Friday, December 11, 2009

Mythical Mirrors

It made me laugh that a week after I posted the blog "Mythical Beasts" about common historic house myths, I had a personal run-in with disproving one: The myth of the petticoat mirror.

This one is a costume myth so I am always tickled by it. The myth begins with pier tables, like ours pictured on the right or the one from the Brooklyn Museum pictured at left. These decorative tables often have mirrored glass beneath the table top. According the story, these mirrors were called "petticoat mirrors" and were installed to allow ladies to check to make sure that their petticoats were not showing beneath their skirts. Often located in hallways, where a woman would be entering or leaving a house, it seems sensible.



It's not the purpose of the mirrors. Any woman well-to-do enough to own a piece of furniture as expensive pier table or visit a home with a pier table knew enough to check to make sure her underwear wasn't hanging out before she left the bedroom. It's a little "low" for a genteel woman to be checking her underwear in the mirror, not unlike a modern woman stopping to check her underwear lines in a public mirror--a little too personal to share.


Not only that, but an historic petticoat is not like a modern slip, whose thin elastic waistband can allow it to slip down your hips and peek beneath your skirt. Before the days of elastic, petticoats were sewn onto a secure waistband that wasn't going anywhere.


The purpose of the mirrors was decorative. Reflecting light around a room on highly-polished surfaces, including mirrors, glass, crystal pendants on chandeliers, or fine wood surfaces, was a way of demonstrating wealth. It dazzled the eye and demonstrated a great deal of labor (performed by servants or slaves) that was needed to maintain that level of clean.


I always assumed that this myth came from someone's great-aunt Bessy, a rare woman who put aside decorum and periodically checked her petticoat in the mirror when no one was looking. But the other day I had to dress up as 1910s Ollie, and since my petticoat is on an elastic waistband, I was worried that it had slipped down and was hanging out my back. How indecent!

Off I went in search of a "petticoat mirror," of which we have aplenty. But shoot! It was impossible to see the hem of my skirt! That big old table sticking out of the wall made it so I could see nothing but the floor--not even my toes. Even in our wide hallyway, I could not back far enough away to get a glimpse of my own petticoat. I had to go chasing upstairs to Alice's full-length mirror in order to find out that several inches of white petticoat were indeed hanging out of my backside.

So there it is, the myth of the petticoat mirror put to bed--not only would the practice of checking your underwear in public be a little taboo, but it doesn't even work (much to my disappointment that day)!

**Want to see more petticoats from Clermont's collections?  See here for images of children's petticoats from the late 19th century!

4 comments:

  1. It is very unfortunate that you would give your unsupported opinions as fact. I am quite able to see my petticoat in my petticoat mirror. You need to check facts before rendering opinions based on narrow observations.

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  2. Pier tables, and the mirrors often fitted below them, are discussed in many scholarly works. A great description of their use can be found in Elizabeth Garrett's book "At Home: The American Family 1750-1870" on pages 153-156, along with an elegant 1842 image of one in use for the display of a shell collection.

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  3. Thanks for helping to bust this common myth! I've addressed the same issue in my Museum Myth Busters site, www.historymyths.wordpress.com, and linked to your excellent page, but your personal experience trying to see your own petticoat certainly provides added emphasis to the usual explanations.

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  4. Thanks Mary! And thanks for posting the link to your blog. I have just been thoroughly enjoying it and will be adding it to our "Sites we like to visit" list.

    I never realized just how many historic house myths there are circulating. Thanks for tracking these down and putting them to bed!

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