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Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Forgotten Female Accessories

Forgotten Female Accessories

C. A. Asbrey

Lifting a Skirt
There have been numerous updates in fashion over the centuries, and arguably, the most rapid rate of change took place in the twentieth century. And those fashions also required the gadgets and gewgaws which were seen as invaluable at the time. Look around your own home and you'll find things your mother and grandmother never had. Go to junk shops and flea markets and you'll see equipment which is barely recognizable to modern eyes.  Most of these articles will be familiar to you, but I very much doubt they are used beyond dressing-up or re-enactments nowadays.

Some of you may have seen these pinchers attached to chains and wondered what they were for. Skirt lifters were a useful way to control long skirts whilst freeing up the hands, as well as remaining suitably modest, and had their heyday from 1836 to the1890s. They could be attached at the waist, and the length pre-arranged, as a way to stop the hems dragging, or causing tripping, when there were puddles, dirty areas, and stairs to negotiate. And the 19th century streets were notorious dirty. In the 1890s, Lady F.W. Harberton got into a cab with a dress with a long train, and attended a function in Piccadilly. Being a lady with a scientific bent, so made an inventory of the rubbish she swept home with her.

2 cigar ends.      
9 cigarette do.
A portion of pork pie.
4 toothpicks.
2 hairpins.
1 stem of a clay pipe.
3 fragments of orange peel.
1 slice of cat’s meat.
Half a sole of a boot.
1 plug of tobacco (chewed).
Straw, mud, scraps of paper, and miscellaneous street refuse, ad.lib.

One incidental aspect to come out of women's need to keep their skirts clean is still with us today. The parish did not clean the streets, leading to entrepreneurs to see an opportunity to make a penny. Cross-sweepers were usually children, and they would choose a defined area to keep scrupulously clean for a small gratuity. Men also found them better for cleanliness too. Victorian traffic was heavy and ruthless. Life was cheap, and poor children were plentiful. Far too many didn't care about these paupers rushing out to remove manure, mud, or any other debris, and injuries were common. It was a very dangerous job, and children were killed and maimed. These crossings were up to nine feet wide, and paved to a higher standard than the rest of the road, and were considered a continuation of the pavement, but pedestrians had no right of way until later. Some were paid for by businesses hopeful of increased footfall, others by the parish in better areas. 

By 1862 they had gathered some kind of legal standing, as established in a court case in which the family of a child tried to sue the owner of a sporty carriage with a 'spirited horse' when it crushed their daughter's leg. The driver stated that it was unreasonable to expect him to slow down every time he saw a child. He initially offered two shillings and sixpence in compensation, but that was rejected by the family and the case proceeded to court. After an appeal, the Queen's bench established that she could not recover damages unless she was on the crossing, thereby establishing the precursor to the pedestrian crossing providing some kind of protection to pedestrians. 

Some of the lifters had teeth, and others had little clamps which was more protective of delicate fabrics. They could also be fitted to a chatelaine, which brings us to another accessory which has fallen out of use. A châtelaine was originally the name for a woman who controlled a large house or castle, and the decorative belt is something which most of you will be familiar with, and carried the tools she would require for her day-to-day activities. A precursor to a tool belt, it's a chain worn around the waist which held numerous useful gadgets and tools. Anything from keys, scissors, thimbles, watches, nail scoops, tweezers, smelling salts, coin purses, pill boxes, and anything else you can think of. Chatelaines are very ancient, with even Roman examples found in graves and archaeological digs. They could be practical and hefty, such as those used by matrons in jails and asylums, or beautiful decorative items, such as the example shown here.

Another item on the chatelaine is another gadget which has fallen out of fashion, except as an aid for disability - the button hook. These button  hooks were vital for putting on the ankle boots of the period, with their small fiddly buttons - especially if you were wearing a corset. Many people who dress in period costume say the rule is always 'boots first', but the average Victorian lady didn't have that luxury, and a fine lady didn't want to spend all day in boots. It's worth mentioning that few women tight-laced, and their movements were not as constrained as urban myths would have us believe. Women did everything in corsets; from heavy domestic work to mountain climbing - and tight-lacing was the preserve of the young, rich fashionistas at society balls and to stand out from their competitors. That said, most women found a button hook useful for getting down to push those stubborn little buttons through the leather. They were also used to lace corsets too.
Fans, apart from the electric versions, have largely fallen out of use as an accessory, but they were required for any special occasion in times past. They were often intricate, beautiful, and very expensive, and served as a conspicuous show of wealth as much as a practical way to remain cool on the warm summer nights, or after the exertion of some vigorous dancing at a ball. They were also very handy for hiding behind while meaningful looks were shot at the object of your desire, or to cut dead a persona non grata by ignoring them completely.   

Personal parasols were ubiquitous, but today are the preserve of the garden loungers and beer gardens. In 1850 Punch wrote, "“I have noticed that every lady who enters an omnibus is sure to bring in a parasol with her. She may not carry a bundle, either dead or alive, in the shape of a baby, … she may, by some curious chance, be free from everything in the shape of luggage, a small reticule no bigger than a gentleman’s carpetbag, — but I have never yet seen the phenomenon of a lady invading an omnibus without her being duly armed with a parasol! Now the parasol, Sir, is the most formidable weapon of defence (and offence too) …Why the nuisance obtrudes itself every where; you cannot sit down, but a lady is sure to exclaim, ‘Oh! Please, Sir, take care of my parasol!’ You cannot arrange your legs … without an overgrown umbrella … finding itself between them; and … you cannot turn to the right or to the left, but there is certain to be at either turn the point of a parasol ready to dot your eye. If you are sitting at the end of the seat it is fifty times worse. You are then sitting in a prickly bush of parasols; or, to come nearer the mark, your head seems to be revolving inside a large wheel, of which the ladies’ parasols are the spokes, and your nose the axle.”

Part-beauty accessory, part display of wealth, part weapon of self defence (much like the ubiquitous hat pin which has also declined with hats becoming less fashionable), the parasol was everywhere.  And it changed with the fashions. In the early 1800s the parachute shape was all the rage, in the late 40s the square parasol was the thing to have for just one season. Black lace was required for mourning. There were many things to consider when buying a parasol. Not only did it have to go with the lady's outfit, but the shade it cast on the face was also to be considered. Violet, green, and bright blue cast an unflattering light on the face, with violet being considered the worst, making the face 'corpse-like'. On top of all that, dark colours quickly faded in the sun. It also had to be lightweight so they weren't cumbersome. It's no wonder that plain white was the most popular, especially as it made the face lambent with the diffused sun shining through from behind. 

Parasol covers were also available, giving ladies the opportunity to make their existing parasol more versatile. A good quality parasol could last for life, going through numerous incarnations with changes of fabric, handles, and tips. The best ones were often engraved with the owner's name and address, so they could be returned when mislaid. That was a good thing as they were a considerable investment. It was also a means to encourage an introduction to a handsome stranger which was far more practical than the old trope of the dropped handkerchief.     

We now move to all the pseudo-medical and quasi-scientific lotions, potions and devices; things which have long since been lost to more stringent regulation, better education, and progress. Young women today find it unimaginable to wear a clumsy sanitary belt and hefty towel, let alone the rubber sanitary aprons which kept menstrual blood from soiling the back of skirts when sitting. We find it equally mind-blowing that our great grandmothers used to drop belladonna in their eyes to give a glossy doe-eyed look. The use of arsenic also raises eyebrows to remove hair, and to give a fashionably pale complexion. Lead was used to make the skin pale, and blue veins then painted on to make the look as natural as possible. The use of hairpieces and extensions still goes on today, but we'd laugh at the notion of building them, up to echo the dimensions of the waist to create an overall symmetry. Most of all, we'd recoil in horror at the use of anything containing radium. Especially toothpaste or suppositories!


I'm sure you can think of many others. There are some I disregarded, like the thimble, or the handkerchief, as these are still in use to some degree today, albeit we now use paper instead of linen, and people sew for fun rather than necessity. You will see that I largely ignored the cranky stuff like the dimple-maker, electrical remedies, and breast-flushers as these are covered in other parts of my blog. Marcel waves may well come back into fashion some day, so I've ignored Marcel clips too, but I'd love to hear your take on feminine accessories which have now gone out of fashion.        


     “So, you want to pretend you’re a Pinkerton? As a female?” His eyes darkened. “I’ve questioned one before, although he didn’t know who I was. They’re trained real well on being both sides of interrogations. You don’t want to do this. Not as a woman. He had a real hard time. You’ll have it even harder.” 

     She sat staring ahead once more, her face impassive and stony.

     “You’ve nothing to say?”

     Her eyes flashed. “Beating the hell out of me won’t change anything but my view of you.”

     Nat reached out and entwined a hard fist in her hair and dragged her backward until the chair balanced on the back legs. He brought his face close to hers, his hot breath burning into her cheek.  “Think harder, lady. This isn’t a game. Who are you?”

     Abigail felt the dragging pain at the back of her head as shards of pain lanced across her scalp. He held her, balanced between his painful grip and a clattering fall to the floor but her stubborn nature wouldn’t let her acquiesce.

     “Others will come after you, no matter what you do to me.” She darted her eyes to meet his, unable to move her pinioned head. “I won’t be the last.”



  1. Your writing is so interesting and once a piece of yours is started I can't stop reading. Always so informative and fascinating as well.

    1. Thank you so much. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for commenting.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks you, Mary. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I LOVE the list of what she found swept up in her skirt! I belong to several historical images groups on Facebook, and people are always making comments about women's skirts that reach the ground and the consequences.

    As you say, reenactors. I've either had, or had friends who've had, most of those -- except the uncomfortable bits you mention at the end at the end -- from my days as a steampunk. I've still got a parasol among the umbrellas in the umbrella stand, and a couple of really lovely fans which would probably come in handy if my beloved didn't air condition this place to within an inch of my life. I sometimes wish for a skirt lifter, as my everyday style includes some flowy longer dresses and I have to face the subway stairs in them!

    1. Thanks Cate, yes. It's a pretty revolting list to bring home with you. I'll bet in the days of coal fires the trailing hems would get pretty dirty even on carpets. You can still buy skirt lifters in antique shops. I've seen them, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find someone makes them for theatricals or reenactors.

  4. Interesting. Love this kind of history

    1. Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  5. You always inform as well as entertain with your research blogs. I've always thought about those longs skirts trailing through anything on the ground. No wonder noblewomen mostly rode in carriages but even so... One of the most disgusting things people did back in the times was throw the contents of the chamber pots out the second level and aiming for the gutter that ran down the middle of the street. Pedestrian beware! I always look forward to your blog because I know it will cover something interesting. I love parasols and fans and have a couple of the latter. Love the excerpt.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comments. I do try to find things people will find interesting. The mundane aspects of the past have always fascinated me as they are so often overlooked, and rarely written down. Thanks for commenting.

  6. You know your projects stand out of the herd. There is something special about them. It seems to me all of them are really brilliant! 加熱菸

  7. Love the info on these items of apparel. Great job!

  8. Victorian times seem to have been hard on everyone except men. It amazes me how fashion dictated so much cruelty. Besides wearing layers of clothing covering women down to the ground, all this falderal that came about because of it is just baffling--putting children in danger just to keep portions of the street clean so the ladies didn't muss their dresses is insane.
    I rather liked the idea of having a massive brooch with chains attached to hold on the necessary accoutrements. I'm certain there was a lot of jingle jangling whenever a woman entered the scene.
    I can't say we've improved on this concept, however, because heavy shoulder bags in modern times have caused neck, shoulder, and back pain for women. Why do we need to carry all this stuff with us in the first place? Why can't we just put stuff in pockets? I love pockets. Those little clutch bags are no better. A woman just ends up with ne hand that she can't use because it's holding this ridiculous little bag, and for the purpose of what? a compact and lipstick. And, of course, there are those massive bags that probably have everything in them in case of a zombie apocalypse, that requires a woman to keep her arm bent the whole time or weigh her down. I'd rather pull a wagon with my junk in it.
    Loved the blog, Christine. All the best to you.

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah. You are so right about pockets. They allow us to carry just the right amount of necessities, but not all the stuff we carry just because we can. Like most women, I find that I also end up with most of my husband's stuff in my handbag too!

  9. Fascinating post. Loved the inventory of items the train swept home with Lady F.W. Harberton. Yuck.

    1. Thanks, yes. It is pretty disgusting. The streets were way dirtier in the past. Thanks for commenting.