Monday, 23 September 2013

Victorian women's fashion and debates on dressmaking

A Cathedral library and archive is not the usual place you'd head to learn about women's fashion. This week in our store room, however, we made a discovery that may be of interest to enthusiasts of women's history and fashion alike. We came across four pages of a December 1st, 1888 edition of The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper. Presumably, these pages were kept because they had fine engravings of Yorkshire's ruined monastic abbeys. Until now, though, no one seems to have noticed that the periodical contains a magnificent engraving of ladies having "'5 o'clock tea" (see below), and a range of articles on Victorian women's clothing and accessories.

The Lady’s Newspaper was created in 1847 and joined with The Queen, a more popular women’s paper, in 1863. Published weekly, this paper takes the form of a broadsheet, featuring articles thought to be of particular interest to women published in three columns. Pitching itself at the wealthiest ladies of England’s upper echelons, The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper is packed full of lavish illustrations of contemporary fashions and advertisements.
Photograph, "5 o'clock tea". Reproduced by the permission of the Dean & Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)

DIY dressmaking: a heated debate.

The pages of December 1st 1888 edition we found in our store contain a series of intriguing articles that debate whether upper-class women should make their own dresses or employ professionals to do so. The first article on page 725 seems, to the modern reader, overly didactic. Titled “Dress at the leading dressmakers”, the article provides an overview of the best materials, colours and cuts to be styled in, and explains exactly where to go to buy them. Apparently “Woolen garments are well suited to our climate, and to British faces, figures and habits” because “We are an energetic people, taking much outdoor exercise”. Petticoats are described as being “very tempting this season” with Mademoiselle Carroll’s store in New Bond Street stocking “a new kind, with beautiful borders in real lace attached to a spotted centre; a most becoming and really a ladylike appendage to a hat or bonnet”.
The two articles that follow (“New fans of the season” and “New costumes and trimmings”) similarly dazzle the female consumer with an array of choice, emphasizing her purchasing power. “New fans of the season” seems to say that if you are a young woman, you will undoubtedly want a fan as a Christmas present; if you are a more mature lady, then you should buy a fan for a younger relative this Christmas, because they cost on average less than £2 each, making them an excellent gift.   To your blogger it sounds like a nightmarish present my uncle would give me for Christmas, but one of the most desirable fans of the season is described as having:
“cats’ heads of every kind and colour nestled close together over the gauze or fine muslin surface. The effect is extremely quaint, and the heads are about the size of furry toy cats that babies love to fondle”.

Whereas the articles described thus far have encouraged women’s spending, the final article of the third column of page 725 takes an outwardly political stance against women making their own dresses, claiming that this work should be confined to the lower classes. Written by Irene, an occasional correspondent, the article is titled “Home Dressmaking- a caution” and condemns young, middle to upper-class women for making their own dresses, because it supposedly puts working-class seamstresses out of pocket, and even out of work. According to Irene, “the really poor lady may be compelled to make her own clothes, but it is not so with the majority who are taking up this craze”. Irene concludes with a rather loaded statement: “Let them reflect that they are thoughtlessly sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity, whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of ennobling tastes”.
The editor responds briefly at the bottom of this article, stating that “manual skill is so valuable at the present time that we cannot agree with our correspondent in wishing to discourage young ladies from making their own dresses”.  Despite this, one can’t help but notice that these seem like empty words. The Lady, The Queen’s Newsletter, as historians of the Victorian era often comment, is jam packed full of advertisements for commercial dressmakers, tailors, chemists, and so forth. Indeed the illustration above demonstrates the publication’s tendency toward lavish and exuberant fashions, and naming the who’s who in the dressmaking industry. When The Lady’s Newsletter amalgamated with The Queen in 1863, it branded itself as addressing the 10,000 of Britain’s upper class women. Despite including articles on women’s education, legislative reform and employment, it was never openly an advocate of any of these issues.

Exemplifying this aloof attitude toward women's politics, the penultimate article on page 725 is on the meeting of the Rational Dress Society in London. The Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881 and was dedicated to reforming the impractical and uncomfortable items of Victorian women's clothing, such as corsets. At the meeting described in this article we hear of how a series of speeches were given by Viscountess Harberton, Mrs Taylor on "the moral side of the question", and Miss Sharman on "the tortures women had gone through at the hands of fashion within the last 30 years".

 Written in the third person, the author of the article comments passively on the proceedings of the meeting of the Rational Dress Society in London, and carefully avoids openly encouraging the development of fashion away from the tightfitting corsets and voluminous skirts to a more practical garb for women. The article ends by stating that “a depot for the sale of hygienic clothing and patterns of rational costumes approved of by the society would shortly be opened in Sloane Street”. Little glitz and glamour surrounds this collection by comparison to the dresses described in the “Dress at the leading dressmakers” article. The reader is not urged to rush to Sloane street, cash-in-hand to buy these new, more comfortable designs.
The penultimate article on the meeting of the Rational Dress society complains of how, in a carriage, a woman could take up as much space as three men due to impractical fashions and also warns of the health issues (“chronic indigestion” and “shortness of breath” that servant girls experience whilst doing manual labour in such tight-fitting clothing. These are said to result from serving girls having foolishly adopted the fashions of the elite. Yet as impractical as the layers of skirts and petticoats are described for the elite ladies’ daily chores of travel, packing, shopping, it ultimately seems to be this very style of dress that the illustration of the “5 o’clock tea party” depicts as the height of fashion and, indeed, encourages readers to emulate when carefully choosing their tea gowns.
To conclude, it is interesting to consider that this edition of The Queen articulates a somewhat outdated view, one at odds with other contemporary publications for women. With paper tax being removed in the mid nineteenth-century there was an unprecedented growth of women's magazines and papers at this time, many of which printed paper patterns for home dressmaking. We might best understand "Home Dressmaking- A caution" as a reactionary article against an already popular women's hobby to which few women probably paid any attention.



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  2. I don't know if it's just me, I find Victorian fashion fascinating. Isn't it lovely on how they incorporate their dresses with equally beautiful headpiece and jewelries, which only shows that fashion sense from that era is really something particularly for the upper class. Imagine the demands for haberdashery stuffs during this era.

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