In Brief

In the Cyclopean account of the wedding of "Miss Fir Conifer of Pine Valley," the bride's dress is said to be composed of "green mercerised silk, moulded on an underslip of gloaming grey, sashed with a yoke of broad emerald and finished with a triple flounce of darkerhued fringe, the scheme being relieved by bretelles and hip insertions of acorn bronze." Bretelles, in late 19th century fashion, were decorative straps that passed over the shoulders from a belt at the front of a woman's dress to the belt in back, making two large V shapes. Joyce's "hip insertions" may be the hip bustles that Victorian women wore under dresses to affect shape and drape, but the mention of their color suggests an ornamentation on top of the dress.

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Bretelles have passed out of fashion vocabulary today, but they still appear in some reference works like the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and, which both define them as ornamental shoulder straps attaching to a belt or waistband at the front and back of a dress. In a glossary of Victorian fashion terms, the Kate Tattersall website goes into more detail: "Bretelles referred to a pair of ornamental suspender-like shoulder strap accessories that appeared as a fashion term around 1850. The straps were decorative, crafted of quality wool or silk, trimmed with lace, buckles, bows, &c., to set off a particular outfit or provide variety to a lady’s wardrobe. The straps were worn over a bodice then tied and tucked into a skirt or attached to a matching belt. Of note, the word was used interchangeably with the masculine form of pantaloon suspenders: plain elasticated straps with adjustable buckles for men. (These soon became known as braces and suspenders.)" In France, where the term originated, it now apparently refers only to straps or braces in a generic sense, or to men's suspenders.

In a personal communication, Ruth Wüst has directed my attention to the illustration shown here from the French weekly fashion magazine La Mode Illustrée, which had many subscribers in the U.K. The drawing vividly conveys the decorative quality of early bretelles, showing their adornment with a lacy fringe on the outside edges of the straps, ribbons tied in bows at the shoulders and attachment points, a different kind of flat fringe at the inside edges, and textured ribs running both parallel and perpendicular to the direction of the straps.

Wüst observes also that hip pads were fashionable at the turn of the century, citing their mention on the website of the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles. Of the model shown here, the site's curators remark that "To emphasize or create a womanly figure, women could wear hip pads, sometimes called hip bustles. This particular hip pad is labeled 'The Scott' and is made of cotton lightly padded with horsehair. According to its still attached (!) label, The Scott was 'especially adapted for very slight figures having no side or back hips.' This slight augmentation of a slender figure would help skirts 'hang and drape gracefully'."

If Joyce's "hip insertions" refers to such a padding device, then perhaps Miss Fir Conifer is a slender sapling. But the context in which the phrase appears suggests the possibility of a different fashion accessory. One can easily imagine how bretelles of an "acorn bronze" hue would attractively offset the greens of the bride's dress. Hip bustles, however, were undergarments, so it would be odd for a fashion report to note their color. Joyce may instead have in mind a kind of brown flounce sewn onto the outside of the dress below the waist belt, perhaps in something like the manner shown in the first illustration.

JH 2021
Illustration of bretelles on p. 268 of the 22 August 1869 issue of La Mode Illustrée, Journal de la Famille (Paris). Source:
Scott brand hip pads sold ca. 1900. Source: