Sarah Parker, ‘Dressed to Impress: Fashioning the Woman Poet’

By Sarah Parker

'A Private View at the Royal Academy' by William Powell (1883)
'A Private View at the Royal Academy' by William Powell (1883)

The idea for my recent article ‘Fashioning Michael Field: Michael Field and Late-Victorian Dress Culture’ originated with a trip to ‘The Cult of Beauty’ exhibition at the V&A in Spring 2011.  Among the walls crowded with Pre-Raphaelite paintings and cabinets filled with intricate, hand-bound volumes, visitors were also able to view numerous examples of male and female aesthetic dress, including a sunflower-print robe and puffed-sleeve artistic tea gowns, many of which originated from Liberty & Co. Viewing such a (literally) material aspect of fin-de-siècle aestheticism brought the period to life in a way I had never previously experienced. Shortly after this, I chaired a BAVS panel entitled ‘The Fabric of Society’. Deborah Wynne and Alison Lundie both spoke about Elizabeth Gaskell’s interest in fabrics and the textile industry – Lundie even showed photographs of shawls belonging to Gaskell. Such materials, worn by the author, seem to bring us uncannily close to the nineteenth century, to the tangible reality of these long-dead figures, which we can now access only through their published works and archives.

Both events got me thinking about the writers who formed the focus of my own research, the poets Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote together under the pseudonym ‘Michael Field’ – and the many references made to clothing, hats, décor and fabrics found in their extensive joint journal, Works and Days (1868-1914). I had often impatiently skimmed over these references as I sought information about their poetic composition, details of their relationship, or interactions with their famous peers (such as John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde). However, on completing my doctoral thesis, I became increasingly drawn to this unexpectedly feminine, apparently frivolous side to Michael Field, and began to wonder how clothing became such a major obsession throughout their lives. Surely such an interest in fashion was at odds with their intensely serious ambition as artists, their desire to be free from the ‘drawing room conventionalities’[1] faced by many Victorian women who wished to write?

As I paid increasing attention to these highly-detailed passages, I perceived that fashion, for Michael Field, was art. Dressing in beautiful gowns, with feathered hats, fur wraps and floral decorations, was a way performing and advertising their unique poetic identity. In this sense, their interest in fashion complemented and reinforced their literary aestheticism. Such self-fashioning was also a distinctively feminine way of performing aestheticism. It also, as I argue in my article, played an important role in mediating Bradley and Cooper’s homoerotic desire for each other.

Currently, I am developing this work on fashion and the woman poet into a new monograph project, provisionally entitled Picturing the Poetess. I am particularly interested in how the advent of photography affects women’s construction of poetic identity. In other words, how does the unprecedented visibility brought about by photography shape women’s perform of authorship? Do they mould their image into that of the poetess? Do they dress in costume, posing perhaps as Sappho, or a medieval troubadour? Do they avoid the camera altogether, seeking through disembodiment to avoid the dangers of objectification or sexualisation? And how do these constructions change as we move from the nineteenth to the twentieth century? This new project in many ways extends my previous work on the concept of the muse, soon to be published as The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930. By reimagining the muse and by commanding the camera, nineteenth-century women writers began to refashion authorship in their own image.

[1] Katharine Bradley, Letter to Robert Browning, 23 November 1884, reprinted in Michael Field: The Poet, Eds. Marion Thain and Ana Parejo Vadillo (Broadview, 2009), p. 311.

Dr. Sarah Parker is currently a Research Associate at University of Leicester, where she is working on an AHRC-funded Cultural Engagement project with Cityread London. She has published articles on Olive Custance, wife of Lord Alfred Douglas, and contributed a chapter to Algernon Charles Swinburne: Unofficial Laureate (Manchester University Press, 2013). Her monograph The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930 is due to be published in December 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *