Breaking the Mould? Freedom and restraint in Victorian dress

Breaking the Mould? Freedom and restraint in Victorian dress

Saturday 05 October 2019

Please note the change of venue

The freedom we have in the clothes we wear today really only came to fruition in the 1960s but the foundations, excuse the pun, were laid during the Victorian era. Born in 1819 and coming to the throne in 1837, as an cossetted eighteen year old, Victoria gave her name to a period which was complex and paradoxical. Wealth, power and innovation brought rapid change, which many women embraced, but change brings reaction and it took another century to really break free.

We start the day with Dr Veronica Issac who is a material culture historian specialising in the history of nineteenth century dress and theatre costume. She is a curatorial consultant and university lecturer and is currently working at the University of Brighton and New York University London. This paper has emerged from her doctoral research into the dress of the actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928), and her on-going investigations into nineteenth century art, dress and society.

‘Celebrating the Individual’: An Aesthetic Approach to Freedom

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a group of people came together to rebel against the restraint and uniformity resulting from contemporary fashions within art, décor and dress. United by their desire to promote the idea of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ and to celebrate ‘beauty’, members of this ‘Aesthetic movement’ rebelled against artistic traditions and rejected the chemical dyes, extravagant trimming, and tight lacing that characterised fashionable dress during this period.

Focussing on the artists, actors and celebrities who dominated the movement, this talk will examine the ways in which followers of Aestheticism used dress and décor to challenge tradition. Drawing on evidence from contemporary literature, paintings, photographs, caricatures and surviving garments, it will highlight the degree to which their garments and their homes became a visual advertisement of their social identity and artistic beliefs.

Particular attention will be paid to the role dress played in this rebellion and the range of ‘Aesthetic’ garments worn by both women and men. Through a close analysis of the garments worn by celebrated actress, and icon of Aestheticism, Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), this discussion will argue that Aesthetic dress offered its wearers the freedom to fashion their own unique and individual style.

We then move from the influence of aesthetics to that of technology.

Dr Kat Jungnickel is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a 2019 European Research Consolidation Grant Holder: Politics of Patents: Re-imagining Citizenship via Clothing Inventions 1820-2020. Her talk is based on her book: Bikes & Bloomers: Victorian women inventors and their extra-ordinary cycle wear

'One Wants Nerves of Iron': Cycling, Convertible Cycle-wear and Courage in late Victorian Britain

Victorian women were early adopters of the bicycle during the 1890s cycling boom in England. Yet, ordinary middle and-upper-class fashions were vastly inappropriate for cycling; skirts and petticoats caught in wheels and tangled in pedals. However, looking too much like a cyclist in more ‘rational dress’ could elicit verbal and sometimes physical assault by parts of society threatened by progressive ‘New Women’. In this talk Dr Kat Jungnickel explores how some pioneering Victorian women responded to these social and sartorial challenges through the dress itself. She will show costumes and tell stories about early women inventors and their extraordinary convertible cycle wear.

Solving problems was something the Victorians were particularly good at and the discovery of new materials from the ever-expanding Empire led to new products to satisfy the growing number of nineteenth century consumers not least in the world of fashion.

Edwina Erhman is senior Curator at the V&A, with a specialism in nineteenth century fashion and textiles and the history of London fashion. She has curated many successful exhibitions, the most recent of which was ‘Fashioned from Nature’ which ran at the V&A from 21 April 2018 - 27 January 2019. The exhibition won two awards for ‘cultural institutions that embed sustainable or environmental initiatives within their work’.

Rubber: from forest to fashion Rubber was one of the miracle materials of the nineteenth century but it came at considerable human and environmental cost. This talk will trace the material from the forests of South America to Britain and the USA where technological developments in processing made its use in fashion possible, for waterproofing, elastic and even jewellery.

But despite aesthetics, exercise and new inventions what were women doing to their bodies?

Susanna Cordner is a fashion historian and curator who runs the archives at the London College of Fashion and previously worked on V&A exhibitions including ‘Undressed: a brief history of underwear’ and ‘Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014’. Susanna is particularly interested in using fashion history as a platform for exploring and highlighting women’s history and experiences.

Fitting the Female Form: A brief history of underwear in Victorian England

In this talk Susanna will give a brief history of women’s underwear in the Victorian era, and explore its relationship to women’s social and physical experiences – from reducing waists to taking up space. She will also highlight examples of female innovators in the field and how they shaped the female form.

The report on this event is included in the Autumn 2019 issue of WECS Wardrobe. (Not yet accessible on line.)

Magazine Cover