Reading the Girdle
It is highly likely that Gertrude Burtis’s mother Elisabeth was the original wearer of our cummerbund. The date range of her life, 1870-1938, corresponds with the creation date of the cummerbund. Elisabeth and Walter lived in London; it would not have been hard for them to make an occasional trip to France. In one of these visits, they could have purchased the mourning outfit.
Gertrude Burtis also could have purchased the mourning outfit. In 1947, Gertrude vacationed to Paris, France (Passenger List). Although this item is from the 1890s, she could have discovered this treasure in an antique store or vintage shop. However, my belief is that Elisabeth Harling purchased this item in the 1890s, which means it migrated to the United States with her when she and her husband came to Utah.
Because this mourning cummerbund was not sewn together until the 1890s, it could not have been worn for a funeral during the Civil War era. Instead it could have been worn to mourn family and friends who died in childbirth, from diseases, etc. Since the cummerbund has a waist size that is eight inches longer than the bodice, the purchaser of the outfit could have stored it away for years until it was necessary to wear it. By that time, the outfit would have been too small. The bodice is a much more intricate piece of clothing, therefore the price of adjusting it would have been a large sum. However, the cummerbund is a much smaller item and would not cost nearly as much to enlarge; it could probably even be done by hand at home.
In 1922, Orville and Gertrude’s infant son died. It is unknown whether he died in childbirth or months later. Regardless, the Burtis family would need to mourn the loss of their second-born son. This could be an instance where the cummerbund would have been taken out of storage and worn.
No actual fact proves when, where, or why the cummerbund would have been worn. All of these previously stated ideas are just postulations. Regardless of the facts, this item was considered important enough to be saved and later donated to the Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum. Luckily for me, this cummerbund was in the museum’s inventory; it allowed me to delve into the fascinating history of mourning culture.