Nineteenth Century Fashion Plates – Help or Hinderance?

10 Aug

The story of women’s fashion from the mid-Victorian to the Edwardian era is one of struggle over the female body politic. This was expressed through efforts to influence and control the socially desirable shape and appearance of women’s figures in public. In July 1847, an issue of Punch advised its female readers:

 A BALL is Bliss. A Small Waist is Elegant. Adore Young Officers. Preserve Your Complexion. Seek Approbation. Live Wholly for Dress.[1]

According to David Kunzle, Punch is regarded as ‘the perfect mirror of Victorian bourgeois mores…it became an accurate barometer of the conservative male upper-middle-class view of women’s role in society’.[2] Thus, the advice to ‘Live Wholly for Dress’ suggests a male desire for female adherence to current fashions, by which women’s bodies ought to be shaped. This quotation also expresses patriarchal approval of the ‘Small Waist’, which, as will be argued, possessed both biological and moral implications. In this article, women are recommended not only to maintain a slender waist-line, but also preserve a beautiful complexion, indicating a masculine preference for young and attractive partners. In addition, the direction to ‘Seek Approbation’ reveals the magazine’s intention to persuade women to dress and behave in accordance with social norms, as outlined by Punch and other contemporary publications. Despite alterations in sartorial fashion during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the ideal female form that was created by social structures pertaining to the bourgeois readership of magazines such as Punch, was a masculine image of womanhood.

In order to achieve patriarchal inscription of women’s bodies, a visual culture was created that provided templates to which the Victorian woman was supposed to reproduce. These exemplary forms were presented in ladies’ journals and fashion plates, which eventually led to the distribution of a feminine ideal.[3] Fashion plates first appeared in magazines at the end of the eighteenth century, including The Lady’s Monthly Museum (1798),[4] and were portrayed in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine[5] from the 1850s. By 1868, the EDM included ‘The Corset Book’ that displayed ‘elaborate engravings of every kind of Corset and Crinoline that has ever been adopted.’[6] At end of the nineteenth century, on December 17th 1892, Vogue began as a weekly society publication whose cover featured ‘[a] debutante’ wearing a gown with a small corseted waist. The first issues of Vogue ‘were filled with society ladies, such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, wearing their own clothing.’[7] Aristocratic women were the fashionable ideal and set the standard to which people aspired.

With such proliferation of the female form, it was possible for women to be viewed from a new perspective. The fascination with these images lay in the fact that, unlike the body itself, its representation could be gazed upon without impropriety. The inanimate fashion plates could be dominated by the female viewer, who, by gazing upon the picture, felt that she had mastered the form that is the focus of her admiration. In the case of the Gibson Girl, women could not only look upon her image, but actually transform themselves into her through financial exchange for the correct ‘skirts, shoes, [and] hats.’ Fashion thus became pursuit wherein it was possible to gain pleasure from looking at potential versions of the body, and actualising the ideal through purchase of modish items.

Not only was the female form available as a two dimensional image in nineteenth century magazines, the introduction of glass windows allowed for clothing to be displayed upon dress mannequins, so that they could be viewed from the shop’s exterior. A description of Regent’s Park in 1837 states that:

[t]he buildings of this noble street consist of palace-like shops, in whose broad shewy windows are displayed articles of the most splendid description, such as the neighbouring world of wealth and fashion are daily in want of.[8]

The static representations of the female figure provided by fashion mannequins in shop windows were more lifelike than the images of women presented in magazines, yet they remained masculine constructions for capitalist purposes. In either form, women’s bodies were exploited and fashion was one of the prime mediums for its achievement.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


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