nervous bobs:
Real bobbed hairstyles take almost zero time to style in the morning, if done well. Brushing takes almost no time. Nervous bobs, even with practice, can still take at least five or ten minutes to do.
Your hair does not disappear. It sounds like an obvious observation, but it means that you still have the bulk of your hair on the nape of your neck, which can be hot in the summertime and can make it difficult to wear a stylish cloche hat. Luckily for me, it was also fashionable to wear hats with the brims low on one’s forehead with one’s nose ever so slightly in the air, so I didn’t have to try to fit the bulky part of my hairstyle under the hat’s brim.
You must take care to secure your hair well before doing any strenuous activity, such as dancing the night away doing the Charleston with a real Sheik. You don’t want it popping out in the middle of a dance!
Advantages to nervous bobs:
You can look reasonably fashionable without annoying your more conservative (read: nineteenth-century) family members and colleagues! Remember, until the late twenties Western society as a whole viewed women with short hair as morally suspect. A professional nurse, for example, could still be fired in the 1920s if she decided to bob her hair (even if her uniform involved a whimple which covered her hair). If you were trying to look mature and professional so you could keep one of the few employment opportunities open to women in the 1920s, it probably wasn’t advisable to cut your hair short. Unless you were, say, a glamorous newspaper writer who wrote columns on fashion and the modern woman. Then it was a good career move.
They keep your hair versatile. For the modern (read: twenty-first century woman), you can play at having short hair one day, then decide to go for a Gibson Girl topknot the next, or wear your hair down and loose for the bohemian look the day after. Long hair, I find, is far more versatile than short or mid-length hair when it comes to hairstyles. For so much of our history, women have worn their long hair in any number of ways. The possibilities are almost limitless if you have the right length of hair. Retro and steampunk looks are “in”; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to new hairstyles. Why limit yourself by chopping off the majority of your hair?
One final disclaimer: I am not a professional hairdresser or hair stylist. My experience solely comes from historical research (I have found photographic hairstyle tutorials from as early as 1911!) and practice, practice, practice. If you spend five days a week for four and a half months dressing your hair in this way, you learn a thing or two if only so you don’t have to redo your hair every hour as it falls out. (That’s valuable time you could have spent practicing your driving skills in 1920s vehicles! Am I right, ladies?) What works for me and my hair may not work for you and yours. For example, I almost always dress my hair when it’s damp (I don’t use a blow drier), which I find gives it weight and promotes smoothness (I often have a bit of frizz if I dress my hair when it’s put in an up do when dry) and prevents my preferred hairstyle from sliding around as I pin it. Having damp hair makes my hairstyles more stable. I have no idea if it is advisable to dress your hair while very damp – I have not yet asked a professional hair dresser – but in my case it works really well, allowing me to avoid using hair products, or “lotions and potions” as my mother calls them. I did not use hairspray in any of these photographs, but for some it may be useful in securing the hair in place. The best piece of advice I can give you is to practice dressing your hair in its new hairstyle when you’re in no rush, so you can see how your hair sits. Everyone is of course a special unique snowflake; your hair will hold differently depending on the length and thickness of your hair, the size of your bobby pins, how damp your hair is when it goes in… any number of factors. Practice makes perfect!
An extensive online collection of Canadian Mail Order Catalogues is available for viewing in PDF format via Library and Archives Canada. This is an incredible resource for those interested in historical fashions and material culture. They are also key word searchable. You’d be amazed at what you can find in these catalogues. Exercise instructions and music on records from the 1920s! Early deodorant brands like Odorono! And of course amazing fashion styles – they always begin with women’s fashions.
In case my instructions weren’t very easy to visualize, here are a few Youtube tutorials that may come in handy: a rag curl tutorial (for those attempting traditional Regency curls or the Mary Pickford look, or, alternatively, have broken hair curling irons) and a finger wave tutorial.
“Why I Have Not Bobbed Mine” by Mary Pickford in which she justifies convincingly the advantages of long hair. This page also includes stories from other women with bobbed hair, either for or against, but always acknowledging that it was no easy decision to go forward with shorn locks.
The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada’s collection of historical sound recordings, which include popular songs from the 1920s. For example, why not check out Yes! We Have No Bananas? and of course Shall I Have It Bobbed Or Shingled? Many if not all are downloadable, so coupled with the music that industrious people have uploaded onto Youtube, you now have a soundtrack for your 1920s themed dance party!
Speaking of which: Charleston tutorials on Youtube! (Uh, I may have gone overboard in this set of links? You’re not complaining, are you?)
Here’s a historical tutorial (beginning at about 1:00, after the demo) from the time period, in which they go through the steps in slow motion. Also includes a video of a couple dancing the Charleston on top of a taxi cab. Shenanigans!
Dance Move Fridays: The Charletson: honestly, I find these guys a little bit annoying: they say that the Charleston is from the 1940s! Shock and horror! But they admit that they’re not historians, just dancing fiends. Nevertheless, their tutorial is very clear and they do have some sweet moves. Edit: wait, I take back my first comment. They grow on you, particularly as yous see how much fun they’re having dancing.
How To Charleston: this woman is very methodical in teaching a variety of moves, going from the basic butterfly knees (yes, from the 1920s! And considered obscene at the time!) to the more complicated steps. She doesn’t quite manage the full twist in the step in the end (not like in the Dance Move Fridays guys do), but I find that her video was very helpful in letting me know where I should be putting my weight as I do that step.
Happy New Year everyone! I can never escape from historical research. I have attempted to relax over the holidays (though scholarly pursuits are never far from my mind), and through the joys of the internet I have run across a few gems I’d like to share with you.
Videos of everyday life can tell us so many things. They generally aren’t as posed. One can see how real people dressed (and moved in those dresses), how people interacted with their environment and the people around them, etc. You can see things like garbage and horse dung in the streets, cyclists taking risks, children running and laughing, and so on. It’s amazing.
Below is a video taken from a tram on various streets in Barcelona in 1908. I find it absolutely fascinating. I am intrigued by how people interacted with the tramway. The trams moved at about the same pace as the motorcars, the horses, and the cyclists. There is a wonderful flow to traffic in the video that I feel is absent today. When everything moves at about the same pace, there’s less of a chance of accidents, not as many sudden stops and starts, and everyone seems to interact more and be more aware of their surroundings. You can see children running ahead of the tram, men shaking hands and parting from the tracks at the last instant before the tram runs them over, cyclists constantly weaving in and out of traffic…
I also find the history of fashion to be quite fascinating. One person that caught my attention appears at about 4:15: a young girl with an enormous feathered hat. One tends to see the Merry Widow Hat on young women instead, so this is an intriguing example of children’s fashion to me. It’s interesting to see how the feathers of the hat actually move, too.
Some of the people seem to be aware of the camera and wave their hats at the cameraman, or at least the tram. If you pay close attention to one of the male figures near the front of the screen at about 5:05, I think he tries to “moon” the camera. At the very least he cheekily turns and presents his rear end to the camera and then grins.
On a slightly more adorable note, at about 5:20 a cart starts trundling along in front of the tram. During that time, many men lining the road wave their hats at the camera, and one of the men on the cart looks back several times. At about 5:45 they seem to have been told about the camera and the man on the left waves. I don’t suppose that these men were filmed very often! There’s something endearing to me about their reaction. (A subjective view, yes, I know.) Still, due to the power of moving pictures, people from over a hundred years ago seem to wave at me, out of history.
These films of everyday life are well worth a view.
Two or three years ago, while doing research on Civil War medicine at the University of Alberta, I ran across an interesting reference to a particular female doctor who served during the conflict on the Union side. Her name? Dr. Mary Walker.
You might notice something intriguing about what she’s wearing. Namely, it doesn’t look anything like this or this, two examples of higher-class women’s fashion from the decade of the 1860s: the largest hoop skirts that would be tolerated (which evolved into bustles in the following decades) covered by more petticoats (it wouldn’t do to have the line of the hoops show), covered, finally, by the actual dress.
That was a lot of fabric, none of which is evident in the above photograph. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, it looks like she’s wearing… men’s trousers underneath that short skirt. And you’d be right.
Dr. Walker believed that tight corsets along with voluminous skirts and petticoats were unsanitary and hampered her medical practice. So she didn’t wear them: first sporting bloomers, then, midway through the war, abandoning those for a male surgeon’s uniform. She didn’t attempt to pass as a man; she was an obviously female doctor wearing a male uniform.
“They said she was too lazy to wash her clothes,” wrote one biographer, “that she wanted to display her legs, that she was seeking publicity…”
(cited in Leonard’s Yankee Women, 109)
When she was captured by Confederate scouts in April, 1864:
“Dressed in trousers and a surgeon’s uniform, the twenty-five-year-old made such a sensation when she rode into camp [at Richmond’s Castle Thunder] that several Confederate soldiers and visiting wives mentioned the incident in their letters and diaries.”
(Schultz, Women at the Front, 177)
She continued to wear men’s clothing throughout her long life (she lived until 1919) and continually advocated for rational dress reform for women. Here, she is pictured in a man’s top hat in her old age, circa 1911.
Dr. Walker was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for her contributions during the war – she was, after all, captured by the enemy – but when the American government changed its regulations decades later, they tried to revoke her medal, as she was a medical officer who had never seen combat. She refused to return it, and to make a point wore it all the time. (Honestly, just don’t award any new medals to people who don’t meet the right qualifications: don’t try to take ones that have been already awarded to awesome folks who have already proven their stubbornness!)
Here she is, pictured near the end of her life, wearing the infamous medal. Again, see how much women’s fashion has changed over the years, and how dapper and comfortable Dr. Walker looks in her old age.
One more photograph before I leave you:
For more information on Dr. Mary Walker and other awesome Civil War ladies, check out the following:
Leonard, Elizabeth D. Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.