Written on the bodice: judicial scorn for, and salivation over, the secrets of women

The Western Mail, 14th August 1899 carried a story which says much about the press and the legal profession of the period. The account of a relatively small-value case in the county court at Cardiff bears the headline ‘Judge Owen and the ill-fitting bodice’. This manages, by juxtaposing a (male) judge and clothing assigned feminine, and fairly intimately feminine at that, to provide a certain amount of transgressive titillation. There is more excitement at the sub-heading, ‘Cardiff high bailiff called in as expert’ – another man, of course, and why, we are supposed to wonder, is he an expert: a certain fondness for ‘the ladies’, or further suggestion of gender transgression?

We are left in no doubt at the reporter’s view of the whole thing as a joke by the opening of the report itself: ‘Nothing in the county-court is productive of so much fun as a case in which the parties are a lady dressmaker and customer, and the subject of litigation an alleged ill-fitting dress.’ Ho ho: ‘the ladies’ – what are they like? Squabbling about dresses, indeed! The reporter certainly seems to enjoy himself, reporting the banter of the judge – Judge Owen, a favourite of the Welsh press of the time – and other men in court especially the high bailiff, whose view of the work on the dress in question is requested, the judge claiming ignorance of such things. While a modern reader would not (I would hope) be as impressed with the clubby misogyny and trivialisation of women which the case reportedly embodied (or embodiced?), one aspect of the banter is of some legal historical relevance: when the case requires him to decide on the quality of the dress, the judge drew laughter from those present in court by saying that he ‘considered that they should have a jury of matrons for these cases’.

Now, the jury of matrons was a group of women tasked with ascertaining whether or not a female convict  who had been found guilty of a capital felony was pregnant enough for her foetus to have quickened, this being a reason to defer the execution, or, latterly, to commute the sentence.[i]  It was still in use, though criticised as inappropriate in a world which put ever greater trust in professionalised, mostly male, medical practitioners. This report of the case, in its joking suggestion that there should be a jury of matrons for issues regarding womanly attire, reflects both knowledge of the institution, and also perhaps an idea that the proper sphere for the expertise of women was located in a less important area than the presence or absence of life: frothy superficiality, rather than deep and hidden truths.

In fact, this jokey script of a judge throwing his hands up in the air at the mysteries of women’s clothing,[ii] and suggesting that a jury of matrons would be a good idea in such cases, can be seen in other reports. I cannot claim to have made an exhaustive search, but there are certainly earlier examples of it, not infrequently stitched together (yes, I was pleased with that imagery!) with rather creepy judicial comment or behaviour which, in fact, suggests that women, and their secrets, are, in fact in the male domain.

An 1864 edition of The Illustrated Usk Observer and Raglan Herald carried a report of a London Sheriff Court case involving a disputed millinery bill (were the hat prices ‘reasonable’ or ‘exorbitant’? Only ‘the ladies’ could say … thus we have a humorous call for a jury of matrons). A slightly different story was the South Wales Echo report in 1887 of an English case involving bridesmaids’ dresses. In this case, the ‘humorous’ wish by Judge Turner, in Ripon, for a jury of matrons was to sort out the custom with regard to whether or not bridesmaids were expected to pay for their own dresses to be made up.[iii] Tame enough, if trivialising.

We get into more leering territory with the Weekly Mail of 9th July 1887 which reported a similar remark from Kekewich J, when faced with a case involving ‘dress improvers’ (that’s bustles to us) but also features some icky banter about garters. The South Wales Echo elaborated, noting  ‘the Attorney General’s eloquent description of “the human frame divine”, and the appearance of the bench covered with bustles and dress improvers of every conceivable shape and size’.[iv]  Similar need-for-a-jury-of-matrons things were said by Hawkins J in 1893, according to a report in the South Wales Echo (which enjoys telling us -or not quite telling us – that the case involved some sort of women’s underwear). Then there is a report in a 1902 edition of the Cheshire Observer, relating to a Birmingham case on the quality of work on women’s clothes. This trotted out the ‘we need a jury of matrons here’ line, but also showed the judge (Judge Whitehorne) airing a few judgey views on women’s fashion – the front of the coat in question (a plush sac-coat … no, me neither) was ‘vulgar’ because of its hooks (No idea – too revealing? Too shoddy-looking? Certainly suggests a questionable fixation with women’s … fronts … on the part of the judge).

In 1905, Judge Owen was, reportedly, at it again. The Cardiff Times reported another of his cases, involving allegedly defectively made women’s clothes, under the evocative/emetic headline ‘A Patchwork Skirt: Judge Owen sighs for a jury of matrons’. As well as making the matrons comment, we are ‘treated’ to the judge’s banter about just how long or short the skirt is, with rather excited questioning about whether it covered her knees, whether she wanted to show her ankles etc.

Possibly most creepy of all is the combination of ‘we need a jury of matrons’ plea plus judicial over-involvement of an actual gropey nature, seen in a report of a case of 1907, appearing, for example, in the Evening Express. This was a case involving a woman, Marion Draughn, who was something of a celebrity, due to her involvement in an earlier breach of promise case. It was, again, about whether or not somebody had to pay, if clothing was supplied, and was not what the customer wanted. We are informed that Deputy Judge Bevan, in the Westminster County Court, had Miss Draughn go off and change into the ‘costume’ in question, and proceeded to run his hands over her to determine the fit or lack of it. Eurgh.

So what? Well, it is not very surprising that women were treated with scorn, with regard to their capacity as jurors or the clothing they wore. Assuming that the reports are not completely inaccurate, however, they do seem to me to give some interesting glimpses of judges flashing to posterity rather more of their innermost thoughts about women, their bodies and their fascinating garments than they might have meant to expose.



[i] There is a lot of good work on this area. A very good place to start on the institution in its later years – covering this period – is K. Crosby, ‘Abolishing juries of matrons’, OJLS 39 (2019), 259–284.

[ii] (resonating, to the medievalist, with the ‘secrets of women’ idea)

[iii] Added hilarity was provided by the fact that the bridegroom was 73 years old (no mention of the age of the bride, but the word ‘elderly’ did appear to apply to her too).

[iv] It is worth noting that this intellectual property case was not all that trivial in financial terms: the owners had sold £1,500 worth of the items in a year. There was some joking about ‘prior publication’ involving ridiculing of bustles too. It is, of course, quite hard not to see them as preposterous, but, equally of course, ridiculing women’s fashions can have a profoundly misogynist tone. See also the reference to this case in another relating to ‘trouser-stretchers’ in the same year, which reported that one of the lawyers, Mr Aston KC, had suggested that a ‘jury of mashers’ might be used here. I had remembered this (from, I believe Tipping the Velvet), as a male-impersonating-female, but the OED suggests that we should translate it as a jury of leering, creepy men, or at least dandified men.


Image – phwoar, eh? Get a load of this – it’s a bodice, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons