Bonnets in Limbo: 1883

BONNETS IN LIMBO.

In a recent conversation with the Rev. George Hough, chaplain at the Westminster House of Correction, he took occasion to remark, in terms emphatic and forcible, on the growing evil arising out of the unwholesome craving after “finery ” indulged by the number of the ornamental sex. It would appear that the pernicious maxim, ” One may as well be out of the world as out of the fashion,” is taken so earnestly to heart by hundreds of maid-servants and workers in factories and City warehouses, that they act up to it literally, and stake honesty, honour, and liberty on the chance of winning and wearing a style of attire, as unfitted to their station as was the plumage of the peacock with which the vain and ambitious jay in the fable attempted to adorn itself.

The Rev. George Hough is a gentleman whose voice, on a matter of such importance, should command respectful attention, since there are few in England who, on account of experience, position, and shrewd sense, could be better entitled to speak. Mr. Hough is chaplain in one of our largest prisons—a prison that is occupied solely by women— and he has held that position for a number of years. It is part of his duty to see, and converse with, every prisoner on her admittance, with a view to gaining a knowledge of her antecedents, and so ascertain if her disposition may warrant his intercession to reclaim her from ways of sin, and to place her, on discharge, in some home or reformatory. At present there are shut up, in the twenty-one blocks of grim brickwork and iron grating that the walls of the Westminster House of Correction enclose, over eight hundred female prisoners ; and since the term for which they may be committed is as little as three days, it may be easily understood that the inflow and outflow must be tolerably constant.

On the day when I visited the prison there were forty “new” cases; and there they were, looking the very perfection of penitent thieves, in their sable serge gowns and their plain white calico caps tied under the chin, all in a row in a lobby outside the chaplain’s office, in the custody of two female warders with clanking chains at their waists. The majority of the new comers were young—twenty or twenty-five. It was not easy to realise that they were gaol-birds but newly trapped: that only yesterday, or the day before, many of them were gaily-bedizened creatures, with freedom to flutter about wherever they choose—light-hearted roysterers, on whose giddy heads was built a fashionable pyramid of horsehair and padding, on which to perch the modern monstrosity humorously called a bonnet. There are no chignons here— no crimping, waiving, and plaiting. I am not sure, but I was led to infer from the awfully plain manner in which the hair under every calico cap was worn, that not so much as a hair-pin is permitted. Straight and flat on the temples, with a crisp knot behind, is the stern fashion for female coiffure at Westminster. Truly it has always seemed to me one of the most faulty features of the criminal law, that only those who feel it can form any idea what is the weight of the law’s chastising hand, and what a terrible purge for pride and vanity awaits those that ride in the black coach through the prison gates. Bang goes the door, click goes the great bolt in the socket, and good-bye to the pleasant vanities of the world!

I had come, however, to see the feathers, rather than the birds of this great and gloomy aviary. That which happens to the still inmates of the Morgue at Paris befalls the unwilling tenants of the House of Correction; for they are deprived of all articles of apparel in which they arrive. Who does not know that grim sight of the French Mortuary —the suits of clothes hanging by scores above the silent dead upon the slabs? Blouse and victorine, pardessus and pelisse, sabot and slipper, swing in mid-air, and tell many an eloquent tale of those who wore them.

I wanted to see the cast-off raiment of those who, for the time, are civilly dead in the Westminster House of Correction, and to judge how far the chaplain was borne out by the general appearance of this plumage of crime and sin. Every new prisoner is stripped to the skin, and, when she has passed through the water of the jail, is clothed from crown to sole in an infamous garb—coarse clout shoes, prisonwove stockings of heavy worsted, under-clothing that is little better than canvas and is branded with a prison mark, and a gown of common serge, such as pauper’s cloaks are made of, and as plain as a winding-sheet. This, with the hideous cap, is the dress.

A female convict of a later period–1907

The occupation is working in the prison laundry, or scrubbing prison floors, or tearing to shreds, with the fingers, masses of old ship cable with a fibre close set with tar, and hard nearly as wood. The lodging is a little whitewashed vault, with a brick floor, lit by a grated window; the food is wholesome, but grimly “plain”—dry bread of unbolted meal gruel; that is, simply oatmeal boiled in water and flavoured with salt; and pudding of Indian meal, which, to the unused palate, resembles a preparation of fine sawdust. And in hundreds and thousands of cases this is the ending of a rash and reckless—not invariably a naturally vicious—girl’s craving after that flimsy and ridiculous finery which her honest means will not enable her to obtain. As I have already stated, forty women had just been admitted; next morning there were possibly as many more; and out of that number, according to the worthy chaplain’s correct reckoning, at least one-fourth find their way there through yielding to the insane weakness of dress. One cannot help thinking that if the hundreds of foolish ones who at the present time are resolving, “come what will” by hook or by crook, to become “fashionable” members of female society, could be favoured with a sight of this sad company of Westminster prisoners who have soared as they meditate soaring, and have fallen so miserably low, it might lead at least those who have not quite taken leave of their senses to reflect whether the delight of wearing for a brief space a headgear trimmed with ribbons and flowers, high-heeled boots, and a flashy dress with a “pannier” should be indulged in the face of a probable three or six months’ banishment from the world, the white-washed cell, the harsh fare, and the oakum-picking—to say nothing of the disgrace that sinks in so deep, and can be eradicated but with such miserable slowness.

But not for the sake of inspecting the prison arrangements had I visited the Westminster House of Correction: my curiosity was centred in one department. Said the reverend gentleman already mentioned in this report: “If any proof were needed as to the reasonableness of my statement regarding ‘dress,’ I could, if it were necessary, quote the names of some hundreds of girls who, according to their own statements, have commenced their downward career in consequence of their having yielded to the temptation I have just named. I would point out the wretched exhibition which may be seen in the rooms set apart in our prison for the reception of the private clothes of prisoners during their detention in custody.”

My purpose was to obtain a view of that exhibition, and I succeeded in doing so. It was a curious and, until one got used to it, a somewhat bewildering spectacle. The two rooms which I was favoured by being permitted to inspect were not the only ones pertaining to the establishment that are set apart for the purpose; for, as well may be imagined, it requires no inconsiderable space to stow away the wardrobes of eight hundred women. Under such circumstances it is necessary to economise space; and this is done at Westminster in a very methodical manner. I had expected to see the moulted plumage of every female prisoner hung up on its separate hook against the wall; but the authorities have a neater way. From floor to ceiling, on all sides, are what might be called ” pigeon holes,” if they were smaller. Each compartment is about eighteen inches square, and contains a prisoner’s clothes, including even her boots, tied up in a bundle, every bundle being surmounted by a hat or bonnet. This was the remarkable feature of the exhibition. The pigeon-holes were, as a rule, shady recesses; and as the bonnets were, 30 to speak, planted each on its bundle, it seemed at first glance as though so many women were lurking in the pigeon-holes, and thrusting their heads out.

But. one did not need the living face and form to tell you the story—the bonnet told it plainly enough. In common with all mankind, I had been accustomed to regard bonnets as meaningless and frivolous things; but that review of bonnets in prison converted me. There are articles of attire that are always more or less eloquent of the habits and conditions of their wearer. Old gloves are so, and so are old boots. I would in many cases sooner trust to a pair of ground-down-at-heel, time-mended, weather-tanned boots to tell me the story of their master’s travels, than I would trust the man himself. Similarly, I believe one might place the most perfect confidence in the dumb statements made by the bonnets and hats perched atop of the bundles.

As bearing out the worthy chaplain’s declaration, it is a fact that at least seven in every ten were headgears of a “dressy” type, and the crowning glory of the wearers. Here was a hat, a tiny coquettish article of the Alpine order, with a flowing feather, and ribbons that were scarcely creased. The process of compression which they had undergone betokened the ample skirts of silk and velvet, and possibly the expensive and fashionable mantle, confined within. No other than an expensive and fashionable mantle could be associated with such a hat as that; and, as plainly as though it were there substantial and visible, appeared, under the rakish little lace “fall,” the elaborate chignon on which it was mounted. The warder reaches down the humiliated “Alpine,” and there, pinned to its ears, as it were, is a paper ticket, on which is written the simple record: “Maria B , four months.” Four months, and of that weary time barely two weeks have elapsed. Here is Maria B ‘s Alpine hat. Maria B ‘s chignon is ruthlessly crushed in her bundle, thrust into one of her high military-heeled boots perhaps; and Maria herself, who, for a little while commonly drank champagne, and wore rings on her white fingers, is plunged elbow-deep in prison suds, washing dirty worsted stockings; while, if she works well and sticks to the tub without flinching for a matter of nine hours or so, her reward will be nearly half-a-pint of prison beer.

Who can doubt that “Maria B——,” in the loneliness of her whitewashed cell, does not often wonder what has become of her clothes and her hat? They will be hers one day again. At the expiration of four months the bundle and the hat will be rendered up to her, and she will have to give a written acknowledgment of their restoration. Will she ever find courage to wear that hat again? In four months it will have faded, and the depressing atmosphere of the prison will have taken the crispness out of its trimmings; but, even had it been kept in a bandbox—there is the ticket on it. She will unpin it, of course; but there are the pinholes in the ribbon, and she will hate it on that account, and her ears will tingle with guilty shame should she suspect that any human eyes are attracted to that particular spot—as if all the world knew that the hats of those consigned to prison were condemned to share their owners’ disgrace by having a convict ticket affixed.

Bonnets in limbo keep strange company. In the next nook to that where roosted the haughty Alpine, reposed, atop of a bundle no larger than a quartern loaf, a confused saucer-shaped mass of plaited straw and dirty ribbon, that looked as though it had long been used to the pressure of a basket, and smelt as though that basket had been accustomed to contain fish. It had the better of the Alpine, however, despite its ill condition and general appearance of blowsiness; for, as its ticket declared, it was only a drunken and abusive bonnet, and would be free to go about its business in a fortnight. In the next compartment was a hat with feathers, and in the next, and the next four—all as much alike in style as doubtless their owners were in character. Such, at least, might be inferred from their sentence of durance, which in each case was four months.

Then came a very remarkable bonnet—a gaunt, rawboned, iron grey straw, of parochial breed. It was such an enormous bonnet, and the bundle it accompanied was so diminutive in size that the former was not perched atop of the latter as in other cases; indeed, unless it had been proficient in the art of balancing itself on its front rim, it would have found the feat impossible. It straddled over its bundle, which was partly lost within its iron grey jaws, as though bent on swallowing it. How the workhouse bonnet came there I did not enquire, nor did I ask for how long its lodgings had been engaged, or of what crime it had been guilty. Perhaps it was for “making away ” with a portion of its clothing— the diminutive size of the bundle certainly favoured this supposition, and getting drunk with the money. This, however, must be said, that it looked much more abashed at its degrading position than many of its sisters there; and one could not help hoping that the wizened old face it had been accustomed to overshadow would soon be restored to it, and convey it out of that shameful place.

In some of the nests I observed that there were two bonnets, and when this was the case it happened pretty often that they were exactly alike. Here were a pair of the sort— of French grey velvet, trimmed luxuriantly with green grapes and the foliage of the vine. They were slightly the worse for wear, and battered in at the crowns, which had a pulpy look, as from constant battering. At a glance one might perceive the class to which they belonged—the night-prowling, tavern-frequenting class, so well known to the police that a tremendous amount of daring and dexterity on the part of its members is required to enable them to “pick up ” enough to procure gin and finery. They are thieves of course, and they hunt in couples. The two grey bonnets were a pair, the tickets pinned to them showing that they had been convicted on the same day for the same term. Knowing that both bonnets and bundles will be required on the same day three months hence, they are thus conveniently kept together by the prison authorities. So surely as the warder at the gate has let them out, so surely will he, a month or so afterwards, let them in again, and the bonnets will be once more stowed away, while the women, in a perfectly free and easy manner, will take to the serge gowns and calico caps, and make themselves at home. Indeed, creatures of this class—and at Westminster House of Correction alone they may be reckoned in scores—appear to regard the prison as their proper home, and their freedom as a mere ” going out for a spree,” which may be long or short, according to luck.

A remarkable feature of this prisoners’ wardrobe is, that the more magnificent the bonnet the smaller the accompanying bundle—a fact which tells most eloquently what a wretched trade these women follow, and how truly the majority of them are styled “unfortunate.” I am informed that nothing is more common than for these poor creatures to be found wearing a gaudy hat and feather and a fashionably made skirt and jacket of some cheap and flashy material, and nothing besides in the way of under-garments but a few tattered rags that a professional beggar would despise.

And these are the habiliments in which, on bitter cold winter nights, they saunter the pavements, and try to look like “gay women.” Gay! with their wretchedly thin shoes soaking in the mud, and their ill-clad limbs aching with cold, until they can get enough to drown sense and memory in gin. Gay, with their heart aching and utterly forlorn, and hopeless, and miserable, homeless, companionless, ragged and wretchedly clad, except for the outer finery without which they could no more pursue their deplorable calling than an angler could fish without bait—is it surprising that they drink until they are drunk, or that they steal when money to supply their desperate needs can be obtained in no other way?

It may be love of finery that in the first instance lures hundreds of girls from the path of virtue; but it is altogether a mistake to suppose that, despised and outcast, they are still content because they wear many flounces on their gowns, and flowers and feathers on their heads. They would reform if they could reform. They hate the life they lead, they hate themselves, and so they go from bad to worse; and the temporary deposit of these bonnets in the prison clothes-room finishes with their leaping a bridge in the delusive gay garb, or carrying it away with them to some distant convict station.

In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent, James Greenwood 1883: pp 100-07

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  It is curious how gentlemen of all stripes: clerical, philanthropic, or journalistic, feel that it is somehow their duty to chastise females for their “insane weakness” or “unwholesome craving” for finery. It really is enough to drive one genuinely mad, or to murder. But, of course, these gentlemen, in their handsome broadcloth suits, their sleek silk hats, and ornamental vests draped with substantial watch chains, would have rejected the notion that their attire was a reflection of personal vanity.  They viewed it, rather, as the honourable badge of respectability, but to these gentlemen, a fashionable bonnet carried no such guarantee.

Mrs Daffodil has previously censured a German gentleman for calling an interest in fashion a kind of lunacy.

 

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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