Odds and Ends

The page for the poor neglected little thingies in tailoring.


is not, in fact, made of the bones of whales, but of baleen, i.e. what the larger whales have instead of teeth to sieve plancton out of the water. The structure makes it easy to split it into narrow strips, it is light and stiff, but can be bent into a lasting shape when soaked in water. These properties made whalebone the ideal material for corsets and later, for skirt supports. The enormous demand for whalebone in the eras of hoops and crinolines threatened to annihilate the whale poulation and sent prices soaring. By the 2nd half of the 19th century, real baleen had become so expensive - and whales so rare - that substitutes were commonly used.

Substitutes were horn, steel bands and steel coils pressed flat, which are still available today. Instead of horn, you'll get plastic nowadays. It's generally more rigid than the steel spiral variety and does not bend sideways. NOTE: Rigilene is not the same as plastic boning. Got a picture here: top - steel coil, left - steel band, right - plastic, below - modern busk.

Steel spirals bend well, so they were used mainly in the curvy parts of Victorian corsets. The spirals were inserted into fabric tubes, while whalebone (or its plastic substitute) can be used "as is". In some cases (or places), boning had to be shaped before it was applied. While whalebone can be shaped when soaked in water for a while, horn needs hot steam.

I've recently had the opportunity of handling real whalebone which I'd taken from a bodice that was so tattered that the best I could do was dissect to learn about the technique. Here's a picture of it. It is probably not the best quality that was available, judging from the roughness of the surfaces and the rather varied dimensions. I've found the stuff to be about as elastic and strong as plastic boning.

Some of the boning, which was about 1.5 mm thick and round, had taken on the shape of the tunnel it was in. Having read about soaking the stuff in water, I placed it in a dish and poured boiling water over it - while I watched, the boning straightened out all by itself and retained only a slight bend. I then took it out and curled it around my finger easily,. Mind you, some of it had broken while still in the tunnel!

I wish more people had the opportunity of handling actual whalebone. That might finally do away with such legends as "plastic boning is not firm enough for <insert period here> corsets" and "plastic boning takes on the body shape". Whalebone did the same, then it broke. If they'd had plastic back then, they would have used it, I'm sure.

Brush Braid

was set onto the inside of the hem of floor-length skirts. It usually consisted of a ribbon woven into a slight bend, with fibres or threds sticking out on one side. Used to protect the hem from wear and tear incurred by dragging over the ground. As of 1908 (probably much earlier), it was commonly available at haberdashery shops.

Hooks and eyes

were the most important means of closing clothing as they were practically invisible. They were also used for hooking the skirt onto the taille or the petticoat to the dress, i.e. some dresses had hooks facing down on the inside at the back of the waist while the skirt had the eyes. For places that needed a lot of hooks in a row, e.g. a bodice or taille, you could buy ribbons with hooks and eyes already sewn on, just like today.

Patent Buttons

(snaps) were as invisible and even more practical. They were sewn on or hammered in. As they were invented in 1880 and very popular by 1908, they're historically correct. Only zippers, well... they weren't used until the 1930s.


consisted mainly of mother-of-pearl or horn and were almost exclusively used for blouses and dresses that had to be washed often. Tailles and skirts usually had none; patent buttons and hooks were preferred.

Draperies and other decoration is a matter big enough to fill a whole site. Forgive me. :)



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