The New Method , A.B. Walker.  LIFE  Magazine, September 1910. Image courtesy of New York Historical Society.

The New Method, A.B. Walker. LIFE Magazine, September 1910. Image courtesy of New York Historical Society.

Hustle your bustle

French clothing, and its various accoutrements, have long been considered the ne plus ultra of Western fashion. In the late nineteenth century, the allure of such items, coupled with America’s high import duties, led some women to resort to smuggling. While trunks provided storage for illicit goods, undergarment structures stuffed with accessories were also uncovered by the New York City Customs House. The agency hired female inspectors to help combat this problem and began to analyze the fit and shape of women’s clothes in order to ascertain whether items might be hidden beneath. At the time, bustles gave female wearers the support and volume required by fashionable silhouettes, while dress improvers also created spaces beneath women’s skirts. Both of these foundational garments proved ideal places to hide somewhat small contraband. In the years surrounding the turn of the century, hand- and machine-made lace from Europe was in particularly high demand in the dress shops of New York City. For both professional dressmakers and women who could not afford gowns made in France, collars, passementerie, accessories, and even pattern pieces, allowed for the maintenance of current styles. However, to smuggle these undeclared pieces of fabric was to subvert taxes, and risk arrest and imprisonment. Satirical cartoons in the press lampooned the practice, along with supposedly irrational and fashion-obsessed women in general. Nevertheless, the fact that these women persisted in this illegal pursuit is a testament to the high regard in which the supposed superior quality of authentic French fashion was held.

Exhibition objects

The National Police Gazette (American, 1845 – 1977), Pretty Female Smugglers, March, 1881, Paper (reproduction) Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

LIFE Magazine (American, 1882 – 2000), A.B. Walker (American, active 1906 – 1924), The New Method, September, 1910, Paper (reproduction) Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Bustle, American, ca. 1880, Wire and cotton Courtesy of Lauren Rossi

Lace Yoke, French, 1870 – 1900, Linen Courtesy of Arizona History Museum

Lace Collar, French, 1870 – 1900, Linen Courtesy of Arizona History Museum