In 1892, the British periodical Young Woman acknowledged that “‘There is no scarcity of women’s journals’” (Mendes). Britain in the nineteenth century saw a significant rise in women’s periodicals, increasing in volume towards the end of the century to address a changing social landscape and growing female readership. As the end of the century loomed near, women had begun to transcend the domestic realm and gender roles were increasingly challenged. Society saw the emergence of the ‘New Woman’—strong and educated, striving towards greater political agency—sensationalized frequently in the press. With visual and verbal representations of women each periodical put forth its own ideas about the female role, disseminating to women of all ages and social statuses their concepts of the ideal woman and home, fashion, arts, literature, and other female-oriented content. The ‘woman question’ of the female’s place in society was on everyone’s mind, male and female alike, as traditionally delineated spheres—he in the public, she in the domestic and private—were challenged.
Clare Mendes writes in her exploration of fin-de-siècle New Womanhood that “1896 became a watershed year in which ideas were being recalibrated, following the Wilde trials and the public burning of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. New magazines for women after this date had an important role to play in the reinvention of womanhood: would she retain her outspokenness or return to submissiveness?” She references a binary that is characteristic of the way late Victorian femininity is often depicted in the contemporary imagination, focusing on two oppositional gender ideologies for women—one of conservative ideals—the domestic and confined female lacking agency—and the other of progressive alternatives—the feminist ideal of the New Woman. This duality reveals itself further in discussions of Victorian dress, where the feminine and conservative has “often been examined in terms of its regulation and control of the female body”(Wahl), and the progressive characterized as an attempt to ape men.
Even in recent decades scholars have argued that through most of the Victorian era in Britain “periodical readers were offered a model of femininity as undifferentiated and uncontested, focused on the private and domestic as distinct from the masculine world of politics, law and ‘work’” (Ballaster). But this statement is in fact an oversimplification—in reality domestic ideology was neither uniform nor static, but rather full of tension and contradiction—a textual and cultural analysis of women’s magazines reveals numerous discrepancies within representations of femininity. Specifically, through a brief case study of an instance of late nineteenth century portraiture and its preoccupation with the past, we can see that the stable visual binary of domestic femininity or an aggressive new womanhood is a further instance of oversimplification that begins to collapse and reveal itself as reductionist. Victorian feminisms and Victorian women were not one neatly packaged thing or another. In reality, the female body at this historical moment acted as a stage on which disparate gender norms and ideas were played out and at times compounded, bringing to light the “conflicting, unstable characteristics of nineteenth century domestic ideology and femininity” (Ledbetter).
As we often turn towards the past in times of societal and cultural difficulty, nineteenth century Britain was in many ways obsessed with the previous century. In 1894, an exhibition was held at London’s Grafton Gallery devoted entirely to representations of feminine beauty and loveliness. Titled the “Exhibition of Fair Women,” over two hundred historical portraits of ideals of female beauty were put on display alongside miniatures, female accessories, and objets d’beaute, many lent to the exhibition by prominent social ladies of the time. Of the many masters displayed on the gallery walls—Holbein and Van Dyck, Goya, Velazquez—the exhibition’s viewers and the press seemed to agree that it was the English masters of the 18th century, notably Romney, Lawrence, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, whose images held the utmost power in capturing female beauty, and “gave such brilliancy to English portraiture….given canvases breathing the essence of femininity” (Fowler). This exhibition was just one example of this societal obsession with the previous century at the cultural moment, gathering momentum as the century drew to a close. The interest was demonstrated most particularly in the commissions by aristocrats and the newly rich for portraits of their wives, in which evocations of eighteenth-century dress, props and poses were paramount (Maynard). The fascination with revivalist portraiture was extended to a wider readership through the pages of numerous female periodicals.
Women’s magazines in the fin-de-siècle frequently discussed portraiture and the arts, publishing portraits of society women done by the Reynoldses and Romneys of their day—Ellis Roberts and Edward Hughes. In the very first volume of the women’s periodical Lady’s Realm, the author Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson visits the studio of Mr. Roberts, recounting the experience in her article, aptly named “A Dream of Fair Women.” She is taken aback by the beauty of the painted women in their sumptuous garments, and her article is heavily adorned with reproductions of some of the Roberts and Hughes portraits she has admired, affording a wide audience of readers the opportunity to view paintings they would likely never experience in person.
Printed across from her descriptions of the studio is Georgina, Countess of Dudley by Edward Hughes (late 19th century). The Countess stands tall and statuesque, leaning against a flat-topped rock reminiscent of a neoclassical column. Set in a pastoral background with strong diagonal lines and painterly foliage, she wears a gathered white gown that floats down to her ankles, with satin bodice and crossed and knotted front. Her sleeves billow around her hitting just beneath her elbow, and she drapes a mantle over the rock to rest against, holding excess fabric loosely by her side. She gazes out to the periphery, hair gathered fashionably up on her head. There are obvious parallels in dress, pose, and setting to eighteenth century portraits like Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1775-1776), which would likely have been seen by Hughes and seen or read about by many readers of women’s magazines in exhibitions. Both women lean, dark sky and trees behind them, as their left hands grasp at delicate fabric folds, and white gowns pool at their feet. Their sleeves are gathered almost identically just beneath the elbow, though those on the Countess of Dudley extend out more at the shoulder—a modern intrusion into the vaguely historicized gown. But the Countess of Dudley’s crossover gown with long flowing skirt is still closer in style to a modernized version of the gown painted by Reynolds, an amalgam of fancy dress and the existing mode, than the structured and severe garments of the late nineteenth century, crafting an image of the female that is softer—more stereotypically feminine and pure—and playing on the societal interest in the previous century and its ideology. While the garments bring with them desirable characteristics of the eighteenth century, they are not pure representations of their predecessors, “as in most revivals of dress, wishful thinking often clouds the original reality, and current tastes modify those of other eras or places” (Baines). The modern inevitably creeps in, but implications are clear, and these images are imbued with hegemonic forms of feminine beauty, attaching them to aspirational women.
The revivalist aesthetic sought to depict women with greater simplicity, “a kind of untroubled loveliness that seemed to prove that beauty could be perennially preserved” (Maynard); this feminine representation could be viewed largely as a conservative reaction to female advancement. And yet these were prominent society women with increased power outside of the domestic realm and in the British social sphere. They are depicted largely outside and in fancy dress, not caged within the confines of the home, and such portraits convey the social power of the hostess, displaying their wealth and material grandiosity. As subjects they are not entirely passive, conforming to the rigid confines of years past, and beauty and dress emphasize their celebrity, endowing these women with greater agency and influence rather than simply rendering them objects for male viewing pleasure. The frequent inclusion of these society portraits and their use of revivalist dress in woman’s magazines perpetuates an image of women that is in actuality full of contradiction—modern yet traditional, powerful yet sweet.
Similar competing ideologies can be seen in the photography and illustrations of female periodicals. Their images of women never adhered to one ideological camp or another, containing elements of femininity that were at times limiting, and simultaneously looked towards social advancement. Clothing was depicted as a means of this advancement rather than confinement, and yet maintained their idea of a proper feminine aesthetic. Images of late Victorian femininity were wildly unstable because the entire meaning of femininity at this cultural moment was unstable—to view them as static tropes is a great mischaracterization. These portraits and their use of dress in the context of the women’s magazine captured and crystallized this interstitial moment between letting go of a deeply separated past and forging a clear path forward—the press was merely attempting to navigate its complexities like everyone else.
Nostalgia retains a powerful presence throughout fashion and culture at large, as does the feeling that the golden age exists somewhere behind us—we make attempts to grasp at it with our sartorial reflections of decades and centuries past. But it is interesting to consider how these material reflections can never be pure. When we look towards styles of a previous decade or century, we are looking back on people who were also looking back (Cronberg). It seems we commonly think of this phenomenon in relation to the vintage aesthetic of more recent decades, but in actuality it has been occurring for centuries—perhaps a testament to some communal longing of the human spirit.
Clare Mendes, Representations of the New Woman in the 1890s Woman’s Press
Kimberly Wahl, A Domesticated Exoticism: Fashioning Gender in Nineteenth-Century British Tea Gowns
Rosalind Ballaster, Margaret Beetham, Elizabeth Frazer, and Sandra Hebron, Womens Worlds: Ideology, Femininity, and the Woman’s Magazine
Alexis Easley, Clare Gill, and Beth Rodgers, Women, Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1830s-1900s: the Victorian Period
Kathryn Ledbetter, British Victorian Women’s Periodicals: Beauty Civilization and Poetry
Frank Fowler, Portrait Painting and some Early English Painters
Margaret Maynard, A Dream of Fair Women’: Revival Dress and the Formation of Late Victorian Images of Femininity
Mrs. F. Harcourt Williamson, A Dream of Fair Women
Barbara Burman Baines, Fashion Revivals: From the Elizabethan Age to the Present Day