Vernet Project: Further Witzchoura References

Last post relating to witzchouras, we looked at basic definitions of the word, determining that the garment and its name developed from Polish and French influences, that the garment was popular c. 1808 to 1835, and that the chief qualifications are that it is an outer coat or mantle lined and trimmed in fur. But let’s not stop there: here are more references to the witzchouras from the early 19th century.

In 1817, La Belle Assembleé has multiple mentions of witzchouras. The following excerpt tells us a good amount about this style:

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Side note: A Louis d’Or is a French gold coin first struck in 1640. These were promoted by the French kings to fill the need for a large denomination coin, since the franc and livre silver coins were greatly decreasing in value. In 1726, France developed monetary stability and the Louis d’Or was established as being worth 24 livres, a value that remained static through the French Revolution. At the time of this quote in 1817, a Louis d’Or referred to a 20 franc gold piece, also called a Napoleon, so named because Napoleon coopted the idea of the French kings before him. (Sources: Merriam Webster, the OED for louis d’orNapoleon, and livre, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

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Louis d’Or from 1709

Throughout the 18th century, a franc was similar in value to a livre, and about 20 of either of these coins equalled one Louis d’Or. La Belle Assembleé tells us that a witzchoura in 1817 was worth 30-90 Louis d’Ors. What I’m driving at here is the relative value of one of these garments.

The OED gives us an idea of the value of a livre over time: in 1746 one captain was paid 120 livres a month (6 Louis d’Ors). Extrapolate that for a year, and that captain was making 72 Louis d’Ors, just enough for a witzchoura or two and nothing else! Another example from 1797 sounds outraged that an English sea officer was charged 300 livres for eight days of lodging (15 Louis d’Ors). That’s almost 60 Louis d’Ors per month, which would easily be a witzchoura, though I doubt that sea officer would need a witzchoura instead of lodgings! The takeaway message is that, as La Belle Assembleé says, witzchouras were costly and worn only by the wealthy.

It is worth noting that there are fur lined pelisses mentioned which do not qualify as witzchouras in the eyes of La Belle Assembleé. I’ll be examining these almost-witzchouras in a later post.

Moving along some years, The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine describes fashionable witzchouras in 1833 (the OED had quoted part of this in their definition of witzchoura that we looked at in my last post):

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As we established before, by the 1830s the shape of the witzchoura had changed to accommodate the changing fashions of dresses under them: becoming more cape-like, with collars and loose sleeves rather than being fitted like a pelisse as they were in the earlier years of their popularity. Again, we are reminded that witzchouras are made from expensive fur, and the more expensive the fur the more likely to see it displayed as much as possible.

Moving forward once again, C. Willet Cunnington mentions witzchouras in his book English Women’s Clothing in the 19th Century referencing a year as late as 1849: “The Witzchoura Mantle, for the carriage, lined and trimmed with fur.”

This quote from La Belle Assembleé in 1849 could be the source for Cunnington’s mention of the style, as the phrasing is quite close to Cunnington’s description:

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Here there is a mention of another garment similar to a witzchoura: in this case a burnous. According to the OED again, a burnous is a woman’s cloak or mantle from the 19th century resembling an Arabian upper garment of the same name. It is interesting to note that by the 1830s and 1840s a witzchoura is described as heavy, cumbrous, and very ample instead of the more fashionable and positive descriptions from the decades prior.

One final mention of the witzchoura is from The Outdoor Girl Of A Century Ago, published in 1922:

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This is the second mention in this post of a similar (or possibly the same) garment of Russian origin. In addition to the specific evidence of the Polish origins of the witzchoura in name and relating to Napoleon himself, I’ve also come across multiple mentions of the witzchoura style being brought back to France from Russia by Napoleon’s forces. Both of these influences fit in with the dating we’ve established and lead me to wonder if these are two separate and unique garments. Perhaps, though I suspect that if they were indeed separate styles in name they would have been variations on a similar theme, just like the fur-lined pelisse mentioned earlier in this post.

Vernet Project: Basic Witzchoura Descriptions

It’s time for a little more information about witzchouras! Back in January, I shared my round-about journey to figure out what a witzchoura is. Now it’s time to look at witzchouras in more detail to determine what qualities define them.

In that last post, we left off with this enlightening sentence from the book Empire Fashions by Dover Publishers: “Around 1808, a high-waisted, fur-lined woman’s coat appeared, the witzchoura [wi choo ra].” Here is an example of what a witzchoura looks like.

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Costume Parisien from 1813

My go-to source when I get geeky about word history is the Oxford English Dictionary, and lucky for me, it has an entry for witzchoura! The OED tells us it as an obsolete noun from the French vitchoura and the Polish wilczura (a wolf-skin coat) that is defined as “A style of lady’s mantle fashionable c. 1820-35.”  The OED also shares four uses of the word from period sources. Here they are, with slight edits:

1823 La Belle Assemblée Dec. Witzchoura pelisse of gros de Naples,..trimmed with a very broad border of swansdown.
1833 Ladies Pocket Mag. The witchoura is a very ample mantle, made with a very deep collar, and cape, and long, loose sleeves.
1835 Court Mag. [The mantle] is of the Witzchoura form, drawn close at the back, with large Turkish sleeves, and a deep falling collar.
[1898 M. Loyd tr. O. Uzanne Fashion in Paris Witzchouras had not yet [c1806] come into vogue.]

So far, our qualifications for a witzchoura include: a high waist for earlier witzchouras (to correspond with the fashionable silhouette), fur lining, fur trim, the fact that a witzchoura is a coat or mantle (for outerwear, with another garment worn underneath), that it was most popular c. 1820-1835, and that it had not yet become fashionable c. 1806. Other sources add to a witzchoura’s qualifications those of its being full length, having large sleeves and a wide collar (or sometimes hood or cape layers over the shoulders) especially in the 1830s when the silhouette changed, as well as the general period of the “early 19th century” for its popularity, which makes sense since we’ve just looked at sources that mention dates between 1806 and 1835.

There is some information telling us that the garment became popular after Napoleon gained a Polish mistress in 1808 and other information that tells us that the garment was Russian in origin and became popular after the Napoleonic Wars brought the style back to France and England. (For more information about these early witzchoura influences, check out this post at the Sewing Empire blog.)

I’m excited the word has Polish or Russian origins, because “witz” sounds Polish or German to me. Also, I love that the last quote from the OED tells us that witzchouras weren’t popular just a few years prior to the year 1814. Oh, how fashionable is a merveilleuse!

Vernet Project: Have You Ever Head Of A Witzchoura?

I hadn’t!

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The text reads: “Toque de Velours. Witz-choura de Satin.” I’ve looked at enough fashion plates to guess the meaning of most of the text. After some quick reference to translation programs, I confirmed my suspicions and translated the text as: “Hat of velvet. ____ of satin.” The question is, what does “Witz-choura” mean?

First, let me tell you that I originally read the plate as “Toque de Velours. With-choura de Satin.” That z looks remarkably like an h, despite the fact that I don’t think “with” is a word in French (also, I don’t really associate the letter z with French words, so I was happy to interpret it as an h). I followed this path for awhile, though, despite the fact that it didn’t quite make sense. Assuming “With” meant what it does in English, I proceeded to try to figure out what “choura” meant. I looked at English dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, with no luck. And in French dictionaries the closest thing I found is that “choura” is conjugation of “chouraver” or “chourer,” a verb which seems to mean “to steal” or “to rob” in English. But that didn’t make any sort of sense! The only other reference to the word “choura” I found was that it has a connection to an Arabic word relating to the parliament of an Islamic state. Again, no connection. So then I thought, what’s the word for shoes in French? Maybe “choura” is an older form of that word? Turns out that “les chaussures” means shoes in French.

I was about to pursue this train of thought, when Mr. Q interrupted me. When I complained about my lack of useful results he suggested I try, amongst other ideas, a search of Google Scholar. My initial search turned up lots of science related publications with authors whose last names were Choura. But then, when I added the word “fashion” to my search, I was returned one result which was to the point and clarified the whole business (at least a little bit!). Mr. Q broke the mystery wide open!

The clarification comes from the book Empire Fashions by Dover Publishers. The relevant sentence can be found here and reads: “Around 1808, a high-waisted, fur-lined woman’s coat appeared, the witzchoura [wi choo ra].” Ohhhh, I thought, that’s not an h it’s a z!

Upon searching for it with the now-corrected spelling I finally found relevant information! All that will be in future posts, though. I thought I’d break it up to avoid having one really long post. So you can look forward to a post with descriptions of witzchouras and then also a post with images of them. At least I was on the right track!

(Click here for my original post about the 1814 Vernet Project, to which this post refers.)

Vernet Project: Merveilleuses & Incroyables

Really exciting things are secretly brewing amongst an international group of historical seamstresses, tailors, and costumers. They are strange, beautiful, unusual, fun, just plain weird, and detailed… and they are coming to life in 2015!

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Join us on Facebook and look forward to more tantalizing posts here and around the historical clothing and costuming blog-world as we research, sew, and prepare to unveil this amazing project in December 2015. Do you Vernet?