Why Couldn’t I Be An 18th Century Aristocratic Woman?

First, let me say that I love living in the 21st century, and not just because I’m addicted to my Blackberry. I’m a single-mom by choice, I own my own business, and don’t get me started on indoor plumbing.  But today I went to visit Tryone Palace in New Bern, North Carolina. This is a recreation of a colonial governor’s palace from the late 17oo’s. I love wandering around places like this, where the tour guides dress in periodic costumes and you can imagine what it was like to wake up in the middle of the night and put your bum in a chamber pot – – or more likely be the one emptying the chamber pot!

Tight Lacing

John Collet, "Tight Lacing, or Fashion Before Ease", 1770-1775

One of my favorite parts of the day was in the Lady’s Dressing Room. The guide took us through the steps a woman would have to go through to get dressed. After donning a linen shift and hand-knitted stockings an aristocratic woman would have her servants tie her into a whalebone corset, giving her a narrower waist. Next would come pockets. Since clothing didn’t have built-in pockets, they would tie on an embroidered pocket. That sounds so handy, I want one because apparently  fat pants don’t need pockets. (At least none of the ones I can find).

Then came my favorite: Bumrolls and Panniers

A bumroll is exactly what it sounds like; a padded roll worn tied at hip level so as to widen a woman’s hips. The corset thins the waist and the bumroll widens the hips to create a more “womanly” effect. I personally have a lovely bumroll already – – no padding necessary. Imagine the allure I would have had on 18th century men!

But wait, it gets better. A bumroll was fine for the normal dinner with family and friends, but when you really want to knock them dead at the fancy ball you can add a pannier under your skirt. Pannier, coming from the French word for “wicker basket” is essentially  a basket hung from each hip under the overskirt. In the 1700’s, apparently hips did lie.

According to Wikipedia, women’s fashion during that time period “ensured that a woman took up three times as much space as a man and always presented an imposing spectacle.” How great is that?? We may not have had the vote, but we could make sure men walked very gingerly around us.

If you look back through history, women have gone to great lengths to make themselves look bigger. Fatter has, historically, been a sign both of wealth and health. Of course that may have been because the alternative was starvation and not the Kate Moss kind. It has only been in the last century or so years that weight has been equated with death, destruction of Americana, and all that is evil. So, for a few brief hours I imagined what it would have been like to be living the life of Lady Margaret, noshing on nougat and hoping to fill out my side-saddles. Well, a girl can dream…


7 thoughts on “Why Couldn’t I Be An 18th Century Aristocratic Woman?

  1. hilarious! thanks for the pick me up today! I needed it! They say that laughter does the heart good like medicine- I am hoping for the diet pill kind of medicine myself 🙂 Keep ’em up!


  2. Love the post. I often look at these outfits and the pictures of Rubenesque women and wish I had been born in a decade when rounder was more acceptable.

    Do you think that the association between health and wealth & fatness has contributed to the global obesity? Maybe we’re all subliminally getting fatter to project the image that we’re wealthy and healthy! Just a thought?


  3. Isn’t it crazy that we obsess so much about being thin and it was so so different way back when? WE all need to learn to love ourselves!


  4. I’m from NC! One of the most beautiful places on Earth.

    I can’t quite recall where I saw it, maybe CBS Sunday Morning, but they were interviewing a plus sized model. She was sitting at the cafe at the MoMA or Met and eating an eclair when she overheard a group of people near her commenting that the last thing she needed to eat was an eclair. Then later, as she sat in front of a Ruben painting, that same group of people came over to comment on how beautiful the painting, and the women in it, were. Douches.


  5. I can loan you a corset if you like 🙂

    Some groups of people still find the curvy woman more attractive, and some of us curvy women like wearing corsets (great for posture) sometimes. I have to say each time I wear mine (most of the time at a geeky event) I get so much attention it is a bit over whelming, but then the geek community tends to see beauty in all shapes, they tend to value style and brains more then convention.


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