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On to pelerines, pinafores, and berthes

July 31, 2016

Many thanks to all who commented on the last post! With your help, I think I know more or less what I need to do with the repetitions of кокетничать/кокетство and стеснить/стеснять. Now it’s only the лиф ‘bodice (?)’ that remains.

Commenter Gorkovchanin cites an 1847 dictionary where лиф is defined as “Лифъ – Перехватъ на задней части платья около поясницы” (“Lif: a perekhkvat on the back part of a dress around the lower back”) and перехват is in turn defined as “2) Мѣсто въ платьѣ, съуженное надъ поясницею” (“Perekhvat: a place on a dress that is narrowed over the lower back”). So a 1 1/2 vershok– (2 5/8 inch–) lif would mean the woman in the portrait had a mostly bare back, and wouldn’t suggest anything about her chest.

That’s plausible and different from how I read it. I thought I might be misinterpreting what ширина ‘width’ meant in terms of where you’d put a tape measure, and I also wasn’t confident in my arshins and vershoks, but the idea that a lif did not at least include the front part of the upper half of a dress hadn’t occurred to me.

However, I’ve been looking at how contemporary writers used the word lif, and it does seem to typically mean the part of a dress that’s above the waist, as opposed to the iubka ‘skirt’ of the dress. Also, this portrait in “The Old Man” is supposed to be an unsuccessful imitation of a head by Greuze, and in the prototypical head by Greuze I don’t think we see the woman’s back. Details below, if you’re interested; if anyone wants to weigh in on whether lif means “bodice” (OED: “2. The upper part of a woman’s dress, a tight-fitting outer vest or waistcoat, either made in a piece with the skirt or separate […]”) in the relevant passage, and if so what exactly “1 1/2 vershoks of width” means in context, that would be wonderful.


Here are some mid-to-late nineteenth-century uses of lif, the word I’m so far translating as bodice (click the link after each to see the Russian):

Robin Otto West on Pinterest calls this a “Dress with lace pelerine c. 1865”

“It will probably now seem very strange if we begin to talk about ball gowns. However, we will mention only one, and that merely to marvel at the degree of refinement that women’s taste has today attained. Here it is. Three skirts of blue satin, the lowest of a dark color, the second much brighter, and finally the upper one brightest of all. Each skirt has been matched with a bouquet of roses with velvet leaves. The lif and sleeves are smooth. Wreaths of small roses have been placed at the end of the sleeves, and on the lif a white lace pèlerine or berthe.” (from the fashion column in an 1843 issue of National Annals)

“The clothes worn by boarding-school girls are so well known that it is almost unnecessary to describe them. In the main a green or brown floor-length camlet dress, of the most idiosyncratic and antediluvian cut, a skirt sewn in the back to a smooth, cut-out [вырезанный] lif, with short sleeves, that was fastened with hooks in the back; one breadth of the skirt, which was not sewn to the lif, was fastened to it from the side. With the lif a pinafore — linen on weekdays, calico on holidays — was fastened on underneath with pins and tied on above with a string; white pelerines and sleeves — that is the outer clothing.” (from “Sketches of the Boarding School Life of Former Times [From the Memories of an Old Boarding School Girl]” in an 1870 issue of Dawn)

“The influence of the Marquise de Maintenon (beginning in 1685) on women’s dress was expressed above all in the replacing of the open lif by a high one that covered the entire chest up to the beginning of the neck.” (from an 1879 translation of a German treatise on the history of fashion)

“‘One may base one’s idea of the Ural sarafan,’ writes the author (p. 122, no. 4, Lib. for Reading), ‘on those sarafans in which wet-nurses are here sometimes dressed, with only one difference: that the sarafan is made with a very high lif that goes right up to the throat and with a waist encircled by a gold or pearl belt with long tassels.’ Something isn’t right here; something here doesn’t make sense. The lif, according to the author, goes up to the throat, and then there is the waist — and where is the skirt? One gets quite lost trying to picture it. The sarafan has neither a lif, nor a waist: the sarafan is one continuous mass of fabric that covers the entire figure of the Ural woman, from her neck all the way down to the floor […] If a Cossack woman takes it into her head to wear a belt, then both a waist and a lif will be formed thereby, and otherwise, that is, if the Cossack woman does not wear a belt, as is regularly the case in Cossack women’s day-to-day domestic life, then there will be no sign either of a waist, or of a lif […] and can the dressing-gown [khalat] be said to have a lif and a waist? It seems that it cannot.” (from a work on the Ural Cossacks published posthumously in 1888)

a woman needs help pulling on [стянуть] a lif that is too tight and laments that she no longer has a “slender waist”; later she can’t breathe in it and asks if the lif can be let out [не можете ли вы немножко отпустить лиф?] (paraphrase of a page of “Mortal Combat” [Смертный бой], in Russian Thought in 1894)


And here are some selected portraits by Greuze, of women with or without doves:

Portrait of a Girl

Portrait of a Young Woman

Le Chapeau blanc (The White Hat)

Jeune fille aux mains jointes (Young Girl with Clasped Hands, 1780)

L’Oiseau mort (The Dead Bird, 1800)

La jeune Fille à la colombe (Girl with a Dove)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2016 5:09 am

    Fascinating. I’m no clothing history expert (and this may be what you need here) but the lif sounds like basically a fitted top part of a woman’s clothing, either attached or not. In the context of the description of the picture in the story, I still tend towards the feeling that this might be discreet way of describing her physique as I’m not convinced you would describe a bodice or item of clothing in that way – you might say it was loose or tight-fitting, or floral or plain or whatever, but I don’t know that you would give a measurement of it! But I may be wrong!

    • August 2, 2016 1:19 pm

      You make a good point that there should be a plausible reason for giving a number at all! Any explanation should fit with the general disparaging tone for the first two portraits (of the narrator’s distant relatives), in contrast to the frameless portrait of the dashing former owner of Politino (who is not related to her).

  2. August 1, 2016 9:08 am

    An interesting problem! I have no answers, but I’ve posted it at LH.

  3. August 1, 2016 10:48 am

    Styles, types, and images of XIX c. lif
    https://club.season.ru/index.php?showtopic=34630&st=40

  4. August 1, 2016 11:06 am

    Wow, that’s a treasure trove.

  5. August 2, 2016 3:07 am

    I think I have stumbled upon a subgenre using лиф in the sense of перехват. Namely, normative descriptions of frock-coat uniforms (see my comment at LH: http://languagehat.com/the-meaning-of-lif/#comment-2413951). I wonder if перехват could only be located on the back.

  6. August 2, 2016 2:33 pm

    Thanks, everyone! Alex, your link is particularly valuable because of the use of shirina with diagrams, and the measurements in arshins and vershoks. Your explanation that lif means the vertical strip between the seams in the center of the back of the uniform makes a lot of sense.

    I notice there are no measurements on that page of the form “1 arshin, X vershoks” — both times arshins are mentioned, it is for a measurement of over 2 arshins. This fits with my theory that “1 arshin” was dropped when it was clear from context, but it may just be that no figures between 1 arshin and 2 arshins were needed to describe the uniform. (“Arshin X vershoks” was of course possible in some contexts.)

    I found a modern site where a measurement called shirina plat’ia ‘width of the dress’ is defined as the poluobkhvat grudi ‘semi-circumference of the chest’ plus 5 cm. If shirina lifa for a 19c dress meant shirina plat’ia in this sense, then I’d have had almost the right measurement — the modern site describes it as a tape measure that goes around the shoulder blades and the top of the breasts, if I’m reading it right.

    The tricky thing is that nowadays, apparently, мерку записывают в половинном размере — the measurement is written down as half of the circumference, not the whole. Many other measurements записывают полностью (the number is not halved), and I wonder if the 19c shirina lifa was not halved, despite the word shirina “width.’ 0 arshins, 1 1/2 vershoks and 0 arshins, 3 vershoks both seem impossibly small, while 2 arshins, 1 vershok (=1 arshin, 1 1/2 vershoks, minus one vershok to approximate the 5 cm difference between the modern shirina plat’ia and poluobkhvat grudi, times two) seems very large, particularly for someone with a long, curved neck. I’m left very close to where I started, with 1 arshin, 1 1/2 vershoks being a full circumference around the shoulder blades above the breasts.

    This reading seems to fit — it would make the woman in the portrait smaller than XS (a modern Russian size 40), but the size doesn’t strain credulity, while being far enough from the median to be worth mentioning; it would go with the detail about her neck; it would fit the general physical contrast between the narrator’s family and on the other hand Stepanida Andreyevna and her family; and I’m satisfied that lif, while it has a different meaning seen in the military uniform example, could and usually did mean the part of a dress above the waist. Meanwhile nothing I’ve learned has made this reading seem less likely than it did a couple days ago. So the upshot is that I’ll probably leave the text as it is, unless more information comes in, or doubts are expressed. Thanks again to everyone who commented here or at LH’s place!

    • August 5, 2016 8:30 am

      One thing I’m sure of: the author knew what she was writing about. I’m also thinking of contemporary books on tailoring as a guide to measurements.

      • August 6, 2016 8:57 pm

        That’s a very good idea. If I find a useful book on tailoring, I’m sure to have occasion to consult it again, too.

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