Silhouettes, Fashion and Reality 1750-1950

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Gabriella Mihok, third year student of BA (hons) History of Decorative Arts and Crafts, introduces the university’s research partnerhip with Regency Town House and outlines her contribution to the project.

Baron Scotford, c1911, mixed format of cut-out & pen and ink. Image courtesy of: Secretary, Silhouette Collectors Club

The University of Brighton, in partnership with the Regency Town House in Brunswick Square, has organised a student research group to investigate the creation and consumption of silhouettes from the 18th to the 20th century, under the title Silhouettes, Fashion and Reality 1750-1950. The group includes PhD, MA and BA students from University of Brighton’s Visual and Material Culture and Fashion and Design History programmes, and has been organised by Professor Lou Taylor with assistance from Dr Annebella Pollen, Dr Lara Perry and Dr Charlotte Nicklas. It is a wonderful opportunity for us to unearth information about this largely unexplored subject and to see what silhouettes can tell us about fashion and society.

Funded by the university’s Springboard grant scheme, much of our research is focussed on the stunning collection of paper silhouettes held at the Regency Town House. Our findings will be catalogued and available to view on the both the Regency Town House and University of Brighton’s websites. A study day to present our findings will be held at the Design History Research Centre in June 2013, and finally our work will contribute towards a major Heritage Lottery-funded exhibition to be held in Brighton in 2014, with a touring exhibition to follow.

The popularity of the silhouette was at its height between1770-1840, and the images were either delicately painted or cut out using skilful scissor work. Before the advent of photography, the silhouette was an effective way of reproducing a person’s likeness. Photography caused the popularity of the silhouette to wane, but silhouette artists continued to work from department stores and seaside piers, including Brighton, so there is a strong local connection binding this project together.

The Regency Town House’s collection of silhouettes mostly date from 1750-1830, but also includes some wonderful later examples dating up to 1950. Each member of the research group has a specific time period to investigate. I chose to research some of the later silhouettes from 1895 -1919 as I have a particular interest in the fashion and decorative arts of the early twentieth century, and this offered a wonderful opportunity for me to explore this era’s design and consumption in greater depth.

I am a BA History of Decorative Arts & Crafts student in my final year and research into the silhouettes of the early twentieth century is a brilliant learning curve for me as I continue to find out more about the changing dress styles of this era, from the corseted designs of 1895 through to the slim and elegant fashions of the late 1910s. Period fashion magazines held at St Peter’s House Library have been invaluable in comparing the dress styles worn in the silhouettes with contemporary photographs and illustrations.

One of the most interesting things to research was the changing hat designs, which by 1911 were impossibly voluminous. However, many hat designs included copious amounts of feathers, leading to the near extinction of many species of bird; the RSPB was formed in England as a response to the danger posed to wild birds due to the demand for plumage in fashionable millinery.

I am really looking forward to continuing my research and working with the rest of the group towards the final exhibition and I feel privileged to be a part of such an exciting project.

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