29 June 2008

Cross My Heart

BUST-UP by Wallace Reyburn 1971

This is a hardback (of course) with no dustjacket and the photo and titling (I said titling) printed directly onto the boards. I think it's obvious why I picked it up.

First thing on a random opening is a reference to an area of the Adriatic coast of Italy called Nippoli Grandi where, we are told, lady grape crushers who spent all day bobbing up and down in large vats of grapes had taken to wearing a restraining garment called the flatina. Given that I am being asked by the book's subtitle to believe that the inventor of the bra went by the name of Otto Titzling, I don't think I'll be googling either the place or the garment to find out more.

Leafthrough. There are just over 100 pages divided into 12 short chapters with titles like 'The Young Titzling', 'Hans Delving' and 'False Pretences'. Lots of the illustrations look as though they come from Victorian sources, while others - like the design for a bra for trapeze artistes who are likely to spend a lot of their time upside down - have the same style but were clearly drawn for this book.

The front bits (of the book) tell me that this was published by Macdonald & Co., London in 1971 and that it is a first edition. On one of the preliminary pages, the author thanks various organisations for the illustrations, including Gossards, The Corset Guild of Great Britain and The Patent Office.

Looking into it. This is obviously a spoof history, but the key to its success is that you often don't know whether there are any bits that you should actually believe.

In the first paragraph, for example, Reyburn contrasts the unsung Titzling to others whose achievements have led to them becoming household names. George Stetson, for example. Unlike the Italian resort of Nippoli Grandi, that is one I did have to check up on. I found no George but, apparently, a prospector called John B Stetson accidentally invented the hat when showing off with some seal skins. Or, according to rigourous research, the hat was invented by Christy's Hat Company based near Bristol, England. Stetson did, in fact, make an unsuccessful attempt to sue Christy's - but don't even ask how it came to be known as a ten-gallon hat.

The life and work of Otto Titzling - immigrant son of a German bridge designer and Sousa marching music fan who falls in love with Icelandic opera singer Swanhilda Olafson and invents the first bra to cope with her generous upholstery - is interwoven with a history of women's undergarments.

Some of the general drift of this rings true, such as the evolution from rigid corset to flexible girdle. But some of the details are more dubious and seem to have come from Reyburn's knack of taking ideas and running with them until they yield a laugh. What are we to make, for example, of a breakthrough in corset stays technology that involved the use of a lattice of steel strips that would slide across each other to facilitate movement? Interesting and possibly true. Until we learn that the disadvantages of the design include a clashing noise like the Three Musketeers fighting their way out of an ambush whenever the wearer becomes at all energetic, and the risk of lightening strike.

In the 1970s, Otto Titzling enjoyed a brief spell as a functioning urban myth. Unlike Thomas Crapper, the subject of Wallace Reyburn's more famous book Flushed With Pride, Titzling was rumbled fairly quickly.

This is history as bunk and it's strangely inspiring. I'm off to research the story of Willem de Wijper, the 17th century Dutch merchant whose generosity in allowing his sailors to take a loop of fine paper aboard vessels bound for the Indies is generally believed to be the origin of the humble toilet roll.

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