Historically Speaking: How the Waistband Got Its Stretch

Once upon a time, human girth was bound by hooks and buttons, and corsets had metal stays. Along came rubber and a whole new technology of flexible cloth.

The Wall Street Journal

January 7, 2021

The New Year has arrived, and if you’re like me, you’ve promised yourself a slimmer, fitter and healthier you in 2022. But in the meantime there is the old you to deal with—the you who overindulged at Thanksgiving and didn’t stop for the next 37 days. No miracle diet or resolution can instantaneously eradicate five weeks of wild excess. Fortunately, modern science has provided the next best thing to a miracle: the elasticated waistband.

Before the invention of elastic, adjustable clothing was dependent on technology that had hardly changed since ancient times. The Indus Valley Civilization made buttons from seashells as early as 2000 BC.

The first inkling that there might be an alternative to buttons, belts, hooks and other adjustable paraphernalia came in the late 18th century, with the discovery that rubber wasn’t only good for toys. It also had immensely practical applications for things such as pencil erasers and lid sealants. Rubber’s stretchable nature offered further possibilities in the clothing department. But there was no word for its special property until the poet William Cowper borrowed the 17th-century term “elastic,” used to describe the expansion and contraction of gases, for his translation of the Iliad in 1791: “At once he bent Against Tydides his elastic bow.”

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

By 1820, an enterprising English engineer named Thomas Hancock was making elastic straps and suspenders out of rubber. He also invented the “masticator,” a machine that rolled shredded rubber into sheets for industrial use. Elastic seemed poised to make a breakthrough: In the 1840s, Queen Victoria’s shoemaker, Joseph Sparkes Hall, popularized his invention of the elastic-gusset ankle boot, still known today as the Chelsea Boot.

But rubber had drawbacks. Not only was it a rare and expensive luxury that tended to wear out quickly, it was also sticky, sweaty and smelly. Elasticized textiles became popular only after World War I, helped by the demand for steel—and female workers—that led women to forego corsets with metal stays. Improved production techniques at last made elasticated girdles a viable alternative: In 1924, the Madame X rubber girdle promised to help women achieve a thinner form in “perfect comfort while you sit, work or play.”

The promise of comfort became real with the invention of Lastex, essentially rubber yarn, in 1930. Four years later, in 1934, Alexander Simpson, a London tailor, removed the need for belts or suspenders by introducing the adjustable rubber waistband in men’s trousers.

The constant threat of rubber shortages sparked a global race to devise synthetic alternatives. The winner was the DuPont Company, which invented neoprene in 1930. That research led to an even more exciting invention: the nylon stocking. Sales were halted during World War II, creating such pent-up demand that in 1946 there were “nylon riots” throughout the U.S., including in Pittsburgh, where 40,000 people tried to buy 13,000 pairs of stockings.

DuPont scored another win in 1958 with spandex, also known under the brand name Lycra, which is not only more durable than nylon but also stretchier. Spandex made dreams possible by making fabrics more flexible and forgiving: It helped the astronaut Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon and Simone Biles to become the most decorated female gymnast in history. And it will help me to breathe a little easier until I can fit into my jeans again.

Historically Speaking: When Masquerade Was All the Rage

Before there was Halloween, there were costume balls and Carnival, among other occasions for the liberation of dressing up

The Wall Street Journal

October 28, 2021

Costume parades and Halloween parties are back after being canceled last year. Donning a costume and mask to go prancing around might seem like the height of frivolity, but the act of dressing-up has deep roots in the human psyche.

During the early classical era, worshipers at the annual festivals of Dionysus—the god of wine, ritual madness and impersonation, among other things—expanded mask-wearing from religious use to personal celebrations and plays performed in his honor. Masks symbolized the suspension of real world rules: A human could become a god, an ordinary citizen could become a king, a man could be a woman. Anthropologists call such practices “rituals of inversion.”

In Christianized Europe, despite official disapproval of paganism, rituals of inversion not only survived but flourished. Carnival—possibly a corruption of the Latin phrase “carne vale,” farewell to meat, because the festival took place before Lent—included the Feast of Fools, where junior clergymen are alleged to have dressed as nuns and bishops and danced in the streets.

By the 13th century, the Venetians had taken to dressing up and wearing masks with such gusto that the Venice Carnival became an occasion for ever more elaborate masquerade. The city’s Great Council passed special laws to keep the practice within bounds, such as banning masks while gambling or visiting convents.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The liberation granted by a costume could be dangerous. In January of 1393, King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, held the Bal des Sauvages, or Wild Men’s Ball, to celebrate the wedding of one of her ladies-in-waiting. The king had already suffered his first bout of insanity, and it was hoped that the costume ball would be an emotional outlet for his disordered mind. But the farce became a tragedy. The king and his entourage, dressed as hairy wild men, were meant to perform a “crazy” dance. Horrifically, the costumes caught fire, and only Charles and one other knight survived.

The masked ball became a staple of royal entertainments, offering delicious opportunities for sexual subterfuge and social subversion. At a masquerade in 1745, Louis XV of France disguised himself as a yew tree so he could pursue his latest love, the future Madame de Pompadour. Meanwhile, the Dauphine danced the night away with a charming Spanish knight, not realizing he was a lowly cook who had tricked his way in. More ominously, a group of disaffected nobles in Sweden infiltrated a masquerade to assassinate King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. Five years later, the new ruler of Venice, Francis II of Austria, banned Carnival and forbade the city’s residents to wear masks.

Queen Victoria helped to return dress-up parties to respectability with historically-themed balls that celebrated creativity rather than debauchery. By 1893, American Vogue could run articles about fabulous Halloween costumes without fear of offense. The first Halloween parade took place not in cosmopolitan New York but in rural Hiawatha, Kansas, in 1914.

In the modern era, the taint of anarchy and licentiousness associated with dressing-up has been replaced by complaints about cultural appropriation, a concern that would have baffled our ancestors. Becoming what we are not, however briefly, is part of being who we are.

Historically Speaking: Women Who Popped the Question

Tradition holds that women only propose marriage on leap days, but queens have never been afraid to take the initiative.

February 20, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

An old tradition holds that every leap year, on Feb. 29, women may propose marriage to men without censure or stigma. Sources disagree about the origin of this privilege. One attributes it to St. Brigid, who became concerned for all the unmarried women in 5th-century Ireland and persuaded St. Patrick to grant them this relief. Another gives the credit to Queen Margaret of Scotland, who supposedly had the custom written into Scottish law in 1288.

Neither story is likely to be true: St. Brigid, if she even existed, would have been a child at the time of St. Patrick’s death, and Margaret died at the age of 7 in 1290. But around the world, there have always been a few women who exercised the usually male privilege of proposing.

In the Bible, the widowed Ruth, future great-grandmother of King David, asks her kinsman Boaz to marry her—not with words but by lying down at the foot of his bed. On the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, women propose by offering the man of their choice a ceremonial dish of fish marinated in palm oil.

Queen Ankhesenamun of Egypt, who lived in the 14th century B.C., is believed to have made the earliest recorded marriage proposal by a woman. Based on a surviving letter in the Hittite royal archives, scholars have theorized that Ankhesenamun, the widow of the boy king Tutankhamun, secretly asked the Hittite king Suppiluliuma to agree to a match with one of his sons, so that she could avoid a forced marriage to Ay, her late husband’s grand vizier. The surprised and suspicious king eventually sent her his son Zannanza. Unfortunately, the plan leaked out and the Hittite wedding party was massacred at the Egyptian border. Ankhesenamun disappears from the historical record shortly after.

The Roman princess Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian III, had marginally better luck. In 450 she appealed to Attila, King of the Huns, to marry her, in order to escape an arranged marriage with a minor politician. When Valentinian learned of the plan, he refused to allow it and forced Honoria to wed the senator. In retaliation, Attila launched an attack against Rome on the pretext of claiming his bride, capturing Gaul and advancing as far as the Po River in northern Italy.

The idea that marriage was a sentimental union between two individuals, rather than an economic or strategic pact between families, gained ground in Europe in the late 18th century. Jane Austen highlighted the clash of values between generations in her 1813 novel “Pride and Prejudice”: Lady Catherine de Bourgh insists that her daughter and Mr. Darcy have been engaged since birth, while the heroine Elizabeth Bennet declares she will have Darcy if she wants.

Two decades later, a 20-year-old Queen Victoria came down on the side of love when she chose her cousin Albert to be her husband. As a ruling monarch, it was Victoria’s right and duty to make the proposal. As she recorded in her diary on October 15, 1839, “I said to him … that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished.” The 21-year marriage was one of the most successful in royal history.

Although it’s still the custom in most countries for men to propose marriage, leap year or not, there’s more to courtship than getting down on one knee. As the Irving Berlin song goes, “A man chases a girl (until she catches him).”

Historically Speaking: A Palace Open to the People

From the Pharaohs to Queen Victoria, royal dwellings have been symbols of how rulers think about power.

Every summer, Queen Elizabeth II opens the state rooms of Buckingham Palace to the public. This year’s opening features an exhibition that I curated, “Queen Victoria’s Palace,” the result of a three-year collaboration with Royal Collection Trust. The exhibition uses paintings, objects and even computer-generated imagery to show how Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace into both a family home and the headquarters of the monarchy. In the process, she modernized not only the building itself but also the relationship between the Royal Family and the British people.

Plenty of rulers before Victoria had built palaces, but it was always with a view to enhancing their power rather than sharing it. Consider Amarna in Egypt, the temple-palace complex created in the 14th century B.C. by Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten. Supported by his beautiful wife Nefertiti, the heretical Akhenaten made himself the head of a new religion that revered the divine light of the sun’s disk, the Aten.

The Great Palace reflected Akhenaten’s megalomania: The complex featured vast open air courtyards where the public was required to engage in mass worship of the Pharaoh and his family. Akhenaten’s palace was hated as much as his religion, and both were abandoned after his death.

Weiyang, the Endless Palace, built in 200 B.C. in western China by the Emperor Gaozu, was also designed to impart a religious message. Until its destruction in the 9th century by Tibetan invaders, Weiyang extended over two square miles, making it the largest imperial palace in history. Inside, the halls and courtyards were laid out along specific axial and symmetrical lines to ensure that the Emperor existed in harmony with the landscape and, by extension, with his people. Each chamber was ranked according to its proximity to the Emperor’s quarters; every person knew his place and obligations according to his location in the palace.

Western Europe had nothing comparable to Weiyang until King Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles in 1682. With its unparalleled opulence—particularly the glittering Hall of Mirrors—and spectacular gardens, Versailles was a cult of personality masquerading as architecture. Louis, the self-styled Sun King at the center of this artificial universe, created a living stage where seeing and being seen was the highest form of social currency.

The offstage reality was grimmer. Except for the royal family’s quarters, Versailles lacked even such basic amenities as plumbing. The cost of upkeep swallowed a quarter of the government’s annual tax receipts. Louis XIV’s fantasy lasted a century before being swept away by the French Revolution in 1789.

Although Victoria would never have described herself as a social revolutionary, the many changes she made to Buckingham Palace were an extraordinary break with the past. From the famous balcony where the Royal Family gathers to share special occasions with the nation, to the spaces for entertaining that can welcome thousands of guests, the revitalized palace created a more inclusive form of royal architecture. It sidelined the old values of wealth, lineage, power and divine right to emphasize new ones based on family, duty, loyalty and patriotism. Victoria’s palace was perhaps less awe-inspiring than its predecessors, but it may prove to be more enduring.

The Guardian: Feminist Queen. Show explores how Victoria transformed monarchy

The story of how Victoria and Prince Albert rebuilt the palace into the most glittering court in Europe is explored through paintings, sketches and costumes, and includes a Hollywood-produced immersive experience that brings to life the balls for which she was famous.

Visiting the exhibition, Victoria’s great-great granddaughter, the Queen, was “totally engrossed” as she watched virtual-reality dancers recreate a quadrille, a dance that was fashionable at 19th-century balls. “Thank God we don’t have to do that any more,” said the Queen.

Quadrilles, in which four couples dance together, may no longer be performed but many of Victoria’s innovations remain. She created the balcony, and bequeathed balcony appearances and garden parties to a nation. “It is now unimaginable you would have a national celebration without this balcony, so embedded is it in the nation’s consciousness,” said Dr Amanda Foreman, the historian and co-curator of the exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace.

Queen Victoria’s maternal role is highlighted in the sketches she made of her nine children, as well as an ornate casket containing their milk teeth and marble sculptures she had made of their tiny arms and feet.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, which marks the 200th anniversary of Victoria’s birth, is a recreation of the grand ballroom which she had built. She believed the picture gallery was too small for lavish entertainment, noting in her journal how the dresses get squashed and ruined during an attempt at a quadrille.

Digital technology by a Hollywood-based production company recreates the ballroom as it looked during a ball in 1856, with images of the wall furnishings and paintings, as shown in contemporary watercolours, projected on to its walls.

A quadrille is recreated through a hologram effect, using actors in replicas of the costumes featured in the watercolour. The technology was inspired by the Victorian illusionist trick known as Pepper’s Ghost, which used angled glass to reflect images on to the Victorian stage.

“Queen Victoria transformed Buckingham Palace, the fabric of this building, and in so doing created new traditions, those traditions which we now associate with the modern monarchy,” said Foreman.

“It is significant that it was a woman who was responsible for these traditions and a woman who defined our nation’s understanding and concept of sovereign power, how it’s experienced, how it’s expressed.

“It’s very much a feminist transformation, although Queen Victoria herself would not have used those words, and those words would not have meant to the Victorians what they mean to us today.

“We tend to diminish the contribution of women in particular. We assign their success to the men around them. We tend to simply forget who was responsible for certain things. So by putting on this exhibition, we are stripping away those layers of oblivion, forgetfulness, discounting, and allowing Queen Victoria the space to shine.”

Victoria turned the once-unloved palace into a home fit for state, public and private events. But for 10 years after her beloved Albert’s death, she rarely set foot in it, describing it in her journals as “one of my saddest of sad houses”.

 Queen Victoria’s Buckingham Palace exhibition is at the summer opening of Buckingham Palace, 20 July to 29 September 2019.

Harper’s Bazaar: Buckingham Palace is opening a new exhibition exploring the life of Queen Victoria this summer

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria and to celebrate, Buckingham Palace has announced a special exhibition as part of its state opening this summer, co-curated by Dr. Amanda Foreman.

Harper’s Bazaar, May 7, 2019

by Katie Frost

A portrait of Queen Victoria by Thomas Sully

The exhibit will explore the life of the monarch and how she turned the once unloved palace into the royal residence we know today. Highlights will include a portrait of the young queen painted by Thomas Sully soon after she moved into her new home, along with Victoria’s personal insignia, the Star and Collar of the Order of the Bath.

Victoria moved into the palace in 1837 when she was just 18. It had been empty for seven years following the death of her uncle, George IV. After Victoria married Prince Albert and started a family, Victoria wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, about her plans to revamp her family home. In it, she spoke of “the urgent necessity of doing something to Buckingham Palace” and “the total want of accommodation for our growing little family”, according to the Royal Collection Trust.

Historically Speaking: Trees of Life and Wonder

From Saturnalia to Christmas Eve, people have always had a spiritual need for greenery in the depths of winter

The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2018

Queen Victoria and family with their Christmas tree in 1848. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

My family never had a pink-frosted Christmas tree, though Lord knows my 10-year-old self really wanted one. Every year my family went to Sal’s Christmas Emporium on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, where you could buy neon-colored trees, mechanical trees that played Christmas carols, blue and white Hanukkah bushes or even a real Douglas fir if you wanted to go retro. We were solidly retro.

Decorating the Christmas tree remains one of my most treasured memories, and according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the tradition is still thriving in our digital age: In 2017 Americans bought 48.5 million real and artificial Christmas trees. Clearly, bringing a tree into the house, especially during winter, taps into something deeply spiritual in the human psyche.

Nearly every society has at some point venerated the tree as a symbol of fertility and rebirth, or as a living link between the heavens, the earth and the underworld. In the ancient Near East, “tree of life” motifs appear on pottery as early as 7000 B.C. By the second millennium B.C., variations of the motif were being carved onto temple walls in Egypt and fashioned into bronze sculptures in southern China.

The early Christian fathers were troubled by the possibility that the faithful might identify the Garden of Eden’s trees of life and knowledge, described in the Book of Genesis, with paganism’s divine trees and sacred groves. Accordingly, in 572 the Council of Braga banned Christians from participating in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia—a popular winter solstice festival in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, that included decking the home with boughs of holly, his sacred symbol.

It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that evergreens received a qualified welcome from the Church, as props in the mystery plays that told the story of Creation. In Germany, mystery plays were performed on Christmas Eve, traditionally celebrated in the church calendar as the feast day of Adam and Eve. The original baubles that hung on these “paradise trees,” representing the trees in the Garden of Eden, were round wafer breads that symbolized the Eucharist.

The Christmas tree remained a northern European tradition until Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, had one erected for a children’s party at Windsor Castle in 1800. The British upper classes quickly followed suit, but the rest of the country remained aloof until 1848, when the London Illustrated News published a charming picture of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around a large Christmas tree. Suddenly, every household had to have one for the children to decorate. It didn’t take long for President Franklin Pierce to introduce the first Christmas tree to the White House, in 1853—a practice that every President has honored except Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1902 refused to have a tree on conservationist grounds. (His children objected so much to the ban that he eventually gave in.)

Many writers have tried to capture the complex feelings that Christmas trees inspire, particularly in children. Few, though, can rival T.S. Eliot’s timeless meditation on joy, death and life everlasting, in his 1954 poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”: “The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: / Let him continue in the spirit of wonder / At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext; / So that the glittering rapture, the amazement / Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree /…May not be forgotten.”

WSJ Historically Speaking: Beyond Frosty: A History of Famous Snowmen

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Americans have their raucous Frosty; the British, their beloved children’s book about a flying snowman; and Disney, its goofy Olaf from “Frozen.”

Like Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip, these friendly mass-market snowmen only vaguely resemble their many more subtle predecessors. It’s lovely to bring winter cheer to children, of course, but snowmen have often served more serious aims.

Some of the world’s most famous people have built notable snowmen—from Prince Albert, who built a 12-foot snowman for his wife, Queen Victoria, to Michelangelo, who made one for the Medicis. In 1494, the artist’s patron was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate. This Medici prince was a pale imitation of his famous father—weak where Lorenzo was strong, spoiled where he was generous. Having invited his father’s former protégé to live and work at the palace, Piero gave Michelangelo only one commission: to build a snowman in the courtyard. Continue reading…