In April 1909 the mail-order tailors Cordeux & Sons based in Clifton, Bristol launched the world’s first 3rd hand dresses with the above advert that appeared in The Daily Mirror. At 21/9 the ‘Freda’ was initially more popular than its stable-mate the ‘Brenda’. It was a whole four shillings cheaper and came with double the amount of disembodied black hands pointing at the wearer. However, the tailor-made outfit was not cut-out to fit the prudery that was prevalent in Edwardian society and several unsavoury incidents led to its swift demise within months of its introduction:
- Women discovered that they couldn’t walk within a 100 yards of a teaching hospital in a ‘Freda’ without a bunch of medical students leaping upon them and giving them a lobotomy and a hysterectomy.
- Mrs Sarah Grimshaw of Bedminster was arrested while strolling on the beach at Weston-super-Mare in a ‘Freda’ in August 1909 and charged with ‘Lewd and inappropriate Behaviour in front of Minors’ after a wave of complaints from concerned parents that she was openly flaunting what Punch & Judy looked like in the nude.
- When the comedian George Robey dressed up in a ‘Freda’ to play Widow Twankey in panto at the Prince’s Theatre, Park Row in December 1909, he was assailed during every moment he spent on stage with cries of ‘Dick-head’ from the audience.
Thereafter the more expensive ‘Brenda’ filled the void created by the withdrawal of the ‘Freda’. Unlike the ‘Freda’ the on disembodied black hand of the ‘Brenda’ failed to cause a fence – except in the case of Mrs Arabella Vaughan of Brislington who built a high one in 1913 between her and the hand because she’d grown sick of the sight of it.
Another plus of the ‘Brenda’ outfit was that customers upon receiving it in the post could send it back if they decided they couldn’t cope with it. In such circs all they needed to do was write upon the package ‘Return to Brenda’.
Although the ‘Brenda’ proved a better fit for Edwardian society it still caused its many devotees problems. It was not uncommon, for instance, to observe wearers sporting a black-eye or a broken nose because whenever the sound of buzzing ceased anywhere near them somebody inevitably smashed them in the face with a rolled up newspaper. Here are some interesting facts relating t the ‘Brenda’ dress:
- The Bristol Constabulary were the first police force in the country to receive an official reprimand for ‘Misuse of a Brenda Dress to Lead a Witness’, after they inveigled suspected suffragette Ms Deborah Timmins to wear a ‘Brenda’ dress at an identity parade in July 1910, in an effort to secure her conviction.
- Men didn’t need to buy a ‘Brenda’ because if they ever went out in a dress plenty of fingers pointed at them anyway.
- The first sportswoman to attire herself in a ‘Brenda’ in competition was Tilly Hardcastle, who made the tactical error of wearing the dress to make a very unsuccessful first defence of her World Hide-and-Seek title in Berlin in 1913.
- The first woman to be hanged wearing a ‘Brenda’ dress was Andrea Myre at Pentonville Prison on August 9th, 1913. It had been postulated that the pointing hand might prove a hindrance but in his tea-break the official hangman, Thomas Nobbins, said that it had actually assisted the execution when he’d needed an extra finger to help tie the knot.
- World War I wouldn’t have occurred had Sophie, the wife of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, worn a ‘Brenda’ dress at Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. As their assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a member of the Black Hand Gang.
- The first male fatality as a direct result of someone wearing a 3rd hand dress occurred in January 1914 when married father of five Charles Lightridge was gorged to death by three hawks, a falcon and two kestrels as he was out shopping with his mistress, who was wearing a ‘Brenda’, in Castle Street, Bristol. At the inquest it as established that the birds of prey had been enticed into their deathly swoop by the presence of a rat near the outstretched hand.
- In the case of the Crown v Philip Smythe at the Old Bailey in 1916, it emerged that the defendant had attempted to murder his wife Lily by buying a ‘Brenda’ dress for her 40th birthday and then suggesting she wear it on a weekend trip away to the Somme he’d planned for her.
- Women who wore the ‘Brenda’ and suffered from a persecution complex as a consequence failed in their campaign to get the Government to fund surgery so they could have the pointing finger removed. MPs argued that if they did so it would set the fists flying.
THE BRENDA MARK II
When avid ‘Brenda’ wearer Mrs Ivy Lancaster went down with the Titanic in 1912 (she couldn’t get into a lifeboat because all hands were needed on deck) it was commented upon that the dress would’ve averted the tragedy had the hand been pointing at the approaching iceberg instead of Mrs Lancaster. This set Sebastian Cordeux, the designer of the ‘Freda’ and the ‘Brenda’ thinking. He decided to upgrade the ‘Brenda’ and make its disembodied hand more sensitive to danger so that it would point at the source of potential peril instead. The Brenda Mark II was launched in the Spring of 1913.
Despite the improvements some new problems arose. Women were banned from wearing the ‘Brenda Mark II’ at all Football League grounds, for instance, because the hand kept pointing at the ball whenever it was kicked, making it impossible for the Football Pools companies to run their spot-the-ball competitions. On a more personal level Kate Bland regretted her decision to wear a ‘Brenda Bride Mark II’ at her wedding in February 1914. Not only did the hand point at the bridegroom when she joined him at the altar, but then proceeded to point in turn at all her new in-laws sat in the front row.
The ‘Brenda Mark II’ became a victim of its own efficiency as customers who wore it soon put on too much weight to fit into it anymore. This was because the hand kept pointing to the presence of unhealthy cream cakes, puddings and chocolate in the vicinity of the wearer; even when she’d had no knowledge it was there.
Recently it has been mooted that the ‘Brenda’ with its disembodied pointing hand, might make a comeback on the catwalks of London and Paris. Not for any sentimental reasons; or to make a fashion statement employing nostalgia; but because the models are so thin these days at last we’d be able to see that they were there.