Some fashions from the past, even very widespread ones, get forgotten. Others get retrospectively bigger and bigger.
Patches, since at least the nineteenth century, have been a potent way of imagining history. They are memorable and they are strange. They paint the distance between us, and they come to stand for this historical divide.
Here are two witnesses to this, one a poem, the other an illustration. Published just a year apart but on different sides of the world, they emerge from the early 1900s, a period convinced of its confident modernity. Next to electric light, motor cars and telephones, little scraps of silk kept in bijoux boxes whispered of a hazy past.
An Old Patch Box
In olden time its mirrored lid
Most luring beauty touches hid,
For gracing of Clorinda’s chin,
And, further eulogy to win
For melting orbs, the self-same hue
As borage blossoms, hazed with dew,
Whose glance the bravest heart o’erthrew —
In olden times.
This posy on its Chelsea blue,
Its fair creation oweth to
The skilful brush of Carl Vanloo,
When fickle Fancy first did pin
Her faith to all its charms within,
While tap’ring fingers often chid
Most wilful love-curls at its lid —
In olden times.
The Cornishman, 28 July 1904, p. 3
The patch has thus become a familiar ‘costume’ prop – a way to dress up and masquerade in a bygone era.
Even the phrase ‘powder and patch’ conjures a time when provocative women in big silken dresses dallied with attractive men with wigs and rapiers. And the periodic revival of the patch from time to time has self-consciously dialogued with this imagined and romantic ‘before’.
Yet the nifty little box with which the patch is associated will not be pinned down to this pastiche.
As the world of antiques and online sales proves, the boxes themselves are alive and well today, forging new meanings and gaining new devotees. Since first created, the ‘patch’ box has been admired for its beauty and fanciful variety. Bought and sold, given and stolen, the box had a life independent of the little black shapes that were sometimes carried within.