Bottoms have been in the news again lately. The conversation has been around what must be the 21st century’s most famous derrière, that of American celebrity Kim Kardashian. Indeed, in May she received a Webby award for ‘breaking the internet’ – a feat achieved with a bare-bottomed shoot for Paper Magazine. More recently British actress Helen Mirren chimed in, praising the celebrity for promoting another body type: ‘it’s wonderful that you’re allowed to have a butt nowadays! Thanks to Madame Kardashian, and before her J.Lo, we’re also allowed to have thighs now, which is great too. It’s very positive.’
Ample bottoms have not always been considered a negative. We have recently preparing a number of silk gowns dating from the 1770s for display in European Splendour, a module of Nga Toi curated by Justine Olsen and Mark Stocker. These gowns while small in waist, require a broad bottom and generous hips across which to display the magnificence of the beautiful silk fabrics from which they are made. Whereas Kim Kardashian may have opted for surgical enhancement, an 18th-century lady would have simply paid a visit to her local ‘bum-shop’ to purchase something a little less painful – a tie-on bum-roll for example. As the illustrations below show, a wide range of forms were available to create the most fashionable of big-bottomed and wide-hipped silhouettes.
In this illustration, a little lap dog happily hitches a ride on his mistress’ protruding rump which has been made from cork.
As Terry Dresbach, costume designer for the TV series The Outlander has commented, ‘Getting dressed in the 18th century was no small feat. There were many layers of clothing, most of them tied and laced in ways that made getting out of them as painstaking as getting into them.’
On Sunday 2 October at 2pm Anne Peranteau, Textile Conservator, and I will present an illustrated talk and demonstration on ‘Dressing for Splendour’ in the second half of the 18th century. As well as addressing bum-rolls, stomachers, stays and ties, we will delve into the Spitalfields silk weaving industry, touch on the fashionable rivalry between England and France, celebrate male sartorial splendour, and explore some of the challenges and techniques of bringing 18th-century garments to life in the museum. Book your place through Te Papa’s website.
Until then, I will leave you with this poetic on the illusionary nature of 18th-century women’s dress from London Magazine, 1777:
Let her gown be tuck’d up to the hips on each side
Shoes too high for to walk or to jump;
And to deck the sweet creature complete for a bride
Let the cord cutter cut her a rump.
Thus finish’d in taste, while on Chloe you gaze
You may take the charmer for life;
But never undress her – for out of her stays,
You’ll find you have lost half your wife.