In 1711 an amazing incident occurred in Bristol Docks. A suicidal young lady jumped in, but instead of drowning she floated because her dress resembled the shape of the Mayflower. As a result of this bizarre event, women in Bristol did two things:
1. If they wished to commit suicide they no longer jumped into the Docks….they drank from it instead!
2. It became the fashion in Bristol to wear dresses that resembled ships, including cumbersome masts, sails and rigging.
It was not all plain sailing for Bristol’s fashion conscious women who chose to wear the new shipshape designs. The most common problem they encountered was constantly having seagulls and albatrosses hovering over them. For this reason fashionable girls in Bristol were barred from taking their GCSEs in Ornithology.
Women also found it more expensive to wear the new nautical style as before they were allowed onto the streets they had to be registered with Lloyds of London. They also had to keep a daily tab of how many hands they had on deck. This was particularly upsetting for Miss Lucy Latrix who plied her trade along the Cumberland Basin, as she could only count to ninety-three.
In 1713 the findings of a report were announced that showed that women who wore the shipshape designs were prone to go down with scurvy. More alarmingly, it was also discovered that shipshape women while window shopping or merely walking down the street were likely to be mounted by pirates. This actually made the design more popular in some quarters, to this day Bristol Rovers sport a pirate badge on their blue and white quarters to mark this period in history. Ladies wearing the dresses also found themselves being drawn towards port, even if they were teetotallers. The designs also gave men an excuse to tug at womens’ dresses.
There were two tragedies in Bristol which were attributed to the unfortunate victim’s penchant for wearing fashionable shipshape dresses. The first involved Mrs Olive Plinth of Redcliffe. On November 8th, 1720, while walking through town at full speed in her shipshape attire, she badly snagged her dress on some railings and then sunk with the loss of one soul in a large puddle in Baldwin Street. This tragedy was followed two years later by the case of Miss Livy Pine of St.George, who in attempting to dry her runny nose with a series of coloured handkerchiefs was completely unaware that she was conveying an aggressive message in semaphore. As a result she was blasted to death by heavy cannon fire from a Royal Navy frigate as she was using the pedestrian crossing on Two Mile Hill.
Between 1717-1721, the fashion was so popular that demand outstripped supply. For this reason it became perfectly legal for press gangs to pounce upon seamstresses in order to alleviate this problem.
Under Government safety regulations introduced in 1722, as a consequence of the official enquiry into Olive Plinth’s death, women wearing the shipshape fashions suddenly found they needed to carry at least three lifeboats around with them. Only one woman, Mrs Ffion Twyther of Clifton, remained in fashion after that. However, her joy was short-lived for she was swiftly commissioned by the Royal Navy to engage in battle with the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cadiz.