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July 2, 2014

You can't have an interest in history and live in Colorado long without hearing about Isabella Bird.  This Victorian English Lady Traveler ventured all over the world, including a stop along the Colorado Front Range, and had an amusing bit to say about it.  I found "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains" in a thrift shop, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

I found Isabella fascinating.  A typical Prim and Proper Englishwoman who seems to  be attempting to escape society.  She generally scorns the people she meets and waxes poetic about the scenic views she finds.  She seems happiest when she's alone in the wild.

All green that I have ever seen, of English lawns in June, or Alpine valleys, seems poor and colourless as compared with the dazzling green of this sixty-five miles.  It is a joyous green, a glory.  Whenever I look up from my writing, I ask, Was there ever such green?  Was there ever such sunshine?  Was there ever such an atmosphere?  Was there ever such an adventure?  And Nature--for I have no other companion, and wish for none--answers, “No.”  The novelty is that I am alone, my conveyance my own horse; no luggage to look after, for it is all in my saddle-bags; no guide to bother, hurry, or hinder me; and with knowledge enough of the country to stop when and where I please.  A native guide, besides being a considerable expense, is a great nuisance; and as the trail is easy to find, and the rivers are low, I resolved for once to taste the delights of perfect independence!  This is a blessed country, for a lady can travel everywhere in absolute security. - Letter XXVI, The Hawaiian Archipelago

In Hawaii, Isabella learned how to ride astride a horse, and takes full advantage of it during her Colorado visit.  It might have been this that really got my attention.  In England she would have caused quite a scandal.  In Western America, she gained some approval from the men for her ability to adapt and keep up. (No opinion on what the women thought.)  In Hawaii, where she learned to ride this way, no one would have cared, because EVERYONE rode astride!

I thought since I was living in Colorado and into Steampunk, it might be quite fun to cosplay Ms. Bird.  But her outfit stymies me.  Obviously she couldn't ride in Victorian fashions.  Instead, she exported a riding outfit based on what was available and 'normal' to both native and foreign women in Hawaii.  But what, exactly, did this outfit look like?

In a footnote in 'A Lady's Life' she provides a hint:  "For the benefit of other lady travelers, I wish to explain that my "Hawaiian riding dress" is the "American Lady's Mountain Dress," a half-fitting jacket, a skirt reaching to the ankles, and full Turkish trousers gathered into frills falling over the boots,—a thoroughly serviceable and feminine costume for mountaineering and other rough traveling, as in the Alps or any other part of the world."

I continued searching, but only got a few more comments on her clothing.

I have nothing else to wear!
"Owing to my inability to get money in Denver I am almost without shoes, have nothing but a pair of slippers and some "arctics." For outer garments—well, I have a trained black silk dress, with a black silk polonaise! and nothing else but my old flannel riding suit, which is quite threadbare, and requires such frequent mending that I am sometimes obliged to "dress" for supper, and patch and darn it during the evening."


"Putting a minimum of indispensables into a bag, and slipping on my Hawaiian riding dress over a silk skirt, and a dust cloak over all, I stealthily crossed the plaza to the livery stable . . ."
"I wore my Hawaiian riding dress, with a handkerchief tied over my face and the sun-cover of my umbrella folded and tied over my hat, for the sun was very fierce."

What do you know, she does the same thing Jane Austen does that I hate - minimal mention of color or detail!

So, we have a few things to go on. Flannel, threadbare, Mountain Dress, turkish trousers, and the ubiquitous Hawaiian Riding Dress. What exactly IS that?  I turned to her previous book, The Hawaiian Archipelago, in the hopes of finding some answers, and pulled out some more hopefully useful clothing descriptions.

The native women all ride astride, on ordinary occasions in the full sacks, or holukus, and on gala days in the pau, the gay, winged dress which I described in writing from Honolulu.  A great many of the foreign ladies on Hawaii have adopted the Mexican saddle also, for greater security to themselves and ease to their horses, on the steep and perilous bridle-tracks, but they wear full Turkish trowsers and jauntily-made dresses reaching to the ankles.
The women seemed perfectly at home in their gay, brass-bossed, high peaked saddles, flying along astride, barefooted, with their orange and scarlet riding dresses streaming on each side beyond their horses’ tails, a bright kaleidoscopic flash of bright eyes, white teeth, shining hair, garlands of flowers and many-coloured dresses;
Many of the women were in flowing riding-dresses of pure white . . . 
. . . their drapery, which consists of a sleeved garment which falls in ample and unconfined folds from their shoulders to their feet, partly conceals this defect, which is here regarded as a beauty.  Some of these dresses were black, but many of those worn by the younger women were of pure white, crimson, yellow, scarlet, blue, or light green.  
I had on my coarse Australian hat which serves the double purpose of sunshade and umbrella, Mrs. Thompson’s riding costume, my great rusty New Zealand boots, and my blanket strapped behind a very gaily ornamented brass-bossed demi-pique Mexican saddle, which one of the missionary’s daughters had lent me.
My saddle-bags contain, besides “Sunday clothes,” dress for any “gaieties” which Hilo may offer; but I circumscribed my stock of clothes as much as possible, having fallen into the rough-and-ready practice of washing them at night, and putting them on unironed in the morning.   
 I even wish that you could see me in my Rob Roy riding dress, with leather belt and pouch, a lei of the orange seeds of the pandanus round my throat, jingling Mexican spurs, blue saddle blanket, and Rob Roy blanket strapped on behind the saddle!
 "Rob Roy" is apparently a red and black tartan fabric.

  As to clothing.  I wear my flannel riding dress for both riding and walking, and a black silk at other times.  The resident ladies wear prints and silks, and the gentlemen black cloth or dark tweed suits.
when the natives saw me plunge boldly into the river in my riding dress, which is really not unlike a fashionable Newport bathing suit, they thought better of it.

Pa'u appears to be the common Hawaiian word for skirt, but specifically it's used to describe the Hawaiian female riding costume, and is apparently a tradition that is now mostly seen in parades.  I found a Pinterest board full of examples.  It must be quite impressive seen at full gallop!  It is, however, impossible to see how the skirt is constructed.  This article describes it as simply a very long, carefully draped piece of cloth, held in place with nuts.   Another article is here, saying essentially the same thing, so it's probably not so much a skirt to Isabella as a coverup.  It looks very difficult to get into by yourself!  As she mentions above, Isabella, when referring to her Hawaiian Riding Dress, is NOT talking about the native dress, but what the foreign women to Hawaii - the British, the missionaries, etc - were wearing.  This was fun to look at, but I've now established that this is not what I need, but wouldn't Steampunk Hawaiian be fun?

So - back to the description.
. . . "American Lady's Mountain Dress," a half-fitting jacket, a skirt reaching to the ankles, and full Turkish trousers gathered into frills falling over the boots . . .
my riding dress, which is really not unlike a fashionable Newport bathing suit . . .

Turkish trousers are apparently just bloomers, pre Amelia Bloomer, or good old fashioned harem pants.  I suppose there's some leeway in where the poofy part ends - below the knee?  at the ankle?

Now - Mountain Dress?  I'm still having trouble decoding that.  I found mention of Isabella clarifying her clothing description statement to John Murray.  I think she says it was the type of dress commonly worn by women visiting mountain resorts, but as I could only find half the statement, I don't know how much further she elaborates.  I would LOVE to have a jacket/corset combo to address a lot of issues, but they're hard to find.

In any case, I probably have enough to get started with.  Harem pants under a long, wide skirt sounds exotic and fun and easy.  Making them grungy and grimy and patchy will be interesting.  Unlike most Steampunk stuff, decorations will be minimal.  Since she traveled so much by horseback, she came to understand the value of weight for both her comfort and her horse's.   Isabella writes in The Hawaiian Archipelago:  "I have discarded, owing to their weight, all the well-meant luxuries which were bestowed upon me, such as drinking cups, flasks, etnas, sandwich cases, knife cases, spoons, pocket mirrors, etc.  The inside of a watchcase makes a sufficient mirror, and I make a cup from a kalo leaf.  All cases are a mistake,--at least I think so, as I contemplate my light equipment with complacency."  I think she would have loved having a Swiss Army Knife.  "I carry besides [clothes], a canvas bag on the horn of my saddle, containing two days’ provender, and a knife, horse-shoe nails, glycerine, thread, twine, leather thongs, with other little et ceteras, the lack of which might prove troublesome, a thermometer and aneroid in a leather case, and a plaid."

Granted, Isabella would have been horrified to appear at a convention in such attire.  She's just going to have to be in a rush to get to her rooms and hope her luggage has arrived ahead of her.

Isabella also traveled abroad, I'm hoping she went somewhere and wore a pith helmet, because I have one and I'm determined to incorporate it into as many outfits as possible.

Update 7/4/14

I got my wish!  I found this image for sale on Amazon.

That's allegedly Isabella on the left, about 30-40 years after her Colorado visit.  She is in Swatow (Shantou) in China.  If that's not a pith helmet, then I'm not going to find anything closer.  And take a good look at her ankles.  Think those are trousers under there?


Unknown said...

The picture caption says Mrs. Bishop. Am I missing something to understand this to be Isabella Bird?

Elaine Z said...

sorry for the delay! Isabella Bird was married to John Bishop. She published under her maiden name.