From the Collections Archive

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings


Georgiana Houghton, The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny, 1861.


Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1862.


Georgiana Houghton, Glory Be To God, 1864.

I’ve recently been giving a couple of talks on Sunday afternoons in the gallery; it’s a great way of meeting some interesting people, and having a lively discussion about the works on display. My recent topic of conversation has been the Georgiana Houghton exhibition, a collection of 21 watercolour drawings that the British artist produced (ostensibly) through contact with the spirit world in 1860s to 1870s Victorian London. Houghton claimed to be in touch with various spirits including high Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Corregio, as well as deceased members of her immediate family, such as her brother Warrand, sister Rosalia and uncle William.

Her ‘spirit drawings’ are remarkable products of Victorian culture, and were produced about the same time that Claude Monet was painting the river Thames in an Impressionistic fog. If the fruits of his labour were seen as radical to a contemporary gaze, then how must a Victorian public have responded to Houghton’s endeavours, with their exotic colours and forms? Not very well at all is the answer. When she mounted an exhibition of her work in a gallery on Old Bond Street in 1871, critics responded with confusion, outrage, dismay, and bewilderment.

Nevertheless, Spiritualism had become very fashionable at the time in Victorian London, centred on the belief that contact with an ‘afterlife’ was possible through mediumship practices including séances. This fascination with the spirit world is unsurprising given the Victorians’ preoccupation with death. Not only did they introduce bells to coffins – lest any poor soul should be buried alive – but Victoria, following Albert’s death in 1861, elevated private mourning to a public level when she began to dress solely in black. With social and cultural upheaval in Victorian London, many women were beginning to enjoy greater private and public freedoms at home and work, and the dark environment of the séance room was a potentially liberating space for them to reside. Scientific expeditions were also gaining momentum during the period, alongside the doctrines of ethnography and anthropology, all of which reflected a desire to see and understand the surrounding world and, in doing so, find out more about the origins of man. It is perhaps only inevitable then that a question was also beginning to emerge of what might exist beyond life, and whether there was a contactable spirit realm.

Houghton’s work is fascinating for its pioneering use of largely abstract forms, which place her drawings closer in aesthetic terms to those of Kandinsky, or the Dadaists’ automated drawings produced in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps a contributing factor in her lack of recognition – until now – is not simply that she was a woman, but that she was producing these works 60 or 70 years too soon, before the existence of intellectual frameworks such as Freudian psychoanalysis that might have been used to understand and contextualise her drawings. I wonder if Houghton might even have been a synaesthete – there is something incredibly emotive and multisensory about her use of colour, shape, line and form.

But it is important to remember that these drawings are far from abstract. For the artist, they were highly symbolic, and she produced detailed explanations on the backs of each of them, painstakingly pointing out the different representational forms to the viewer.

Whilst Houghton is perhaps not an obvious choice for a dress historian, there is something about the thread-like lines and vibrant colours of her drawings that draw me in on a very visual – and unequivocally tactile – level. Professor David Lomas recently observed what he described as the ‘hair-like’ forms present in many of these images, suggesting a connection to be made with Victorian hair jewellery, and pointing out the interconnected processes of looking, and wanting to touch, but potentially also being touched by, Houghton’s spirit drawings.

A Look Back on ‘Fashioning Winter’ at Somerset House

It’s December, the ice rink is up and running in the Somerset House courtyard, and we couldn’t be more excited for Christmas and, more importantly, winter fashion! To get in the mood, we have been looking through the Documenting Fashion archives and reminiscing about the wintery display that Dr Rebecca Arnold, PhD student Alexis Romano and MA History of Dress alumnus Fruszina Befeki curated as part of last year’s Winter Mode exhibition in Somerset House. Their display, Winter Mode, showcased a group of fashion journals from the Courtauld’s collection, giving the reader tips for how look chic in the snow! Read on for a recap of their experiences!

Exhibition Update: Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter! Planning ‘Winter Mode’
by Alexis Romano

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

Co-curator Fruzsina Befeki puts together a mock display

As they design fashion collections, with their clear link to upcoming seasons, designers must continually have the impression of being projected into the future. Fashion’s futurity affects shoppers too, who imagine their bodies in clothing that relates to seasonal elements. Co-curating the display Winter Mode (with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Fruzsina Befeki), one of the exhibitions that constitute Fashioning Winter at Somerset House, has resulted in a similar detachment between present and future for me. Summer and now autumn has been winter focused, as our display explores wintry fashion illustrations from the 1910s and 1920s, and specifically, how illustrators connected the subject to her environment, and represented at once the style, modernity, warmth and comfort of winter dress.

And as a rather warm autumn lingers, installation has already begun! While we, along with head curator Shonagh Marshall and dress historians such as Amy de la Haye, install our individual displays, technicians work to erect the ice skating rink that has inhabited the courtyard of Somerset House for fifteen years each winter. Both rink and exhibition open to the public on 11th November.

Although our installation is only two days away, there is still much to do. Our display showcases the fashion journals Gazette du Bon Ton, Femina and Journal des dames et des modes, and we’ve chosen the individual fashion plates as they relate to our three themes: The Elements, Fashion and Sport. We decided on the content months ago, but we must constantly adapt and adjust the display in view of issues that arise, relating to conservation or to display case constraints for example. And as display objects change so must our overall aesthetic. In the above photograph taken several weeks ago Fruzsina works on one of our mock exhibits! We are especially thankful to Antony Hopkins, Kilfinan Librarian, Head of Book, Witt and Conway Libraries at the Courtauld Institute, and Kate Edmondson, Paper Conservator at the Courtauld Gallery, for their support and guidance during this process.

Each journal on display will be identified by a caption that recalls an antique price tag, which we hope will carry viewers to a figurative shopping space, embellished by layers of history. And although they won’t be able to handle the journals on display, we’ve created a booklet for them to touch and peruse, with the help of the exhibition designer Amy Preston. It is our abstract interpretation of a historic fashion journal, and includes a fashion plate, editor’s letter, and other surprises. Will this intimate interaction heighten readers’ bodily sense of setting, and plunge them into winter? And those who attend some of the exhibitions’ associated events, such as our December workshop, will obtain their very own copy!

4 November, 2014

Installing ‘Winter Mode’ at Somerset House
by Fruszi Befeki

An empty vitrine...

An empty vitrine…

Objects and condition reports

Objects and condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Conservator Frances Halahan and co-curator Alexis Romano look over condition reports

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Co-curator Alexis Romano arranging the display

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text...

Under glass! The final display awaiting wall text…

I must admit, rather unprofessionally perhaps, that I was like a child on Christmas day during yesterday morning’s installation of Winter Mode, a display that I am curating with Dr Rebecca Arnold and Alexis Romano for Fashioning Winter at Somerset House. We had decided on our object list, approved labels, wrote condition reports and even devised a ‘dress rehearsal’ (see Alexis’s blog post from 4th November) well in advance of installation, but we had never seen all of these components come together.

We started our day by going over the contents of our to-do list, which we proceeded to tick off one by one. The two book cradles that Kate Edmondson, The Courtauld’s paper conservator, kindly made for us were ready. They were waiting for us at the studio, along with the two books they were designed to hold. We headed back to Rebecca’s office where we very carefully laid out all of the objects, to go over our sequence and arrangement one last time. This gave us the opportunity to make sure that we had the right viewing dynamic, with the different illustrations’ subjects connecting with one another through the direction of their gaze and body language. All of the fashionable ladies featured in the display are engaged in the act of looking, either at themselves, at art objects or at a winter scene, as if illustrators sought to remind their viewers of their own tendencies. We aimed to highlight this and to animate the display through their interaction.

At two o’clock we headed to the East Wing of Somerset House with boxes in tow, to find the empty vitrine waiting to be filled. Once Shonagh Marshall and Susan Thompson (head curator of Fashioning Winter and Somerset House exhibitions organiser, respectively) had arrived, we began by placing the textile panel, bound in a lovely Christopher Farr fabric, in the display case. Conservator Frances Halahan then carefully cleaned the surface so that no dust or microscopic insects would endanger the magazines once under glass. We then proceeded to arrange objects according to our well rehearsed plan and matched them up with their respective condition report so that Frances could verify our details’ accuracy.

Once the object labels arrived we reached the penultimate stage of installation; all that remained to do was meticulously review every arrangement before placing the glass over the display. We commissioned captions to look like vintage price tags in order to emphasise that, for many viewers, looking at these illustrations was like window-shopping. They are labelled according to one of three themes: Fashion, Sport, Battling the Elements. These refer not only to the scenes depicted, but also to the sense that each illustrator tried to convey to viewers: the thrill of ice-skating or the comfort of a warm coat on a frosty winter afternoon, for example.

With everything in position and checked, technicians expertly lifted and placed the glass over the case. As Shonagh pointed out, there is something quite satisfying about this final stage of installation. The glass seals and protects the objects, which will stay in place until the exhibition closes. Visitors are now welcome to move around, lean in close, and inspect the display. We hope you will enjoy Winter Mode!

We would like to thank the staff at Somerset House and at the Courtauld Institute of Art for their generous help on the day and leading up to the exhibition.

7 November 2014

A Walk Through ‘Fashioning Winter’
by Fruszi Befeki

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014

Opening party and inauguration of the ice rink, 10 November 2014


Although we have been focusing on our own displays for Fashioning Winter in order to give you some behind the scenes access, now that the exhibition is up and running it is time to introduce you to the fascinating exhibits that make up the rest of the project. As with most shows, it really is best if you go see it in person, but for those who cannot make it, here are a few photographic guides to Somerset House’s winter fashion history treasure hunt.


Caroline Evans’s Skating on Film is directly next to our installation in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display focuses on footage of people skating in the early 20th century, and features clips from the Netherland’s Eye Filmmuseum.


These clips provide a parallel to Skate in Somerset House’s courtyard and encourage viewers to compare their own wardrobes and motions with sets of gestures from the past.

Amy de la Haye used her own collection of postcards by the illustrator Xavier Sager, and these depictions of fashionable women ice-skating and rollerblading are also in keeping with the theme of winter sports. Sager’s works are a combination of beautiful workmanship and a healthy dose of humour and when seen together, these illustrations reveal a connection between modernity, fashion and motion.



Sophia Hedman and Serge Martinov have created a highly conceptual display that focuses on the changing meanings of the colour white in Western fashion history. Exhibits are suspended in the Stamp stairwell, allowing viewers to walk around the objects displayed and admire them at a remarkably close range.



Ben Whyman’s Winter in Wartime is a timely exhibit that will resonate with audiences on the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War. The display consists of contemporary illustrated newspaper cuttings, which demonstrate what members of the British Armed forces wore to keep warm at the Front.


If you head to the Great Arch Hall you will find Tory Turk’s and Beatrice Behlen’s respective exhibits facing each other, as if in conversation. Turk has created a “capsule archive” of skiing culture that includes gems such as a Burberry ladies’ ski suit c. 1927. The display maps the evolution of skiwear through an exciting assortment of objects.



While Tory Turk’s exhibit revolves around global skiing culture, Beatrice Behlen has focused on the vogue for skating in interwar London. The exhibition’s focal point, a pair of skates from the 1930s, is given a historical frame with the help of newspaper clippings and photographs. A map that shows viewers where one could find ice-rinks during this period illustrates just how popular the sport was at the time.



The Nelson Stair is now home to Alistair O’Neill’s display of photographer Angus McBean’s imaginative Christmas cards. Humourous, surreal, yet sensitive, these greeting cards, which span the period 1949 to 1985, illustrate a lifetime of creative experimentation.


Head curator Shonagh Marshall examines how the world of fairy tales inspire designers for the autumn/winter shows with the help of evocative literary excerpts and wonderful illustrations by Stephen Doherty. The three projections, set up in alcoves, transform Seamen’s Hall into a living storybook of fashion.

18 November, 2014

Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, Elegance: A complete guide for every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions (1964)

contents page


Elegance: A complete guide for every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions, written by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, directrice at Parisian fashion house Nina Ricci, in 1964.  Dariaux, used her status as an authority within the haute couture scene, to construct a series of laws of personal adornment. The book serves as a comprehensive A-Z style encyclopedia that covers a multitude of dress-related choices that the modern woman might be met with in her day-to-day life. Ranging from accessories, to zippers, to shopping in the Orient, the topics are linked by the author’s prescriptive guidance on the correct way to achieve both sartorial and behavioral elegance. Dariaux does not evaluate the relevance of dress in relation to fashion, but rather how best to construct a single outfit to negotiate the changing demands of the day.

Though informed by her relationships with high society women, Dariaux’s definition of elegance supersedes socio-economic boundaries. It is unlike beauty, or ‘chic’, in that it can only be learnt and is never a given. Whilst fashion is an undeniable component of elegance, Dariaux maintains that strategic combinations of separates and colours will allow the individual’s appearance to outlive passing trends. It is therefore available to any woman willing to abide by the author’s insightful rules, regardless of whether she shops at Macy’s or Balenciaga. Minimal excess and the ability to construct an elegant appearance regardless of means, equates the book with popular women’s magazines of the time, such as Ladies Home Journal and McCalls.


Genevieve Dariaux’s dictatorial voice is softened by her witticisms and humorous analogies that democratize women’s experience with dress. From wearing an item to death, because it was exceedingly expensive, to wanting to incorporate every new purchase into a single outfit, women both past and present are united by their sartorial fallibility. Dariaux’s rules of elegance are still applicable, as they arose in order to manage common behaviours that persist today.

Many references to popular designers and shopping destinations are anachronistic remnants of the 1960s, making the book a valuable record of consumerism.  However, the refreshing outlook on subjects such as age, weight and comfort, can be used as examples to show how the modernity that is inherent to elegance foreshadows developments in fashionable aesthetics. The book is therefore relevant to the spheres of consumerism and design.

 Dariaux proposes that elegance and fashion have become distinct frameworks due to the loss of creative ingenuity that stems from mass-market copies. With gems such as, “one cannot afford to buy cheap”, the reader can infer that there is a particular bias towards the high fashion industry, undoubtedly a result of the author’s occupation. In her eyes, elegance is a means to rectify the discord created by the vast availability of lower quality examples. Dariaux’s laws that dictate selectiveness and restraint also suggest that her agenda is to promote the rejection of cheap ready-to-wear. She asserts that even if the consumer cannot afford high fashion, investment in quality separates allows her to align herself with couture values.

Paul Poiret, En Habillant l’époque (1930)

1002nd Night photograph
Poiret photograph of marbling
Poiret photograph of mannequin


Paul Poiret’s memoirs ‘En Habillant l’époque,’ which literally translates as ‘Dressing the Age,’ were written in 1930, almost two decades after the height of his fame. At the end of his manuscript, Poiret wrote that though he continually felt ideas for new dresses germinating ‘under his skin,’ his glory days had passed. Poiret traced his fascination with dress to his childhood family. He dedicated his memoirs to his mother, who he considered supremely elegant, and described how his sisters gave him a forty-centimetre wooden mannequin, which he lovingly draped in silks, in both Parisian and Oriental styles.

Poiret cast himself as an artist-designer, whose vision of femininity radically differed from that of the early 1900s fashion he encountered during his tenure at the couturiers Doucet and Worth. He claimed that he waged war on corsets, which had divided women’s bodies into two distinct peaks, comprising the neck and breasts on one side, and the hips and buttocks on the other. However, he recalled how his more holistic outfits, with their narrow hobble skirts, made women cry, gnash their teeth, and complain that they could not walk, or get in and out of a car easily. Overall, however, Poiret regarded his relationship with women as mutually beneficial. He likened the women he dressed to orbiting planets, who relied upon ‘his sun’ to shine; but simultaneously considered that his favourite mannequin Paulette, a ‘vaporous’ blonde, with the cylindrical shape of a cigarette, was a true collaborator, because she brought his designs to life.


Poiret considered that his primary innovation in fashion was relinquishing the etherealized palette of rose, lilac, powder-blue, maize-yellow and white that had dominated French women’s clothing from the eighteenth century, in favour of opaque, Fauvist tones, including royal blue, strong greens, reds and violets and acidic orange and lemon hues that made women’s silhouettes ‘sing.’ Poiret’s incorporation of these bold hues, alongside Orientalising components, such as the Minaret ensemble of 1911, which featured turbans and hip-skimming lampshade tunics, alongside harem pants, introduced an expressive, if still decorative, vision of womanhood. Rather than blending into the background in pastel tones, the women he dressed would stand out for their exoticism. A photo-plate from Poiret’s Arabian Nights-themed party, the 1002nd Night, of 1911, shows non-Western attitudes to the body, as guests of both sexes in turbans, belted kaftans and variations upon the Minaret outfit, crouch or sit cross-legged upon a Persian rug. Extravagant feathers, which emerge from the guests’ turbans, contribute a festive and frivolous air to proceedings.

Still, the photograph’s grainy, cinematic greyscale imbues the image with a nostalgic air. One gets the impression that the colour and vibrancy of the original party resonated with memories of a vanished world. Interestingly, Poiret wrote that after his experimentation in the early 1910s, colours in fashion became ‘anemic and neurasthenic’ once more. Poiret’s memoirs, with their slate-blue leather skin, blue-marbled inside cover, and black and white photographic inserts, did not only reflect the colouristic limitations of publishing in 1930, but express their distance from the Orientalism that made the author’s reputation.

poiret cover

M.P. Verneuil, Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers (1925)



Etoffes et Tapis Etrangers, by M.P.-Verneuil, was published in 1925 by Albert Levy, as part of the documentation and celebration of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – the World’s Fair held in Paris, from April until October, 1925. Dedicated to the display of decorative arts, the international exhibition attracted over sixteen million visitors. Essentially, the book is a collection of seventy-five richly printed plates of decorative textiles, which Verneuil selected from the abundant examples displayed at the exhibition. Examples from Austria, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan, Holland, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, (then) Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are represented. Notably, France is missing: Verneuil described this as a deliberate decision, designed to eliminate bias, and to provide convenient access to an extensive international range, which could be appreciated and studied.

The book begins with a five-page introduction, in which Verneuil provides unrestrained commentary of the works included, and the countries from which they originated. This includes relevant snippets of history, such as the Austrian government initiative of 1899 to promote textile arts and teaching, which, he notes worked to great effect. He includes artistic criticism of the designs, and describes the English examples, for instance, to be ‘often perfect’, despite what he describes as the diminishment of the arts and crafts movement after the death of artists such as William Morris. After a brief but detailed contents table, the full page designs unfurl, taking the viewer on an international journey in which a thorough range of colours, techniques and styles can be studied in detail.

Book 2


The International Exhibition was often shortened to Art Deco, which in time came to describe the style(s) displayed. This loose grouping included examples of modernism, cubism, futurism, and exoticism. A requirement for participation in this world’s fair was for the works included to be strictly modern, and not dependent on merely copying historic styles. Indeed, in Verneuil’s introduction, he emphasised that ‘simple lines seem necessary now,’ and the ‘more or less geometrical’ designs selected ‘agree perfectly with current architecture and furniture.’

It seems that Verneuil is according with the overall rationale behind the exhibition: to showcase the supremacy of luxury goods after the First World War. Textiles are positioned as an important expression of the zeitgeist, and those illustrated reflect contemporary, fashionable preferences. However, even within Verneuil’s chosen selection, a number of textiles rely heavily on tradition, such those that depict figurative designs of workers performing crafts. Highlighting modernity had the important, idealist function of signaling progress, distance and advancement away from the harrowing war years. Bright colours suggested a break from the muted tones of the earlier twentieth century, and even the more traditional designs shown could be produced by modern processes.

While the book does not specifically mention dress itself, the development of textiles has clear impact upon possibilities and taste in fashion, and many of the designs presented could be used in this application, both then and now. Despite the strictly ornamental nature of the designs, Verneuil successfully shows their creative and cultural importance. They, along with other related and interlinked aspects of the applied arts, such as fashion and architecture, are reflective and demonstrative of changing technology and aesthetics at this time.

Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1913)

Old English Costumes Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 17.40.48


Old English Costumes from the Collection Formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes: A Sequence of Fashions Through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries was published in 1913 and presents a selection of the vast costume collection of the artist Mr. Talbot Hughes. Hughes was a British history, genre and landscape painter, and collected over 750 historical garments dating from c.1450 to 1870, which he used as studio props and references for his paintings. In 1913, Harrods Ltd bought his entire collection and displayed it for three weeks, to show the progression of historical dress, and to advertise their contemporary fashion range. After this, the collection was handed over to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is still housed in the permanent collection.

This book begins with a preface by Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, then director of the V&A. He highlights the importance of the collection, ‘rich and splendid relics of ancient fashion’ and the history of dress as an essential adjunct to history and culture. As well as recognising the growth in appreciation for fashion history, he praises the inclusion of dressmaking as a subject in schools of arts and crafts and acknowledges the responsibility of the V&A to display and promote the skill and exemplary products of dressmaking to students and the public.

The book continues with some beautifully romantic descriptive notes by Philip Gibbs, reprinted from the November issue of The Connoisseur. These provide a personal and sensory account of his encounter with the collection – ‘I was able to examine their beauty, to handle their texture, and to study the historical evolution of dress in a delightful way.’ He too acknowledges the collection’s value to the public, and writes in such a way as to align costume to history, culture and art. He describes bygone eras, King’s fashions and satire, appealing to common knowledge and well-known imagery in his description of garments. Aligning the dresses to works by artists, such as Watteau and Hogarth, and writers, including Dickens and Austen, he provides an overview of fashion history through the lens of imagination and romance.

The rest of the book shows a selection of the fantastic collection in full-page photographs modelled by real people. The models, dressed in contemporaneous make-up, accessories and jewellery wear the historical garments and are placed in a contextual setting – outside, in a furnished room, or in a photographic studio. The photographs are beautifully shown in black and white, with a few full colour versions, showing the fine details of the garments.

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 17.41.11

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 17.41.03


For me the book was intriguing on a number of levels. At first glance, it provides an interesting insight into changing perceptions of the History of Dress and dressmaking in 1913. The collection’s inclusion in the V&A stands as testament to the value in which dress was held.

 It is also interesting to see the prominence of corporate sponsorship and advertisement in publications, even as early as 1913. The book is careful to mention, at every opportunity, the role that Harrods Ltd played in the acquisition of the collection, and their support of the V&A. The importance of the collection and the sincerity of the V&A’s gratitude are particularly pertinent given that the collection was in danger of being sold to an American department store and given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith and Philip Gibbs’ discussions of the collection provide an insight into museological practices and the history of dress in recent history. Their romantic language and description of the costumes is both informative and enjoyable, and really places costume within the cultural consciousness. It was also interesting to see how the costumes were originally displayed in the V&A, in glass cabinets along the Long Gallery. It is fascinating to see how the curators have picked up on the ghostly and uncanny quality that disembodied dress can convey: ‘If we would bring back to the imagination the spirits of the past, we must clothe them in the habit of their age, and neglect no detail, however slight, which will help to complete the picture.’

In light of this, the book’s most striking and unusual aspect lies in the photographs themselves. The collection is dressed on live models and placed in contemporary historical settings, producing images that are both bizarre and intriguing. This practice would be now be frowned upon – conservation issues mean that garments in dress collections are never to be worn by a live model again. However, the images are stunningly beautiful and strange at the same time. The clash of temporalities between eighteenth century costume and an early twentieth century model is captivating. There is a sense of theatricality and fantasy that is entirely unique to a History of Dress book.

H.R Haweis, The Art of Beauty (1878)

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.23.10

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.23.20


In The Art of Beauty (1878), English writer H.R Haweis synthesises a series of previously published articles centred on the importance of beauty, dress and physical appearance. The work can be characterised as an ardent apology for the significance of dress and, simultaneously, an advice manual targeted exclusively at women that both encourages and teaches them to take pride and care in their appearance.

At the outset, Haweis announces her central argument and writes, “[t]he culture of beauty is everywhere a legitimate art.” She attempts to remedy dress and beauty’s maligned reputation as frivolous by claiming its exalted status as a dignified art form. To defend her declaration, she classifies dress as akin to other established varieties of art, such as sculpture, painting and architecture, all of which, she believes, ought to be governed by principles of form, colour, shade and proportion. She takes an evaluative approach to beauty and adheres to the Ruskinian tradition that praises truth to materials and nature. She favours clothing and accessories that accentuate, rather than falsify, the natural self. For example, she expresses vehement disdain for overly high heels that strain the spine and for stays that distort the natural lines and proportions of the figure, preventing internal organs from functioning properly.

The work is divided into four books. ‘Beauty and Dress’ focuses on proper and ideal forms of clothing, ‘Beauty and Headdress’, outlines principles governing head accessories, ‘Beauty and Surroundings’ explains the role interior décor plays in enhancing one’s appearance and, finally, ‘A Garden of Girls’, catalogues a variety of women who may appear hopeless, but whom she assures the reader can achieve beauty so long as they heed her advice.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.23.34


The Art of Beauty occupies an important position within the history of dress, as it constitutes one of the first literary attempts to apply aesthetic principles to modes of self-presentation. Haweis transcends the conventional women’s magazine mandate to promote the latest fashions in Victorian England and, instead, praises clothing for its artistic truth. Her serious tone and scrupulous attention to historical detail justify her authoritative statements and render her text cogent and sophisticated.

Although Haweis’ work was published in 1878, her concerted effort to reform the way people thought about beauty and ameliorate its status remains relevant to the contemporary discourse of fashion. A plethora of publications have contributed to a rich corpus of scholarship on dress, however, the area of research is oftentimes undeservedly perceived as trivial and unworthy of scholarly inquiry. Haweis’ text, while comprehensive and argumentative, is not officially scholarly insofar as she assumes an expressly evaluative approach to dress, claiming outright that it must be classified either as good or bad depending on its adherence to certain artistic principles. Her assertion that dress and beauty is tantamount to art rests on the assessment of formal qualities alone. Despite its limitations, The Art of Beauty can be seen as paving the way for future writers to explore the importance of dress and modes of appearance. Current scholars diverge from Haweis insofar as they favour analysing the socio-political and cultural dimensions of dress, rather than solely formal qualities, yet connect with her in their endeavor to assert the value of beauty and dress.

Luke Limner, Madre Natura versus the Moloch of Fashion (1847)




This ‘social essay’, published in 1874, documents the author’s views about the dangers of following fashion. The author, Luke Limner, starts by condemning the luxury and excess of fashion, and criticizing the wealthy classes’ taste when choosing to wear the latest styles.

Limner’s main concern is fashion’s utter disregard of, and attempt to better, nature. He comments that modern dress is becoming increasingly independent of climate or season, stating that ‘the English lady suffers in her corset and tight bottines in the tropical heat of Calcutta.’


The bulk of the essay charts his disapproval of modifications of the body. He comments that clothing, instead of fitting itself to the human form, demands that the body adapt itself to fit the garments. He feels that this ‘authority of fashion is a gross imposition on mankind,’ and specifically focuses on the corset. He believes that fashion is deforming natural bodies, with great health risks, that he outlines in detail. He is very knowledgeable about human anatomy, commenting on the impact of the corset on the lungs and liver, which serves to provide epistemological evidence and support to his claims, which may otherwise seem somewhat empty. He urges modern women to ‘aid Mother Nature to abolish that type of body bondage and cursed contrivance.’

Corset 2


Limner’s concerns about the dangers of the excess of fashion, as well as attempts to modify the natural forms of the body are common themes in fashion writing. Particularly during this period, but even as late as the twentieth century, there is a concern about the frivolity of fashion and the impact, both physical and moral, that it has on women.  As is the case with a lot of fashion writing, there is a somewhat sexist tone to Limner’s essay. He expresses a concern that women’s heads are filled with ‘flounces and furbelows, ribbons and gauze’ and that female vanity is ultimately leading to the downfall of society. However, there also seems to be a genuine concern about the risks to women’s health as a result of following fashion too strictly, and he appears to blame the fashion industry more than the women themselves. He sympathises that fashion’s ever-changing demands make it increasingly difficult for women to adhere to trends. That is the main contradiction of this essay: Limner accepts that the fashion industry makes unrealistic demands of women’s bodies, but then also seems to blame female vanity for accepting these demands.


It is very telling of attitudes of the period that, despite the fact that women were generally accepted as the main consumers of fashion, it is men who are trusted to write about fashion in a critical way. There is much debate in dress history, about whether fashion is a liberating or enslaving force. When reading essays such as Limner’s, it is hard to imagine that it can be anything other than a subjugating, oppressive industry.  However, in the twentieth century, when women started to be respected as designers and later writers and curators, the tables turned and fashion became a means of female emancipation and expression of creativity.


Fanny Bury Palliser, History of Lace (1869)

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 16.10.39


Fanny Bury Palliser’s History of Lace traces the development of needlework from its earliest references in the Old Testament to those in the late nineteenth century. The author documents the inception of lace as primarily an extension of needlework and embroidery, before noting how lace was differentiated according to country and region, as well as placed in a hierarchy, in order of preference by the Monarch in power at the time.

At the time of print, 1869, little information could be gathered from secondary sources, because earlier research scarcely existed. As a result, Palliser argued that ‘wardrobe accounts, household bills, and public Acts were the most truthful guides,’ to use in order to trace the history of lace. In light of this, the book is filled with public documents that Palliser had been granted access to in the Imperial and Records archives. Accompanying the text are black-and-white and coloured engravings, which highlight the existing variations of lace, and demonstrate how lace was incorporated within the composition of a person’s clothing. Therefore, dress is attended to within the content of the text through the featured engravings.

The front cover – a gold-coloured engraving of a woman in a heavily embroidered gown from 1676, indicates how the book relates lace to dress and femininity. Palliser clarified that, although needlework was not solely confined to females, ‘every woman, had to make one shirt in her lifetime.’ As demonstrated by the engraving, the woman created her own embroidery as well. This engraving reinforces how lace has been considered in the past, as well as the present, as a favourite embellishment and decorative trimming to add to clothing.


Palliser’s History of Lace can still be considered relevant to dress history now, because it is the first to provide the reader with such a rich and varied historiography of embroidery, and therefore demonstrates how far needlework had evolved over earlier centuries. For example, Palliser explained in the text how past laces had derived from the name and function of passament. As the workmanship was improved and the passament became enriched with various designs, the resulting development became what we now refer to as lace.

Examples of this evolution are depicted within the beautifully clear engravings used throughout the book. These designs not only afford the reader an encounter with visual samples, but ultimately serve to present a comparison between the different variations of needlework that exist, and how these can be identified and considered, based upon the distinctions between region or country of manufacture.

Although the book only follows the chronology of the design up until its year of publication in 1869, the in-depth account is still hugely relevant for research purposes today, because of the vast historical period it covers. Palliser’s research identifies the Industrial Revolution as the main turning point for lace manufacturing. This period saw profound change, most notably, the introduction of ‘machinery lace’ in Nottingham. This brought lace within the reach of a wider range of classes and, remains the main method of its production today. Therefore, The History of Lace is still an important text for dress historians, because it charts the production of lace up to the point when it switched from a handcraft to one powered by machinery.

John Trussler, The Habitable World Described, Or the Present State of the People in all parts o the Globe, from North to South; together with The Genius, Manners, Customs, Trade, Religion, Forms of Government, & of the Inhabitants, and every thing respecting them, that can be either entertaining or informing to the Reader, collected from the earliest and latest Accounts of Historians and Travellers of all Nations; With some that have never been published in this kingdom; And nothing advanced but on the best Authorities (1788-97)

Book Cover Book Inside


The Courtauld Library holds volume sixteen of Rev. John Trussler’s expansive scope of books entitled, The Habitable World Described… It focuses on Italy: namely, the Papal States, Sicily, Naples, and Malta. It is just one of twenty volumes, the first of which was published in 1788 and the last in 1797; each attempts, with the addition of engraved copper plates and maps, to describe the ‘entire known habitable world’. It was produced in the late eighteenth century, a period when British territorial expansion overseas was in full swing and travel accounts played an important role in disseminating information, mainly concerning areas claimed and conquered, to a larger European public beyond the scientific community. An interesting mix of science and sentiment, Trussler’s interest with pre-unification Italy was not uncommon. Italy in the late eighteenth century, with its art and architecture of classical antiquity, fascinated numerous British travellers, as had continental Europe as a whole.

Book Inside 2


Trussler was concerned with the geography, politics, and social structures of the places he visited, not to mention the people, although dress played a minor role in his descriptive accounts of them. References to dress in Trussler’s account are far from abundant, which leads one to deduce that Stella Mary Newton, to whom this book belonged, was primarily concerned with encouraging her students to venture into the mind-set of the different periods studied in the Courtauld postgraduate dress history course, through first-hand, eyewitness accounts, such as that of an eighteenth-century traveller like Trussler.

In one mention of dress, Trussler described the outfits of the Sicilian nobility during the Festival of Saint Rosalia in Sicily, held on the 14th July: ‘The assemblies, at the viceroy’s palaces…gave me an opportunity of seeing the whole corps of mobility collected together. The men are rather a comely race; but the ladies are little favoured by nature. Two girls, under eight years of age, heiresses of great families, and already betrothed, made their appearance in the ballroom, decked out in the very excesses of the mode: their flowy dresses, their diminutive size, and affected gravity, in dancing a minuet; joined to the fatherly care, their future husbands anxiously took of them, reminded me of dolls ready to move around a table by clockwork.’

I was disappointed that Trussler failed to mention in detail the clothing worn by the men – since this omission suggests he associated dress with women and femininity. However, his description of the movement of the little girls’ dresses, which flowed as they danced, draws attention to its tactile qualities, which is of central concern to our contemporary understanding of dress as an object and idea, performed not only through the clothing itself, but also its representation.