Dr Kate Strasdin delivering her paper “A Life in Fragments – Re-framing 19th Century Dress Practices through the Dress Diary of Anne Sykes” at The Reframing 19th-century Fashion and Dress Day Symposium. 11 June 2019. Photograph by Hannah Rumball.

Report by Dr Hannah Rumball, Lecturer in Critical Studies, University of Brighton

On 11 June 2019, the Centre for Design History at the University of Brighton hosted a symposium for 19th-century dress and textile specialists, to gather like-minded scholars for research exchange. Organised by Dr Veronica Isaac, Dr Charlotte Nicklas, and Dr Hannah Rumball, this event served to establish formally a research network, now entitled Nineteenth century dress and textiles reframed. The day was open to all scholars with a research interest in 19th-century textiles and dress and, following a call for participants, thirty international academics attended from as far away as Ireland and Canada.

Specifically structured around papers from invited participants, who are leading work in the field, the day considered a range of subjects, many of which employed a material culture methodology. As the day unfurled, and the five papers were delivered, clear and enticing themes emerged which intersected the wide array of objects and perspectives conveyed.

Mythologisation was a central theme in Eleanor E. Houghton’s (University of Southampton) “Charlotte Brontë’s Moccasins: The Wild West Brought Home” as well as Dr Kimberly Wahl’s (Ryerson University) “Clothing the Senses: Modes of Materiality in Pre-Raphaelite Dress.” Wahl’s paper considered how the mythology surrounding Pre-Raphaelite women’s dress is interconnected with the long tradition of its popular representations, as well as academic understandings of the realities of Pre-Raphaelite clothing. Wahl noted how, in contemporary fashion spreads and styling, seeking to evoke the romantic ethereal quality of the aesthetic, there is a reliance on a sequence of key visual symbols which bear little relation to original realities of Pre-Raphaelite clothing. Wahl observed how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led the way in tendencies towards the alternative and unusual, especially representations of unconventional dress. The women depicted, however, such as Jane Morris, participated in the construction of the aesthetic by using their actual dress to carve out artistic personae for themselves, outside of the confines of wider society and culture.

Houghton meanwhile, recounted her efforts to substantiate whether two glass-beaded, brown deer-hide, moccasins, with matching ankle cuffs, belonged to the celebrated author Charlotte Brontë. Houghton openly acknowledged that her biggest task in working on Bronte’s surviving wardrobe for the past three years, has been to unpick myth from reality. The slippers were donated to the Bronte parsonage collection after fifty years of private ownership, and were embroidered with the initials CB, though not in Bronte’s renowned careful, neatly embroidery style. The moccasins have a comfortable, informal structure and could easily have been worn as slippers, yet their design is associated with moccasins produced by the native peoples of Canada, to which Brontë never travelled. Houghton affirmed that the moccasins did indeed belong to, and were worn by, Brontë through meticulous material culture and textual analysis. Letters reveal their presence in Brontë’s wardrobe, alongside a beaded bag, both almost certainly produced by the native Iroquois peoples of Canada. Here, a further theme of the global nature of dress and textiles’ production and consumption arose, coinciding with the explicit themes raised in Jo Tierney’s paper.

Tierney (University of Warwick) in “Globalising Nineteenth-Century Fashion History: The Circulation of British Textiles in West Africa, c.1870-1914” discussed how Manchester textile producers during the nineteenth century understood and catered for the West Africa, the main export market for market their goods. Tierney illustrated how printed and dyed textiles were designed to meet the specific tastes of West African consumers, contravening the notion that colonies provided soft markets to British manufacturers and that manufacturers did not need to respond to regional demands and taste. Tierney’s research showed how specialist designs were produced in varieties of colour ways for the West African market by Manchester textile manufacturers, and adaptations were made to existing manufacturing processes to imitate cultural and regional designs and techniques. Tierney’s examination of 5,000 samples of wax printed or dyed cottons from five manufacturers, in volumes of pattern books and in Board of Trade archives, revealed several differentiating factors between textiles for West African and British consumption during this period. Motifs present in textiles for the West African market were far larger than those for European markets, illustrating an understanding of West African visual culture, while a number of motifs present had cultural or regional significance. These textiles were not produced for use as tailored garments, but for use as wrappers, which could be manipulated and reused time and again. Yet, all that has currently been unearthed for Tierney’s study are the discreet, rectangular samples carefully pasted into folios; a form of a fascinating 19th century compendium popular in business, and, as Dr Kate Strasdin’s paper illustrated, domestic settings alike, and an especially fruitful repository for dress and textiles historians, even with an absence of corresponding completed garments.

Strasdin’s (Falmouth University) “A Life in Fragments – Re-framing 19th Century Dress Practices through the Dress Diary of Anne Sykes” contemplated such albumisation practices, through what she has coined a “dress diary” from the period, gifted to her in January 2016. Between the 1830s and 1870s, Anne Sykes, collected over 2,000 rectangular or octagonal swatches and lovingly pasted them into the leather bound volume, annotating many of them with wearer, garment and date details. Her research situated this example in the largely female practice of collecting, organising and consuming mementos, however Strasdin has sourced only five other surviving examples which bear parallels to her own domestic compendium of textile samples. Patterns of survival relating to dress diairies are rare and Strasdin suggested two reasons. Firstly, the dress and textiles are by by nature ephemeral. Secondly, as noted, this practice was often a feminine hobby, which may have historically de-valued the object. Despite these two factors, Strasdin does think they were common. Strasdin’s paper suggested how Sykes’ proximity to Lancashire, then the centre of English textile production, would have influenced her understanding of fashion and textiles. Swatches compared to surviving dress examples from the period illustrate their fashionability, meaning Sykes and her community were clearly not women who were frightened of, or distanced from, fashion despite their situation in a provincial community.

This widespread, successful communication of fashionable styles and textiles was another theme shared among the papers and subsequent discussions and was the explicit concern of Dr Katie Faulkner’s (Courtauld Institute of Art) “In pure classical taste?’: Sculptural discourse in early nineteenth-century writing on Fashion and Dress.” Faulkner’s research exploded the theory that sculpture and fashion were in opposition during the 19th century. She also challenged the assumption that they were consumed in opposing manners due to the readings of sculpture as permanence and ideal beauty versus fashion as frivolity and extraneous adornment. Faulkner’s research documented European publications which brought together these concerns, illustrating how, during the early 19th century, a strong visual connection was created in popular publications between sculpture and the dress people were wearing. Faulkner discussed how, from the early 19th century, periodicals allowed women access to knowledge beyond the domestic and were not addressed to a purely fashionable elite. For example, Le Beau Monde published notes from Royal Academy lectures on the Greeks, on art, design and statuary. These educational articles illustrate how those outside the elite sphere learned about ‘high’ art as visual, and fashionable, inspiration. Faulkner’s research showed how these periodicals used a varying set of approaches to address their readers, but each presented dress and sculpture in relation to one another, regularly.

The explicit themes uncovered (including mythologisation, albumisation, the global nature of dress and textiles, as well as communication) through these papers and discussions throughout the day provided fruitful points for further consideration. They will be returned to in subsequent gatherings of Nineteenth century dress and textiles reframed. Partner events are now being explored, between the network and other groups that specialise in the study of textiles and dress.

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