One of the best things about working in Grey Gables aside from the sweeping central staircase with its bust of Henry James is the archive below stairs with the special reserve collection dedicated to nineteenth century women’s underwear. Conical woolen bras, the rubber-ridged support truss which pushes forward the extraordinary and de-eroticizing notion of the bust– a continuous undistinguished shelf of flesh, uncupped and unlovely. The naivety of such early cloaking devices as if the erotic life can be muffled by a bolster cum draft-excluder. Who knows now of the untold damage and the generations of young men eroticized by nannies and draft-excluders?
There is even a Biography of a French Bra, an anonymous reminiscence purportedly dictated by a haute couture brassiere. She describes her journey from the Faubourg St Germain to the slums of Wapping and all the breasts, some freckled, some smelling of milk curds, others drenched in champagne and eau-de toilette which she has supported in her twin cups, separated by a silk butterfly:
Mademoiselle splashed cold water on her pups every morning in order to maintain elasticity. And her breasts were all the more extraordinary since they were continually cloaked in folds of velvet. From the outside one had the sense of a diminutive, waif-like female — a form she had cultivated after the failure of her marriage to the Baron. Only when she slipped out of her gown to place white petals in her nether hair by those soft soundless lips (which never broke their vow of silence) did one have the sense of a return to fullness. A voluptuous revelation that one scarce imagined under her robes, as if form was re-emerging like the vases beneath the dust shrouds in the shuttered rooms of Chateau De Stein. Biography of a French Bra, anonymous
A History of the Umbrella is one of the hidden gems in the special collection. The archivist down there, an obscure and snuffling creature with a handbag stuffed full of used tissues and jars of Shippam’s Paste, told me under pain of death I was not to remove the book. I snuck in during my lunch hour and read for a riveting hour the innovations and evolution of the brolly. From its early use in Neanderthal settlements as a fertility wand known as a ‘dingle-stick’ as well as protecting troglodytes from meteor showers. In the nineteenth century the umbrella was popularized by the bewigged and much powdered Marzipans who used the central spike to conceal a silver stiletto.
Along the way we hear of bold designs that fell by the wayside. An early police umbrella that had a revolving blue lantern placed on top of the needle, and the breast shaped brolly designed by a Russian aristocrat infatuated by his wet-nurse where the user peered up into a lattice-work of veins set in a translucent skin like fabric and surmounted by a warm and rubbery nipple.