I started noticing a weird clothing item while collecting images of women working.
It's kinda like a stomacher.
Except it's not one of the gorgeous, embroidered, gilt, bow-bedecked stomachers we usually see displayed in museum collections and photographed for books.
It's plain. Zilch on it. In fact, it doesn't even match the gown it's being worn with.
What the heck, I thought, *is* this thing?
A few examples:
Henry Robert Morland (London circa 1719-1797) The Butter Churner
Henry Robert Morland, The Laundry Maid, Engraving by Philip Dawe, 1774
1765 Henry Robert Morland (British artist, 1716-1797) A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen
Henry Robert Morland, Domestic Employment: Ironing National Museums Liverpool
Miss White Clear Starcher to the Queen, Unknown British artist
So, what can we say about this curious garment? First, in each case, the wearer is a maid doing manual work--laundry-related manual work. The gown she is wearing is nice-ish--nothing over the top fancy, but, from the look of the fabric in each image, either a cotton print, a painted silk, a plain silk, or some other "upmarket" fabric--not workaday linen or wool. The gowns (aside from the last, which is unclear) are all of the robing-and-stomacher front closure style, and most are clearly open, with robings unpinned.
Then, how it's worn:
In each case, the piece appears undyed, either bleached or unbleached, and of a fabric that, from sheen and texture, I would guess to be linen. In an interesting twist, most appear to be tucked into the top of the stays rather than pinned into place. The remainder of the cut is similar to a "normal" stomacher, as the edges are visible.
As you might have guessed, I found this interesting.
I found this *particularly* interesting as the vast majority of English aprons and images of English women wearing aprons depict an apron that only covers the skirts--not the "pinner," "pinafore" or "bib" apron that we see more commonly in French and Dutch images. I had wondered--WHY not wear something that protects the front of one's clothing from stains, too?
Well, looks like they did.
And then I got to wondering about a term I'd seen floating around some textual sources--Bib:
Elizabeth Banks , was indicted, for that she, in a certain field, or open place, near the King's highway, on Frances Mercer , spinster, did make an assault, putting her in corporal fear, &c. one stay, value 1 s. one pair of stockings, one linen and apron, the goods of the said Frances, did steal, take and carry away .
Arthur Hambleton was indicted for stealing one worked linen handkerchief, called Dresden, three linen gowns, one-linen , one linen apron, two other gowns,
And others...and I wondered. Bib? What's a bib? Though some of the references specifically speak to children, most did not, so my modern understanding of the term "bib" as "drool catcher and mealtime poncho" was certainly incorrect here.
I had heard it suggested that "bib" might mean kerchief, but as the thefts often list bibs AND kerchiefs as stolen items, this didn't seem plausible, either.
Then there's the fact that a pinned-front apron is termed a "bibbed" apron--and the piece that pins on the front, is, apparently, a "bib":
[I] saw the prisoner at the bar putting my handkerchief as fast as he could between the of his apron and his waistcoat.
Well, hmmm. Is the weird stomacher thing called a bib? That's my best guess at the moment
For fun, I decided to make one of my own as a bit of "experimental archaeology" and use it while performing kitchen duties this spring.
I tucked it into the front of my stays, as the images seem to do--but found that the top was a bit wide and I had extra fabric that bunched at the sides. Good to know--make the top a bit narrower than my "normal" stomacher. I also pinned my robings back down as I was wearing this for a while, like the "Maid Soaping Linen" seems to have done.
And it worked quite well! I saved my normal stomacher from the blood from a stab wound to my finger, so I can say the piece is useful. It was easy to swap the "bib" in for my normal, matching stomacher, so I can safely say that a maid--or housewife--who wanted protection for her gown but wanted to switch back quickly could certainly do so. A good addition to my working wardrobe, I think--and I'm going to keep looking into bibs!