Alyson Hunt, ‘Dressed to Kill’ Study Day Review

Arriving outside the sleek glass architecture of the Aldham Robarts library on an overcast Saturday morning to be greeted by the Liverpool John Moores sports teams excitedly gathered outside inexplicably wearing underwear on top of their clothes, I wondered if the long drive North had affected me more than I had anticipated. Thankfully, a rather more sedate welcome signalled the start of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association study day, an interdisciplinary event entitled Dressed to Kill: Fashion in Victorian Fiction and Periodicals.

The day began with a hand-on session with The Liddell Hart Collection of Costume (LHCC) an exquisite fashion archive of around 350 books, ladies periodicals, scrapbook material, cuttings, fabric samples and early coloured fashion plates. Amassed by Sir Basil Liddell Hart and his wife in the first half of the twentieth century, the collection certainly seems rather incongruous with the military career of Liddell Hart who simultaneously amassed a collection of Militaria (now held at King’s College) and his library of fashion, which suggested something of a penchant for neat waists!

Admiring a series of early fashion plates and sketches from etiquette books, the group discussed the attention to detail shown in the drawings, not all of which appeared to be entirely accurate such as the gargoyle-like cat in the foreground of one image, complete with bat ears and squirrel tail! Early depictions tended to show single models in static poses which matched dress to occasion such as walking-dresses and opera dresses. Later fashion plates placed greater emphasis on setting the scene, often depicting ladies in conversation, partaking in leisure activities, at home or in fashionable society. Some plates also subtly advertised beauty products including hair dye, signalling the shift towards commodity culture which would dominate the latter half of the nineteenth century.

We also admired several books of fabric swatches rescued from a drapers in Lyon, France and containing a vast array of machine printed patterns and fabrics. The bright colours, modern patterns and strong motifs were particularly surprising o the group, with many of the fabrics looking almost indistinguishable from modern designs. Geometric designs and horseshoes featured prominently and could be matched to similar designs depicted in the fashion plates, suggesting that the books were for wholesalers rather than for the individual shopper. Certainly they are a remarkable survival from the period and gave a wonderful insight into the world of nineteenth century fashion.

Eventually coaxed away from admiring the delights of the archive, the group reconvened for the first panel of the day, Criminally Fashionable. Suchitra Choudhury discussed Lydia Gwilt’s red Paisley shawl in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale as symbol of Empire and class anxieties, marking both comfort and rebellion. This ambiguity of sartorial meaning continued in the gentleman-thieves of fin-de-siècle crime fiction as Alyson Hunt explored conventions of emulation as the perfect conditions for both fraud and fashion, tracing the theories of Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel in periodical fiction. Nickianne Moody compelted a diverse but fascinating panel with an insight into the ambiguous reception of the crinoline, particularly with Punch. Heavily satirised as inconvenient to men, the crinoline was depicted as ugly, restrictive and ridiculous, the crinoline epitomised anxieties about women in public spaces and their ability to fit in society, quite literally! Yet the crinoline, like fashion plates, promoted homosociability and encouraged women to sympathise and communicate with one another and certainly seemed to be enjoyed rather than endured by many women.

Lunch signalled the perfect opportunity to make new acquaintances with a wide range of scholars, from material culture experts to historians, literarians and sociologists. It also provided an excellent chance to admire Janine Hatter’s comprehensive exhibition of ‘Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Yorkshire’ and Sean Williams’ poster depicting nineteenth century Beards and Barbers, beautifully illustrated with George Cruikshank’s cartoons.

The afternoon session, Fashion Requirements kicked off with Danielle Barkley considering the dandy aesthetic in silver-fork novels which tended to show bodies being fed, dressed or groomed in a Regency setting. The exoticised details of dress were often inaccurate because writers tended to be aspirational and not always familiar with the lifestyles they portrayed. The seemingly useless details of fashion offered in these novels reflected the frivolous lifestyles of the characters, presenting dressing as an artistic practice which needed to consider audience. Beatrice Moja followed up with a discussion of Isabella Beeton’s The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, one of the first publications to offer a coupon collect promotion alongside essay competitions, household management tips, health and beauty advice and practical dress instruction. Dress patterns allowed women to follow fashion on a middle-class budget with Beeton simultaneously exhorting readers to avoid self-indulgence, wear plain dresses and be frugal while apparently unable to resist making aesthetic judgements about colour and shape! Barbara Vrachnas identified further female ambiguity/duplicity in the portrayal of loose women in Ouida’s novels, as women were presented and divine devils wearing loose, flimsy or low-cut dress and changing their attire up to seven times a day.

Royce Mahawatte’s keynote address succinctly embraced the themes of the day, particularly drawing on Barkley’s paper and the silver fork novel to analyse Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Pelham and its treatment of the male body. The genre acted as fashionable handbooks of the day, promoting and affirming male fashion, attempting to justify foppery and invest sentiment in dress. Paradoxically intended to be anti-fashion, the novels offered a pleasurable immersion as well as adding verisimilitude and vividness to the characters themselves. Mahawatte’s synopsis placed the text within wider fashion theory, pulling together the interdisciplinary threads to weave together fashion and fictional narratives as a means to explore and celebrate the social and aesthetic discourses of nineteenth century society.

Many thanks to the organisers for an inspirational and informative day!

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