Monday, 6 July 2009

Fashion and dress in the collection

Fashion as we know it - a series of rapidly mutating trends in the style of the dress - began in the eighteenth century. The way a person dresses, the clothing they select, sends out a set of social signals that communicate class and status. It is also the most personal form of self-expression and the choice of what both covers and decorates the body leads us to form conclusions, conscious or unconscious, about each other.

Jane Austen’s letters reveal her interest in being fashionable: ‘My black cap was openly admired by Mrs. Lefroy, and secretly I imagine by everyone else in the room’ (Steventon to Godmersham, 1798). Her niece, Fanny Knight, owned copies of La Belle Assemblee, like those on display here, and periodicals such as these, or Ackerman’s Repository and the Lady’s Magazine contained engravings of the latest styles. Newspapers also offered information on current fashions. This commodification of dress for the leisured classes gave employment to writers and illustrators, just as today fashion magazines thrive on the twice-yearly output of the fashion industry.

News of fashion spread by word of mouth and by letter remained important, especially for those without access to periodicals. Austen demonstrates this in an 1814 letter to Martha Lloyd: ‘I am amused by the present style of female dress; the coloured petticoats with braces over the white Spencers and enormous Bonnets upon the full stretch, are quite entertaining. It seems to me a more marked change than one had lately seen.’

Dress in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, as displayed here, was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status and considerable expense was necessary to maintain a fashionable lifestyle. Fashion demanded followers from all classes and again Austen was a participant, if not victim, in the need to consume the latest trends. She wrote from London in 1811: ‘I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money …’ and she lists two different muslins and Wedgwood as items on her shopping list. Remaining fashionable required more than lengths of fabric: there were also ribbons and other trimmings, sewing and embroidery threads, buttons and, maybe, a dressmaker. Then there were shawls, cloaks and hats, bonnets and caps, veils, headdresses, shoes and gloves, not forgetting, fans, bags, reticules, jewelry, and underneath it all underwear and stockings.

In Austen’s Persuasion Sir Walter Elliot is ridiculed for his vanity and obsession with fashion. He examines himself in the mirror, feels that Lady Russell could do with the help of some makeup and recommends Gowland’s Lotion for improving complexions. A real product of the period, Gowland’s Lotion was advertised in 1814 as a solution to face and skin problems just as facial skincare is sold today. For those that could afford more than a sliver of soap toilet waters were a fashionable part of personal hygiene and in 1822 George IV’s perfume bill was £263. It is still possible to buy some of the fragrances made around this time, which were eau de colognes and single flower waters, especially lavender, rose and orange flower.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, Austen’s contemporary, an interest in fashion as a form of 'slavery': 'The air of fashion which many young people are so eager to attain, always strikes me like the studied attitudes of some modern prints, copied with tasteless servility after the antique; the soul is left out, and none of the parts are tied together by what may properly be termed character.' Wollstonecraft dressed with apparent carelessness which signalled her seriousness as a philosopher, just as in the twentieth century Katherine Hepburn wore old clothes, safety-pinned, to show she had not been seduced by Hollywood's glamour.

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