when busts were déclassé

Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker once summed up the shape of the 1920s by saying “If Sabrina (also known as Juliet with a built-in balcony) had lived in those days she would have been obliged to stay indoors.”


The dresses of the twenties involved designers in an arduous struggle against nature. It was the battle of the brassiere in reverse and half the dressmaker’s time was spent in making intricate contraptions of canvas and elastic to be fitted over any busts that showed signs of intransigence.


Yet according to Beverley Nichols there was one great woman and one great bust whose figure looms large over that period.

“Norman was busy and allowed me to wander around his pleasantly regal establishment in Burton Street. I found myself in a deserted room filled with busts labelled “Countess of X”, “Madame de P” and The Hon Mrs Q”. I realised I was in the most rarified atmosphere of la haute couture. The great ladies of town were all far too busy to come and be fitted in person; when they wanted a new dress the copies of their bust got all the boredom and pin pricks while they roared off to Ascot instead.

Garbo 1920

My eyes lit upon a bust standing all by itself in a corner. It was reverently wrapped in a lot of brown paper, even so, there was something about this object that seemed vaguely familiar. It looked the sort of bust that would stand no nonsense. It had an aura of majesty.


Then Norman came into the room and I suddenly realised who the bust was. “I say, isn’t that Queen M…..” The name froze on my lips. It was of course, but Norman never discussed his royal clients. To own a bust was considered extremely déclassé; it was worse than a mirror or a mantlepiece and nearly as bad as a lounge.


Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 7:03 am  Comments (36)  
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  1. Everything I learned about haute couture I learned from watching Project Runway. Seriously, that’s the first I’d heard of it.

    There is nothing nicer than a nice bust under a nice fur.

    • Scott, you have a thing for pandas?

    • Did you enlarge that photo of Garbo in fur? She has something seriously wrong with her ankles

      • Cankles!

  2. Since when does being forced to stand still receiving pin-pricks equate to boredom?

    • Well maybe not boredom, but I still don’t think it’s something I’ll be putting my hand up for soon

  3. I saved a rather magnificent nursing bra – always wanted to use it to make a plaster cast of my largest, fully operational rack…. It would look good over the fireplace.

    • In bronze perhaps?

    • “Fully operational”? Even if you’re not nursing, a bust still operates in so many ways.

  4. Love the Garbo burrito.

    • Ha! I hadn’t thought of it that way before….

  5. The twenties should come back – it’d be worth it just to see the look on Katie Price’s face.

    • I’d rather just send her back there on her own 😉

  6. Wow – I love Garbo’s stole/wrap/coat thing. How amazing. And what makes a lounge so awfully declassé, I wonder?

    • I think they’re talking about the use of the word lounge to refer to what was once known as a drawing room.

  7. My downstairs neighbour used to work for Norman Hartnell…I’ve known her for 20 years and she’s never mentioned busts. Never. Not once. I will raise the subject over a jam sandwich

    • Could you ask her why lounges mirrors and mantlepieces are so common?? I had no idea-

      • I think it’s to do with words that were considered upper class (U) or middle class (Non-U).

        Mirrors were Non-U (middle class) as the upper class used the term “looking glass” (U). Mantlepiece (Non-U) should be chimneypiece (U) and lounge (Non-U) should be drawing room (U)

  8. A relevant side note to this post: The woman who does plaster casts of rock stars’ penises is running for mayor in Chicago.

    • I know! I read it on Dangerous Minds last week. Do you think she has a chance?

      • No chance at all, sadly.

      • That’s a shame

  9. LOL cool!

  10. Ach I have no idea why such fine assets were hidden in such a shameful manner!

    • Disgraceful wasn’t it Jams?

  11. when you see one set of breasts… you want to see them all (with apologies to whichever comedian said it first).

    • Now that’s going to take a very very long time Gnukid

  12. I used that photo of Garbo in a 2 hour workshop for nonprofits on social media. It was “Gretta themed.” Funny. We have many Juliets with Built in Balconies here…except they’re fake. So much plastic surgery in my pocket of the universe.

    • It’s a great photo isn’t it?

      • She looks like a glam burrito.

  13. Run around nekkid, that is what I always say

    • You say a lot of things Malach….

  14. Busts are things that have appeal to me in terms of presentation. Neckline, posture, rib placement and stance allow me to determine how I feel about a bust-line.

    …That makes me sound judgmental of women. You should HEAR the way I talk about men.

  15. “Built-in balcony.” Heh. I’m going to incorporate that into my vocabulary, for sure.

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