Pettiwidths: thrills and spills with Gerty MacDowell
U 13.724-6: He could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white.
Bloom admires the profusion of underwear as Gerty leans back to follow the fireworks. Nainsook knickers, with their trimmed French lace (optional), were garments of choice for the discerning ladies of Dublin, and their less discerning counterparts. They could be obtained at Switzers, at Clery’s, and at many other stores in the capital.
"Nainsook" is "a
fine soft cotton fabric, a kind of muslin or jaconet, originally made in South
Asia" (OED). It is a Hindi word, and
translates as “eyes’ delight”. Hearth and Home for 26 January 1899
Irish Independent of 24 January 1906
carries an advertisement for Switzers’ sale:
But of more interest to the student of Joyce’s language is “pettiwidth”. Don Gifford (Ulysses Annotated) offers the comment that this is “a brand name”. At present there is no supporting evidence for this suggestion.
In fact, it is much more likely that “pettiwidth” is simply a shortening of the expression “petticoat width”, designating lengths by which petticoat fabric was sold – particularly in Scotland and Ireland. We can therefore regard it either as Joyce’s own reduction of “petticoat width” or an informal use of “petty” (= “petticoat”) with “width”.
For this use of “petty” see, for example, D. H.
Lawrence’s Lost Girl (1920):
But “pettiwidth” would not exist without
“petticoat width”, and we can see this in adverts in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth century:
Times (29 January, 1900, p. 7) advertises another sale, with scarlet
flannels in petticoat widths, and again one of the widths is offered at 4s.
11d. (Joyce’s price, clearly researched) – though in scarlet, not green:
Petticoat widths broadened and shrank with
the vogue, and the term was abbreviated by Joyce to lend further verisimilitude
to his description of Gerty MacDowell’s evening out.
Joyce's Environs >