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Dressing up history: Finding the voice of Victorian women through 1870s fashion

Dressing up history: Finding the voice of Victorian women through 1870s fashion

     When I first began working on the Young Ladies' Journal collection, my primary research objective was to capture the voice of the young Canadian women of the 1870s by analyzing Victorian fashion as a medium of expression. In 2015, we can look back at the last century and see ten distinct decades during which trends in women’s fashion reflected the collective identity of its wearers. In the same way that flapper dresses symbolize the liberty and freedom of the Roaring Twenties, and just as how my mom’s old neon sweaters embraced the loud and vivid energy of the 1980s, I anticipated that at least some aspect of the relationship between 1870s clothing and cultural values would be overwhelmingly evident from the collection contents.

Identifying Fashion Trends

The Industrial Revolution that took place in the century prior to the 1870s enabled a series of radical changes within consumer culture. Periodicals became a widespread literary medium, combining text with the novelty of printed illustrations in a manner that fuelled a voracious public appetite for frequent reading material. As the mass production of fabric and household craft materials made cheap goods more accessible than ever before, periodicals such as the Young Ladies’ Journal were able to justify the constant production of new magazine supplements. However, since the YLJ was generating volume in part for volume’s sake, I began to fear that a lack of innovative fashion trends over time would itself become a trend.

     As I worked through the fashion plates, I was able to trace the evolution of major dress patterns, and found that the silhouettes, colors and fabrics used did change throughout the decade. However, the crafts and embroidery designs on the gigantic and needlework supplements remained almost completely identical, despite the fact that their publication span ranged eight years. To me, this disconnect was incredibly intriguing; how could dress patterns change during the decade if the needlework and embroidery patterns that supposedly inspired them remained the same?

     Once I began researching the culture of the Victorian era, I began to realize that some subtle relationships actually existed between the fashion plates and needlework designs. The YLJ embraced the spirit of a mass marketing culture by advertising materials on all of its printed works – every single illustration in the YLJ collection is accompanied by a sending address for the exact fabrics and patterns that it features. The fabrics and patterns on the fashion plates are distinctly feminine, featuring styles meant to both emphasize and enhance the structure of the woman’s body. These designs coincide with a gaining momentum for women’s rights; as the domestic middle class emerged as a marketable literary audience, so grew a rising cultural interest in both women’s history and historiography. As feminist and political journals began to advocate for women’s rights, representations of women from different historical eras and geographic locations became an inspiration of strength, power, and classical beauty for their Victorian counterparts. Embroidery patterns in the YLJ collection interestingly featured designs inspired by Greek, Roman, and mediaeval courtly styles, and also borrowed themes from Parisian, Indian, and Oriental fashions.

    While parts of the YLJ collection evolved, others varied little throughout the 1870s. Fundamental needlework designs for stitching wool and lace were frequent and repetitive. These designs exemplify a visual definition of mass production, with the same patterns and instructions recurring multiple times on each supplement. While the repeated material created a structured teaching base for basic sewing skills, it also echoed a change in the value of needlework. The notion of crafts as a respectable and productive use of leisure time peaked in the early 1850s, and in the course of two subsequent decades became a passive domestic activity within the realm of the middle class. While the YLJ was targeted towards girls and young apprentices eager to learn sewing skills, these readers were offered a lack of innovative and inspiring designs, despite the simultaneous progressions occurring in 1870s fashion.

Organizing Content

     For the final digital exhibit, I would like to create a website with an interactive timeline that elaborates on twelve supplements that best exemplify these trends. I will be including three fashion plates, three giant supplements (front and back sides), three needlework designs, one Christmas games supplement, one advertisement, and a leaflet of Canadian fashion advertisements. Because the context for the supplements is both expansive and overlapping, I would like to organize these pieces in two ways: first, in the form of a scrollable timeline that is always visible and accessible to the exhibit user (the inspiration for which can be seen here), and second, in series of small galleries that allow the user to view each genre of supplements exclusively (the inspiration for which can be seen here). Each gallery will be opened by a separate tab, where users can view annotated popovers explaining the relevant context of each work. The timeline below the gallery will meanwhile allow the user to see the each piece in relation to the whole exhibit. This format allows users to explore the content in a manner that lets them draw their own connections and conclusions; they will be able to trace not only how specific fashion trends emerged from 1870s culture, but how these trends comment on the culture as a whole. 

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