Book Review: How the Watch Was Worn

How the Watch was Worn: A Fashion for 500 Years

by Genevieve Cummins

Antique Collectors’ Club (June 16, 2010)

Review From Meghan Grossman Hansen

Meghan Grossman Hansen is the Registrar at the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, and she received her Master of Arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Fashion & Textiles: History, Theory, and Museum Practice. Her areas of interest include the history of fashion and fashion photography, fashion history as portrayed in literature, preservation of historic clothing, and standards in museum registration.

As a fashion historian and museum professional, I am often faced with the challenge of looking at a garment and determining the proper way it should be accessorized. How the Watch Was Worn: A Fashion for 500 Years by Genevieve Cummins answers this question for all those dying to know how a watch was worn by individuals throughout this fashion accessory’s history. The author, a pediatrician and watch enthusiast, seeks to clarify the specifics of watch-wearing for a broad audience of collectors, historians, and the generally interested. Through a wealth of illustrations (antique photographs, fashion plates, caricatures, advertisements, catalogs, and antique garments and watches) the progression of watches from luxury item to necessity is well-documented. The work focuses primarily on the late 18th century and 19th century, with a brief introduction to early watch development, when only the most elite aristocracy could afford the device.

As an Antique Collectors’ Club book, it provides a great amount of reference material for comparing one’s own collection to other extant examples (however, prices are not included and sources are not consistently noted). The variety of materials, manufacture, and ornamentation of watches makes it apparent why they are sought-after collector’s items. The book is organized chronologically and subdivided by the “How” of the book, chapter headings listing a single way to wear the watch. Cummins thoroughly covers the many accessory components necessary in the wearing of a watch – chains, chatelaines, charms, brooches, and so on. The author’s effort to clarify period terminology is of particular note. Collectors, scholars, and museum professionals will find this a valuable source for the terms used to identify different lengths of chain, arrangements, and ornaments worn with the watch. However, despite the author’s good intentions, the dates and usage of various terms, such as fob, chatelaine, and Macaroni, are vague and conflicting. There are terminology differences in contemporaneous publications, catalogs, and advertisements, which are not explained by geographical region or date. Without a doubt, the most important lesson to be learned is that many terms were used concurrently, with different meanings in various contexts and regions.

The book includes garments, ornamented with a watch and its accessories, from each period discussed. Each ensemble illustrates a different style of watch, accoutrements, and arrangement. Many garments have hidden pockets for watches to be stored, while a few have highly decorative pockets on the exterior of the bodice or skirt. In the Regency period, women wore a watch tucked into their belt with a “Macaroni” chain, or short chain, wrapped around and attached to the belt. Also popular was the watch chatelaine, which was often attached to the belt with hooks, and featured various useful objects (keys, scissors, or pencil). The early Victorian woman continued to wear the chatelaine, but as bodice styles changed, more variety was seen in the way the watch was worn. A long chain around the neck would be caught up in a brooch or belt, with the watch placed in the watch pocket or visibly hanging. Short chains and brooches were used to secure the watch to the upper bodice. Vest chains of various types were used in the same way as men’s vest chains, with one end secured in a bodice buttonholes and the watch tucked in the watch pocket.

Men’s fashions are also thoroughly covered, although there is less variation in watch-wearing as men’s clothing becomes more uniform in the 19th century. Men’s breeches and pants throughout the 19th century featured a small hidden pocket in the waistband, called a fob pocket. As a result, the small chain or ribbon extending from the pocket is also called a fob. Thus, there is a clear gender differentiation in the wearing of a watch in the Regency period, while this becomes less concrete when men’s watches moved to the waistcoat pocket in the mid-19th century. (As previously mentioned, women were also wearing their watch with a vest-type chain.)

As I was reading this book, one of the questions that continued to occur to me was: Were there differences in the way watches were worn during the day and in the evening? Were different styles of watches worn at home than worn visiting during the 19th century? While Cummins presents an immense number of period sources in her work, her analysis of their content is limited to style and form, with little comment regarding behavior, propriety, or other social historical elements that would be of interest to a scholar. While this work is a valuable source for visual inspiration and comparanda, it left me unsatisfied as a historian. I hope that Cummins’ specialized work will prompt more fashion historians to analyze the importance of time-telling, watch-wearing, and fashion accessories.

Abbreviated Bibliography

Fukai, Akiko. Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century. The Kyoto Costume Institute. London: Taschen, 2002.

Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1981.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1995.

Thompson, David. Watches: A Selection from the Ashmolean Museum (Ashmolean Handbooks). Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2007.

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