Category: women through history

Fashionable Discomfit

Fashionable Discomfit


For many centuries women lived in a state of fashionable discomfit. Restricted physically as well as socially, women wore strangling whalebone corsets (see

The feminine corset became popular for women in the French court of the 1500s but originated in Italy. Catherine de Medici is credited as the designer. The idea was to fine tune a woman’s attractiveness by making her waist as small as possible and flatten her stomach.

These undergarments choked their waists into tiny unnatural measurements to achieve the desired hourglass figure and fashionable discomfit.

For centuries, a woman walked in beauty but also in pain, just like the Japanese women who for centuries had bound feet so they would look dainty. Never mind that walking was torture. Hence the shuffled gait of traditional Japanese women. Victorian corsets were the Western equivalent of this Eastern fashionable discomfit.

The corset evolves

From the 16th century to the 19th, the corset became firmer in its vice like grip on the female form. Whale bones hardened the original firm fabric sleeve encasing the midriff. Corsets forced ribs down and compressed stomachs. Another word for a corset became ‘stays’ as the middle of a woman’s body was not allowed to move.

Gradually by Edwardian times, the corset became more of a support for the bust and was a shorter version of its predecessors. By then steel as well as whalebone provided the support of the corset fabric.

Layers of Fashionable Discomfit

In the Edwardian years of the early 1900s, a British woman needed time to dress. She had to plan the event and needed a maid to help. First there were layers of undergarments, a petticoat, chemise, and drawers or pantaloons.

Then the dreaded corset that would cinch her middle in its whalebone vice-like grip. Countless whales gave their lives so women worldwide could achieve a 55 cm or 21-inch waist measurement. The corset did not just clamp a woman’s middle section as it was laced but propelled the bust forward to balance the bunched bustle of the dress over the buttocks.

This bustle padded out the derriere to a shapely but large bump, something akin to the present Kardashian penchant for a large bottom.

The health effect of corsets

Long-term wearing of a corset deformed the ribs and misaligned the spine. All in order to have a more ‘civilized form’. The constriction also led women to have breathing issues, causing a woman to feel faint or swoon. Certainly, she could not overexert herself while wearing one as the ribs could not move to inflate her lungs for a deep breath. Such enforced shallow breathing can affect all organs and their supply of oxygen. An imprint of the corset could be found on the liver and kidneys on autopsy of females of that time period.

One woman jokingly wrote, “It is important to note, that pregnancy has a similar effect on displacing a woman’s internal organs.” Women loosened their corset during later pregnancy but this apart from sleeping was the only time in a fashionable woman’s lifetime. Even when corsetry went out of fashion during the Roaring Twenties or Jazz Age, most older women retained them as an essential undergarment.

But that was not the end of the fashionable discomfit. There’s more to come.

Garters and Hatpins Complete Fashionable Discomfit

Elastic garters burnt into a woman’s thigh to keep stockings in place. Tight high-heeled boots, often laced, encased her feet making walking painful. Just to add to the long process of dressing. Then ladies added a large wide-brimmed hat with lots of fluffy feathers, flowers or artificial fruit and a deadly hat pin to keep the decorations or accompanying veil and scarf in place.

Now, hat pins were dangerous, a hazard to passing pedestrians. Often people in crowds scored a hatpin when least expecting an aerial attack. A device called an acorn became fashionable to have on the end of the point of the pin to protect other people.

For fashionable ladies, readymade clothes were not available to buy in the shops. Most women ordered their outfits from dressmakers who required 18 personal body measurements, plus height and weight to fashion an outfit.

Handbags and Hankies

And what about handbags you might ask? Where did a woman keep her small change and hanky? Apparently, men kept coins in their watches which popped open at the back and women wore a muff chain that fastened around their neck. This chain extended through a furry sleeve or glove, called a muff into which the wearer could insert both hands. Inside was a small pocket where such items as coins and hankies could lodge. Mystery solved.

But I just have to share this fascinating snippet about the origins of the hanky or handkerchief. Bobby Pin Blog at Vintage cites Marie Antoinette as the inventor of the lady’s hanky. Marie, an Austrian princess was so upset on the long trip from her homeland to France to marry Louis XVI, that she tore a strip of lacy petticoat to dab her tears. And oh, poor Marie how, years later, did she stem her tears as she climbed the scaffold of the guillotine in 1793, as a victim of the French Revolution?

However, the vintage style blogger though, as rapt as me in this story, does admit that upon further research the hanky dates to Roman times when it was a multi-functional piece of rag to dab not just tears but sweat and well, whatever. Say no more. But apparently Marie’s royal husband decreed that hankies should be square, as wide as they are long, probably the most useful shape. Can’t imagine round or triangular ones.

Liberation from fashionable discomfit

The change in women’s corsetry reflects the changing status of women in society, so fashion is a part of our history. During WWI metal was in short supply. The steel casing of corsets was part of the drive for metal meltdown to make much needed weapons. The corset of the post WWI era evolved again to cater for the straight form fashion of the Jazz Age flappers. Suddenly a small waist was not desirable, nor a shapely bosom. However, corsets were stiff still to flatten a woman’s natural curves. Then due to women’s involvement in the workforce and fighting of WWII, such garments became less and less a staple of women’s undergarment fashion. Eventually, the corset evolved into the brassiere and a woman’s waist was finally freed.

But according to corsets are still fashionable for occasional wear. Brides like to wear one under their wedding gown or later as a tantalizing bedroom outfit. They certainly are sexy and accentuate a woman’s shape. Without the tight lacing at the back, they can even be comfortable.


Do you like Victorian or Edwardian history? Stories about real women? Then try my historical novel series about two sisters based on a true story. Whispers Through Time, Time Heal my Heart and Last Time Forever tell the story of the lives and loves of Francesca and Winnie in the era of The Titanic sinking, World War One and Two and beyond to 1950. Set in Sydney, Australia and Europe.

Before a woman could have a voice, she had to free her body. Every woman deserves a voice, and each voice is unique. Find your voice and use it for good. Many women through century have defied a man’s world to add their voice for changes to patriarchal society. I feature some on this blog. See website link below.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels; Whispers through Time, Time Heal my Heart, Colour comes to Tangles and The Last Hotel. See website


Who invented buttons?

Who invented buttons?

Now, this seems a silly question. You might answer who cares. Buttons are trivial nonessentials to everyday life. But since my week strangely enough has been besieged by buttons, I asked myself this question. Who invented buttons?

My week started ordinarily enough but then on two separate occasions; a button popped off my dress. Two occasions, two different dresses. Now you may say, “well, all your dresses must be close to their use by date.” And this could be true. I do hang onto things a little longer than the average girl. Returning home from the second outing minus another button, I decided to replace the missing buttons. Being a thrifty baby boomer, I had a ready supply of spare buttons in an allocated tin. My father who taught me such thriftiness, would have been proud of my preparedness.

Sorting buttons, Am I mad?

The buttons I needed were not immediately found in the large tin, so I poured the contents of the whole tin into a salad bowl and started sorting. By the end of an hour and two cups of tea later (plus one and a half slices of lemon madeira cake), I had piles of buttons sorted by colour. There were lots of white shirt buttons, and less of the coloured versions. The three orange buttons were an unexpected find.

Buttons sorted, I sewed on the missing dress buttons and put all the sewing paraphernalia away. If you have survived reading this far, well done! Silly lady chatter. This boring mundane activity did not pique my interest into the origins of the button. It was the next day at my weekly women’s group where rather than our usual mystery guest speaker, we had instead a craft activity. And, oh no, the craft material provided was, you guessed, it buttons. We were like kindergarteners or those at the other end of life, the nursing home inmates, making cards using buttons (and a few bows.)

The history of buttons

So, this weird coincidence led me to ponder the meaning of life, according to buttons. Who invented buttons? Were they always for fastening clothes? Let’s unpack a bit of fashion history. Buttons are traced to the Indus Valley (Pakistan) circa 2800 BC, Scotland c 2000BC and in the Bronze Age sites in China and Ancient Rome. So, buttons have been around a fair time. They were used for ornamental purposes on fabric but not as fasteners, just for decoration. The first buttons were made from seashells and then later of the newly formed metal, alloy of bronze made from copper and tin.

The development of buttons follows the history of materials available to man. Over their history, buttons have been crafted from shells, ivory, metal, glass, silk, enamel, leather, enamel, wood, china and plastic. Buttons used for fastening date to the Roman Empire where leatherwork shows buttonholes. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that where there were buttonholes there were buttons. These were evidenced in leather satchels before use on clothes and shoes. By the Byzantine, there were buttons to fasten cuffs and necks of shirts and tunics and for sleeves and necklines for women’s dresses.

The word ‘button’ comes from a German word meaning ‘to push through’ which makes sense once the buttonhole emerged.

Buttons as status symbols

At some time, the side on which the button was sewn became gender assigned.  The left for women and the right for men. This is believed to be due to a man having to draw his weapon from left to right without slicing off his supply of buttons. Another reason is that the maids need to dress their ladies with their right hand, and this is easier if the buttons are on the left. The badge like buttons also emerged and worn to advertise allegiance to a group or army. Soldier buttons could even serve as lockets with locks of their beloved one’s hair kept inside close to their heart. With all buttons, the fancier the button, the higher the status of the wearer. Buttons were status symbols just like rings and jewelry can be today.

Why do the Amish ban buttons?

Maybe this is why the Amish people ban buttons, calling them along with many other modernities, ‘proud.’Buttons are a sign of individuality and vanity, two things the Amish try to avoid. By not wearing buttons, all members of the community look the same regardless of their wealth or social standing. Anything individual brings attention to oneself, so buttons are not on the Amish agenda. Uniformity is the key.

I would not be happy as an Amish woman. I love colour and diversity in clothing. It makes me feel happy. That is why I wrote a book about colour; Colour Comes to Tangles.

Buttons for everyone

Moving on; The Industrial Revolution brought buttons and many other products to the masses. Buttons now could be made en masse not singly by artisans. The simple flat button with two or four holes was easier to manufacture than a button with a stud or post or a cuff-link toggle style. Most shirt and dress buttons were flat and white or bone coloured and this is still true today.

Then came the zipper

With time, other forms of fastening clothes evolved such as the press stud, hook and eye and the zipper. The last, the clasp fastener or zipper as it is now known, has revolutionised clothing, handbags and many, many other everyday objects. No one individual is responsible but a series of gentlemen. see the zipper link. 

Elias Howe, Jr. (1819–1867), the inventor of the sewing machine, received a patent in 1851 for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” Elias did not pursue marketing his clothing closure system and so missed his chance to become the “Father of the Zip.”

Forty-four years later, Whitcomb Judson (1846–1909) marketed a “Clasp Locker” device similar to Howe’s idea. As first to market, Whitcomb became the “inventor of the zipper.” However, his 1893 patent did not use the word zipper.

The 1851 Chicago “Clasp Locker” was first a hook-and-eye shoe fastener, a redesign of Elias Howe’s. Colonel Lewis Walker, Whitcomb launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture the new device. The clasp locker made its debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair but was met with little enthusiasm. Instead, Swedish-born electrical engineer, Gideon Sundback (1880–1954) made the zipper the hit it is today.

The “zipper” name came from the B. F. Goodrich Company, which used Sundback’s fastener on rubber boots. or galoshes. However, it took 20 more years to convince the fashion industry to use the closure on garments.

In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children’s clothing featuring zippers. The campaign promoted zippers for self-reliance in young children as zippers made it possible for children to dress themselves.

No more buttons for the fly.

In 1937, the zipper beat the button in the “Battle of the Fly.” French fashion designers used zippers in men’s trousers and Esquire magazine declared the zipper the way to go for men. There would be no more peep hole embarrassments caused by missing or undone buttons. But the men still had to remember to zip their fly!

The next big boost for the zipper came when zippers could open on both ends such as on jackets. Today the zipper is everywhere. But we still have buttons!  Those cute little fasteners that led to the saying ‘as cute as a button.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published novels: Whispers through Time, The Last Hotel Colour Comes to Tangles and her latest historical WWI drama, Time Heal my Heart. Joni has her own website;

Photo by elnaz asadi on Unsplash


The Tragic Romanov Sisters

The Tragic Romanov Sisters

The tragic Romanov sisters were the grand duchesses of Russia, the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II and his empress Alexandra. Their names were Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia in order of birth. These young girls were also the great granddaughters of Queen Victoria as Nicholas and Alexandra were both grandchildren of the queen. It was normal for cousins to marry and interbreed as royalty had to marry royalty not commoners. However, if the grand duchesses had married even to commoners, their lives may have been saved. Instead, they were murdered at the ages of 22, 21, 19 and just 17 years old, along with their young brother Alexey, just 14, and the tsar, tsarina and servants. Such was the tragedy of the Romanov sisters.

Victims of the Russian Revolution

The whole family were the victims of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Due to social unrest, the progress of WWI and political machinations, the tsar was advised to abdicate in early 1917. Not a strong man or leader, he agreed readily and unwittingly signed his own death warrant and that of his young family. The Bolsheviks took control of Russia and imprisoned the royal family in their own beautiful Alexander palace at Tsarskoe Selo near Petrograd. For five months they lived a peaceful domestic existence there under guard before being transported like prisoners to Siberia to a town called Tobolsk. Here in this Siberian backwater, they led a dull existence with no visitors or outings until May 1918 when they were transported yet again to their place of execution at Ekaterinburg further southeast. Despite this fall from royalty and the consequent change in living conditions, the family remained hopeful and united.

Suffering of the tragic Romanov sisters

According to historian, Helen Rappaport’s books, the family knew their days were numbered. Their prison was becoming more dire and heavily guarded. The Red guards mocked them in many acts of disrespect. It is horrible to think of the suffering of these pretty teenage girls, their invalid brother who had hemophilia and their devoted parents. The Romanovs were not nasty people, but a loving family positioned in the wrong time in history. Nicholas was not a born leader. He preferred the quiet of the countryside, walks, nature and reading. His German born wife loved her husband and children but was more autocratic and prouder. As such being German born and appearing haughty, Alexandra became very unpopular with the Russian people especially when she became close to the spiritual monk, Rasputin.

WWI and then the Revolution

Once WWI erupted, with Russia and Germany enemies, German affiliation was suspicious, and Alexandra became even less favored. To the Bolsheviks, this was the time to act to depose the 300-year tsardom of Russia. It did not matter that Alexandra and her teen daughters were serving as nurses in Petrograd, working long days in the hospitals. Olga and Tatiana as the older girls dressed wounds, helped in operations and comforted the wounded. They were sisters of mercy and devoted to their country. The younger girls Maria and Anastasia also volunteered at the hospital after their lessons at the palace. Did this service make them appear less royal? Should they have upheld their position and remained distantly aloof as most royals are?

Four sweet sisters

But to read about the sisters, is to empathise and admire their spirit and kindness. They were sweet innocent girls in a time of horrible terror. As sisters they were very close both in age and association. Born just two years apart from each other over a ten-year period, Olga, Tatiana and Maria in the last years of the 1800s and Anastasia in the new century. Three years later their baby brother was born to much fanfare. An heir, a son, at last. The sisters never resented the gender bias of succession. It was normal for the times. Succession was usually via a son not a daughter.

Hemophilia, a German empress and a mad monk

But the long-awaited son had inherited the deadly royal disease of hemophilia. This reality was to seal the Romanov’s fate. Though the family tried to hide this weakness from the world by withdrawing from public events, the truth finally came out as Alexey grew past babyhood. By then Rasputin was a frequent visitor as he could heal the boy’s bleeds when they occurred. Injuries easily happened due to normal little boy bumps during play.  A frail heir, a mad monk, a German empress; it was not a combination to endear the family to the Russian population. Besides they were at war with Germany and the people were hungry and fearful of the progress of the war.

Despite their royal birth, the Romanov sisters had not enjoyed a life of opulence, gala events and public adoration. On the contrary, their young lives had been spent mostly at the Alexander Palace doing lessons and caring for their ailing mother and brother. Alexandra was not a well woman. She long suffered from neuralgia, sciatica and headaches and then had heart problems too. More often than not, she did not attend royal functions with her husband. Olga and later Tatiana attended instead. This was unusual and talked about in unflattering terms. Alexandra’s absence was seen as haughtiness. She was not the empress of her people.

The sisters liked soldiers not princes

For a while in their later teen years the older two grand duchesses, Olga and Tatiana attended balls and soirees and the peopled loved them. They were beautiful and gracious to all. By the time Olga was 18, there were moves to marry her with Prince Carol of Romania. The families met at the Crimea where they loved to go each summer. However, Olga’s parents left the decision to Olga. They wanted her to marry for love as they had. Olga did not fancy Prince Carol nor he, her. Carol preferred her pretty jolly young sister, Maria. But Maria was too young at the time to marry. So, nothing eventuated.

Olga along with her sister, Tatiana, preferred the fun company of the handsome soldiers who guarded the family at the palace and on the royal yacht. Later during the war, they had crushes on soldiers they nursed in the hospital. But always, their royal position prevented an alliance. Olga, Tatiana and later Maria could only dream of these men. They were off limits. The young Romanov sisters would all die virgins, never knowing the physical love of a man.

What were the Romanov sisters like?

So what were these Romanov girls like? As you can see from the photo on the cover of Helen Rappaport’s book, Olga had a wide, pretty face and Tatiana, the beauty, a more delicate appearance like her mother. Tatiana’s eyes were beautiful, and her heart shaped face made her very noticeable as a beauty. She was a devoted daughter and nurse and very organized. Her mother relied on her abilities. Olga could be moody, perhaps understandably as she was denied a normal life for a young woman of her time. Palace life was isolating and denied her socialization with other young people especially men of her age.

Olga, the eldest

By 20, she should have been married but offers from royal princes did not come. By then the war raged and it was not the time to ally with mighty Russia. Besides by then the riyal houses of Europe were aware of the presence of the deadly hemophilia in the Romanov family and they didn’t want it in theirs. Modern DNA analysis of the Romanov sister’s remains proves that only Anastasia the youngest was a carrier. They need not have feared but they did. Olga remained with her sisters and parents until 22, the age of her death by firing squad.

The younger sisters, Maria and Anastasia had more solid builds than their slender older sisters. Maria had a sweet, happy nature and a lovely smile and eyes. Anastasia the youngest was the plainest looking and a precocious child. She was inattentive to lessons, cheeky and at times disrespectful. her tutors had a hard time with her. But she did enliven the family gatherings. During the last days of imprisonment in Siberia, it was Anastasia who cheered the freezing government prison house with her charades and one act plays.

The royal jewels

One of the last sisterly sessions of camaraderie was sewing the royal jewels into their dresses to secure them from looting by the Red Guards at the final prison house. It was these hidden jewels that made the bullets ricochet around the basement where they were shot. These last remnants of the glorious reign of the Romanovs prevented a swift death for the girls. Instead, they suffered in terror as rounds of bullets flew around the bunker, injuring but not killing them. In the end, bayonets were used to kill the innocent young Romanov sisters. An end not fitting for their status nor kind, innocent souls. It was this terrible fate that ended the reign of the tragic Romanovs. Why didn’t anyone save the Romanovs? Read this previous blogsto discover.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with four published books. Whispers through Time and Time Heal my Heart are historical fiction and set in the early 1900s around the era of WWI. The Last hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles are contemporary fiction and set in exotic locations. Visit her website at

Photo is of the cover of Helen Rappaport’s wonderful historical book.


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