Baleen (whale-bone) uses  


Whale uses




Fashionable clothing

By far the most important use of whale-bone from the Greenland fishery was as a stiffening element in various items of fashionable attire. Whales and women were intimately associated for over 300 years, to the severe detriment of both. Whales died painful deaths that women might live painful, but fashionable lives.

Throughout the middle ages women enjoyed loose fitting, free flowing dresses. This all changed around the beginning of the 16th century when the unadorned lines of mediaeval clothing evolved into moulded shapes. The focus of attention for the next 300 years was to be the waist with women aiming for the smallest possible. In this they were helped by a variety of devices, such as corsets, all stiffened with bands of ivory, wood and even iron, but most successfully by slats of whale-bone. At the same time, the lower part of the body was covered in voluminous skirts and petticoats which by contrast made the waist appear even smaller. At various times in history these were so large that they required support on various frames or cages known as farthingales or crinolines. Again, whale-bone was the ideal material for their production, being light, strong and flexible.

These changes in fashion are perhaps best appreciated by taking a few snapshots through British history.

Henry VII - Elizabeth I: 1485-1558
The Spanish farthingale was a hooped skirt eminently suitable to display the rich damasks and embroideries of the middle 1500s. The peculiar tightness from waist to under the arms was due to stays in the material, often of whale-bone.

James II - George III: 1685-1760
A spectacular innovation arrived on the streets of London during 1709, a hooped petticoat of enormous proportions, extending, at the height of the craze, to a circumference of over 16 metres! The fashion did not last long and by 1714 a flattened hoop, wide only at the sides, was the norm. A variety of experiments in hoops of various shapes and sizes occupied the minds of fashion victims for the next 50 years. Meanwhile, the whales continued to die in their service.

George III - George IV: 1760-1820
The hooped skirt disappeared around 1780, and despite the fact that corsets were still in demand, the price of whale bone fell sharply. During this period a pseudo-Greek, Classical style prevailed.

It appeared that the day of the whale-boned body might have passed but, unfortunately for the whales, by 1822 the focus returned to the waists and the tight corset once again became an essential fashion accessory.

Victoria: 1837-1901
During Victoria's reign heavy fabrics such as velvet and plush figured very much to the fore and the weight would have been intolerable but for the timely appearance in the 1850s of the latest in crinolines, a giant framework of whalebone and cord.

The period 1880-1901 was without doubt, the age of the corset. The corset of the early 1880s curved sharply in at the waist, merely crushing the thorax with a general pressure, the hips bulging out below and the breasts above. The next generation of corsets were much more cruel, shaped as they were to throw the hips back and the breasts forward, to produce a fashionable S shaped figure. The waist was absurdly small and the overall impact on general health and the digestive system in particular can only be guessed at. It had in fact been guessed at many years before: In 1653 John Bulwer published Artificial Changeling and wrote:

By which deadly artifice they reduce their Breasts into such streights, that they soon purchase a stinking breath; and while they ignorantly affect an august or narrow Breast, and to that end by strong compulsion shut up their Wastes in a whale-bone prison, or little-ease, they open the door to Consumptions, and a withering rottenesse.

Even young girls were bribed, coaxed and bullied into tight corsetry so that by the time they entered polite society they might do so with a fashionable 18 inch waist.

The impact of this increased demand on the cost of whale-bone was dramatic. The price rose from £500 per ton in 1870 to £3000 in 1902. In 1905 when the peak of corset production was reached, the whale-bone brought into Dundee was an order of magnitude more valuable than whale-oil.

However, the whales were now almost gone, hunted to the very edge of extinction. How ironic then, that within two years corsets were to become increasingly elastic and the demand for whale-bone collapsed in the face of competition from high tensile steel stays. Such is the fickle nature of the world of fashion

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İSCRAN/Learning & Teaching Scotland
Roman de la Rose, W.B. Scott, 1842

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İSCRAN/Lennoxlove House
Portrait of Elizabeth 1, G.P. Harding, 1815

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İSCRAN/National Museums of Scotland
Petticoat with flatted hoop, c. 1761

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İSCRAN/National Museums of Scotland
Yellow evening dress, 1811

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İSCRAN/National Museums of Scotland
Crinoline, 1856

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İSCRAN/National Museums of Scotland
S shaped figure, 1903


Martyn Gorman   ·   University of Aberdeen   ·   Department of Zoology  ·   © 2002