Documenting Regency Fashion with La Belle Assemblée

Today, 18 July 2017, marks the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, author of classic novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Much of her work, and their subsequent adaptations, are set in the Regency era (broadly categorized as 1795-1820) and their fashions reflect that time. Jane herself was quite fond of fashionable dressing: letters from time spent living with her brother Henry in London mention visits to Grafton House for trimmings and hosiery, and to Bedford House for dress fabrics.

Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), 1807. Hand-coloured etching. Los Angeles County Museum of Art: www.lacma.org. Accession number: M.86.266.84.

In order to keep abreast of the latest fashions, women of the Regency era consumed ladies’ magazines, among them the high quality La Belle Assemblée or Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine addressed particularly to the Ladies. John Bell first published Le Belle Assemblée in 1806 as a monthly source of prose, poetry, biographies, and fashion advice for leisured women. There is even reason to suspect that Jane Austen would have read La Belle Assemblée as one of her favourite nieces, Fanny Austen Knight, had an 1814 issue of that periodical among her possessions.

‘Bourbon Hat and Mantle’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by John Bell), May 1814. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1025-1959.

La Belle Assemblée’s price established it as a thoroughly affluent periodical. Its rival, the Lady’s Museum, cost 1s. in 1806, while La Belle Assemblée cost 2s. 6d. for black-and-white etchings and 3s. 6d. for hand-coloured illustrations. Though only two fashion plates were included with each issue, they were prepared by highly skilled illustrators, engravers, and painters. The 25cm x 16cm dimensions of this periodical further added to its luxury. Whether coloured or not, the sizable fashion plates are works of art in their own right, as their inclusion in museum collections around the world confirms.

‘Walking Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée, September 1822. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.2818-1888.

John Bell’s wife Mrs. Bell was credited with the designs of many outfits seen in the plates of La Belle Assemblée. As a dressmaker in London known for extremely up-to-date fashion knowledge (she had foreign fashions imported for study twice each week), Mrs. Bell possessed a reputation for unbeatable fashion acumen. She was not just a dressmaker and designer however. Mrs. Bell, ever the visionary, invented the ‘Chapeau Bras,’ a foldable hood small enough to store in a bag, and a corset to reduce the appearance of pregnancy.

‘Dinner Party Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), February 1827. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Plates from La Belle Assemblée reflect both minute and radical changes in fashion during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. From 1800-1820, differences in fabric, colour, and accessories set old and new fashions apart. The 1820s saw a gradual widening of sleeves and skirts as the decade progressed, morphing the columnar silhouette of the beginning of the century into the exaggerated hourglass shape of the early 1830s. In 1832, La Belle Assemblée merged with the Lady’s Magazine; the new Court Magazine and Belle Assemblée continued to publish the latest advances in fashion throughout the 1830s.

Read, W., ’Full Dress, Ball Dress, Morning Dress’ plate from La Belle Assemblée (published by Whittaker & Co.), October 1830. Hand-coloured etching. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accession number: E.1972-1888.

Further Reading

Jane Ashelford, ‘Perfect Cut and Fit’ in The Art of Dress: Clothes Through History 1500-1914 (London: National Trust, 1996), pp. 167-210

Margaret Beetham, ‘The ‘Fair Sex’ and the Magazine: The Early Ladies’ Journals’ in A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Women’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 17-34

Introduction to the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive

The conference Reading Fashion Magazines may be over, but our display of 9 items from the collection is still available to be viewed outside the Courtauld Library vitrines. Please come and visit, before it closes in August. In order to tempt you, you can read the introduction to the display, and our conference, below, available for you to download in a pdf.

Introduction to the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive

Some of the earliest fashion magazines in the Courtauld History of Dress Journals Archive are on show in the exhibition. Here, Gazette du Bon Ton, Für die Dame and Pinpoints are displayed.

A view of the 1940s section of the exhibition featuring Harper’s Bazaar and Femina.

Elizabeth and three MA Documenting Fashion students after the completion of the exhibition instal.

Dissertation Discussion: Barbora

My three bibles for the past few months: D.V. by Diana Vreeland, Allure by Diana Vreeland and Memos: The Vogue Years edited by Alexander Vreeland

What is your title?

“Fake It!” Examining the myths and realities in the life and work of Diana Vreeland.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

Ever since I’ve watched The Eye Has To Travel for the first time, I was fascinated by Diana Vreeland and the way she shaped the industry almost singlehandedly. Her stories, too, are quite something: Vreeland, her sister and nanny were the last people to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen in 1911; Charles Lindbergh flew over her garden on his first trans-Atlantic flight; she almost took down the British monarchy when Wallis Simpson came to her lingerie store to order some special garments for her first weekend away with the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward; and she attended Hitler’s birthday party in the early ’30s, sending a postcard to her son afterwards with the note “Watch this man.” Apparently so, anyway. I wanted to find out more about what prompted her to create such an extreme background for herself, the reason behind all the myth and fantasy which surrounded her, the obsession with “faking it” and everything else about her, really. Actually, I think I fancied the role of a detective for a few months, attempting to untangle what really went on in her head and her life.

‘Vogue’ December 1, 1965 Cover | Wilhelmina Cooper by Irving Penn | Diamond cage deisgned by Harry Winston (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

‘Vogue’ July 1, 1969 | Veruschka by Irving Penn (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Most interesting research find thus far?

I was lucky enough to go to New York to visit the Diana Vreeland Papers Archive at the New York Public Library. Flicking through the original pages of her teenage diary, handling her passport and birth certificate (the date of her birth is no longer a mystery!) and finding out what she was up to on a day-to-day basis through the Smythson leather diaries she kept between 1950 and 1985 was quite amazing. There are some peculiar entries where Vreeland notes when she is due to start her pills – once green, then yellow, then pink. Very intriguing. Sadly, I only had two days in New York and so could only go through four boxes out of the sixty-something the library has. Might have to go on another trip soon! I think about a month should do it, mainly because Vreeland’s handwriting makes it quite a challenge to decode what she was actually trying to write down. Oh, and one more thing: the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue online archives are very dangerous if you don’t have much time – they suck you in!

‘Vogue’ April 15, 1969 | Bert Stern (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Favourite place to work?

I got into a very bad habit of working from my bed. So most of the time I can be found there, surrounded by mounds of paper, pastel-coloured highlighters and books. If I manage to persuade myself to face the outside world, I head to Starbucks (but only one that has comfortable armchairs or sofas!), and have a huge mug of soy matcha latte. I fear to look at my bank statement and find out how much I spent at Starbucks in the past couple of months. And there’s still time to go… Strangely, I find libraries quite distracting, but in Starbucks I get the work done.

Starbucks should probably have its mention in my acknowledgements as the place which provided constant fuel for all the writing.

What my bed looks like most of the time now. Also, pastel-coloured highlighters are a must, as is colour-coding!

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive: Elle UK

Our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive is this Saturday! Book your ticket here for a day of amazing speakers and beautiful objects, including those from the exhibition we have previewed the last few weeks, ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines.’ We look forward to seeing you there!


‘French Fashions’ photographed by Chris Dawes. Elle UK, March 1986. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

The 1980s were turbulent years in Britain. From extreme hardships and upheaval to pop culture and newfound affluence, the decade had a lasting influence on modern-day life. In this explosive climate, some relief came with the birth of iconic magazines such as i-D, The Face, Arena and, in November 1985, the British version of Elle Magazine, the originally French style bible. Aimed at young career women, Elle combined carefree fashion with serious articles, or ‘style with content,’ as Dylan Jones, the Editor-in-Chief of GQ put it. Today, Elle holds the title of the largest fashion magazine, boasting 43 international editions published in 60 countries worldwide.

With Sally Brampton as its first Editor-in-Chief, Elle became the to-go magazine for the well off, modern 18-30 year old, who was uninterested in the world of luxuries, haute couture and pampering offered by Vogue. Instead, the magazine published frank and provocative features about love, sex, dating and health alongside interviews with the likes of Harrison Ford, Mickey Rourke, Jasper Conran or Paula Yates. The glossy fashion pages, graced by Naomi Campbell, Claudia Shiffer, Linda Evangelista, Carla Bruni and Yasmin Le Bon, were daring, powerful and unrestrained, full of spirit and joy. The articles were relatable and fascinating while the fashion photographs by Mario Testino, Eamonn J. McCabe or Neil Kirk shot in exotic locations provided a much-needed element of fantasy and aspiration. With such ingredients, Elle was set to become the cult publication of a generation.

This spread here, entitled ‘French Fashion’ and photographed by Chris Dawes for the March 1986 issue of Elle, showcases why the magazine was so groundbreaking in its first few years. Tapping into a younger, yet still style-conscious audience, guides on how to achieve a look which appears to be taken straight from the catwalk were a common fixture in the magazine. Chanel, a favourite of the modern working woman, plays a main role on this double page. The classic skirt suit of Coco, trimmed in black with gold details, complete white gloves and a black quilted bag with a chain strap, could be yours for a mere fraction of the original price. In style, however, it packs the same punch. French-chic without the price tag!

The sleek, glossy page hints at the opulence one experiences when wearing such an outfit. Framed as a Kodak contact sheet, the idea of a luxurious lifestyle is further alluded to by positioning the wearer of this ‘Chanel’ look as someone worth photographing. Yet, the girl is not simply a society lady going between luncheons and afternoon teas. She is in movement, her bag flying behind her. Perhaps she is on her way to a business meeting, or rushing to work in the morning. She appeals to the career woman of the 80s and inspires younger readers to embrace a working life – you can still look incredibly à la mode in office attire. Magazines should create a fantasy, but they should also be rooted in reality – Elle masters it!

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Vogue Paris

We are just one week away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Double page spread photographed by Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris, April 1976. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This double page spread is part of a nine page fashion story by the photographer Guy Bourdin, displaying the new ‘sporty and young’ swimwear and summer fashions for 1976. The first fashion story in Vogue Paris’ ‘spring special’, it follows advertisements for Missoni, Versace, Etro, Yves Saint Laurent, Celine, Charles Jourdan, Bally and Jacques Heim. It precedes another, shot by David Bailey, and editorials on how to confront the beauty-depressing effects of winter, 10 new methods to re-discover joie de vivre as well as an extensive story on Greece, in celebration of the country’s new membership of the European Common market.

Five girls in bikinis lay outside to catch the sun’s rays in an unusual setting – usual that is, for the pages of luxury magazine Vogue. Far from an idealised, exotic location, five girls stretch out across a cracked and dusty pavement as a bus passes by, in barely-there bikinis, ‘so small that they may be held in the palm of the hand’. Sunglasses discarded, each holds a light-reflecting silver board up to their face in order to achieve a faster, stronger tan. In a further spread, models climb a fence in search of a sunnier spot past a shaded avenue palm trees, and in another, recline on a narrow strip of grass between a tarmac highway and Sears warehouse, their languor contrasting with the fully clothed figure rushing past. Breaking up the location’s horizontal lines – the bus’ branding, wall and pavement’s edge – the models are made individual by the bold colours of their bikinis and different hairstyles. They are conceivably a group of normal girls, taking advantage of the first signs of summer in the city where they live.

Cover of Vogue Paris, April 1976. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Vogue Paris’ editor-in-chief, Francine Crescent, gave her photographers a great deal of creative freedom. With Bourdin, this enabled him to exploit the features of the magazine as a material object. He was the first photographer to bear in mind the potential of the double-page spread when taking his images; all but one of the images that make up this story extend past the gutter and bleed to the very edges of the magazine. Bourdin is mindful of the way a magazine falls open, laid on a table, or across a reader’s thighs. His models are carefully spaced in order not to distort their figures at the centre of the spread where the pages naturally curve inwards to their binding. A wall or fence is often at the centre of the image, setting up a contrast between the two halves of the image. The effect is fully immersive; the picture being larger, more of the scene may be seen in greater detail, more figures included, more of a narrative told. The glossy-light reflecting paper the images are printed on adds to Bourdin’s emphasis on sunlight and shade. Viewed in April, together with features on post-winter revival, Bourdin directly addresses the reader’s desire to shed heavy coats and insulating layers with bare flesh and warm colours. As the reader holds Vogue in their hands, they are within their grasp.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Femina 1951

We are less than two weeks away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Cover of Femina, October 1951. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Femina was a French fashion magazine active from the early twentieth century.  It is a great documentary source for the history of French couture as shown by these images.  During the war, Parisian couture was necessarily scaled back in its production due to a lack of material resources as well as customers.   Fashion, however, was often a way for the women of Paris to resist the occupation of their city by asserting nationalistic pride through the cultural tradition of high fashion.  After the war, Christian Dior asserted a return to luxuriant and grand femininity with his “New Look” collection of 1947 featuring narrow sloped shoulders, hand-span waists, and voluminous longer skirts.  Although some people were shocked and even dismayed at what seemed an excessive use of fabric, the silhouette was largely embraced by women happy to have a change that expressed beauty and luxury.

Illustration of a Christian Dior gown. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

By 1951, as these illustrations attest to, the New Look silhouette was an integral part of fashion.  Dior’s gown features a blue back panel with bow that is reminiscent of the earlier nineteenth century bustle emphasizing the back of the skirt.  This silhouette was very consciously a return to the history of dress from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which Dior felt celebrated femininity in a way that resonated in the post-war period.

Illustration of a Nina Ricci gown. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Nina Ricci was one of many female couturiers before the war who opened her house in 1932. Though she isn’t as well remembered today as Dior, she was a great success in the thirties and after the war, designing until 1954 when her son took over the business.  The gown illustrated here exemplifies Ricci’s aesthetic of a highly refined femininity infused with romantic details.  The caption refers to the Second Empire period in mid-nineteenth century France which the gown seems to revivify in its sweeping trained skirt and oversized bow emphasizing the hips.  By contrast, the waist appears even smaller.  The matching long evening gloves also continue a fashion tradition in eveningwear.  The model’s coiffure, however, is a modern post-war style which reminds us that fashion is always a blend of past and present.

What I love so much about these illustrations is the way they capture a sense of drama from the dress itself.  Photographs often rely upon the model and settings to create a fuller scenario but illustrations really focus on the silhouette and textures of the garment.  The shading on the Dior gown conveys the stiffness of the material and the sheen of a silk.  That I can “feel” the surface and shape of the dress is what draws me in.  In a sense, the drawing convinces me that the gown is real, that fashion is real, because it connects to what I already know in part – the textures, colors, and shape, but offers the possibility of even more – the actual dress.

The mark of the artist’s hand speaks to the agency of my own hands and the knowledge they quite literally hold.  The architectural quality of the gown can be felt with just a few lines in the right place.  By contrast, the more fluid, softer drape of Nina Ricci’s gown seems to telegraph the movements of the woman’s body.   I can imagine the train swaying in echo of her hips as she glides across the ballroom.  The illustrations heighten the sensuality of the gowns.  The differences in aesthetic qualities reflect the type of woman imagined as the wearer and express the designer’s vision of her desires.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Harper’s Bazaar

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

This magazine is an October edition of Harper’s Bazaar published nationwide in the year 1940, during the London Blitz. Despite the hardships of wartime, the magazine targeted the female upper classes, which were the only ones with enough purchasing power to afford it. With the costly price of 2 shillings 6 pence, it was a considerable expense that could feed an average family for one day. In contrast to DIY publications, Harper’s Bazaar relies on the desire to emulate the rich and powerful to disseminate latest fashions. With the upcoming winter, the issue centers around the season’s new fashions coming from the capital, presenting a wide array of greatcoats both furless and completely fur-lined, made mostly out of warm wools or commonly available types of fur like squirrel, mole, and rabbit. The effects of rationing clearly influence the choice of images which are plain in their style with scarcely any accessories and minimal display of jewelry, painting a picture of a simple, although fashionable, woman. The practicality of the inside contrasts sharply with the flamboyant cover which is aimed at defying the grim realities of wartime and giving people back the feeling of normality.

Looking closer at the front cover, we can examine it as a historical source from the era, a social history document that tells the historian part of the story of Britain in the 1940s, and more particularly its dress history. A closer inspection may reveal that the colours chosen in such a specific moment in history are not random. The predominant purple tones, which are one of the first elements that catch the viewer’s attention, are historically associated with opulence, richness, royalty and empire. The crispness and silky texture of the sleeve contrast with the other colours of the dress that look as if they are polluted with randomly distributed red dots. The grainy and wooly texture of the material creates an off-focus effect that contrasts with the smooth and well-shaded arm and the sharp colours of the jewellery that richly decorates it. Our gaze is naturally led towards the hand that holds the cigarette, a luxury item that was rationed and reserved mostly for the servicemen at the front. Smoking, at the time, was an activity reserved for the feminine elite, symbolic of the defiance and rebellion against the male culture and male-centred workplace. The model positions herself in a relaxed and mindful manner looking down upon the viewer in an almost spiteful way, suggesting her higher status. This projects an image of power and confidence, a new Britannia clothed in all the riches of the Empire, watchful and confident of her power to withstand the dangers that befell her.

Highlights from the Courtauld’s History of Dress Journal Archive: Gazette du Bon Ton

We are less than a month away from our conference Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating The Courtauld’s History of Dress Journals Archive! Upcoming blog posts will offer a sneak peek into ‘Addressing the Courtauld’s Fashion Magazines,’ an exhibition held in conjunction with the conference. Be sure to book a ticket here to see amazing speakers and beautiful magazines. Remember: Digital images are nice, but nothing beats seeing the real thing!


From 1912-1915 and 1919-1925, fashion and art met on the pages of Gazette du Bon Ton. This French publication entertained upper-class consumers with elaborately illustrated articles and sumptuous fashion plates. Though the First World War loomed on the horizon, the stories in this issue from March 1914 showed no signs of global tension. From an article detailing exotic pearl-net masquerade masks to a list of elites vacationing at the French Riviera, the authors of Gazette du Bon Ton created a world ruled by novelty and luxury.

Stimpl, ‘Riviera… Riviera…” in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Each issue included a set of ten plates with couture fashions by houses like Doucet, Lanvin, and Worth. Two plates from this issue feature designs by masters of 1910s couture: Paquin and Paul Poiret. In ‘La fontaine de coquillages’, George Barbier set an evening gown by Paquin against a luscious blue courtyard and classical fountain. Pearl embellishments on the turquoise velvet and grey tulle dress mimic shells, which Barbier echoes in white on hanging shell clusters. A shell in the figure’s hand catches water from the fountain, merging the background and foreground. In comparison, Simone A. Puget’s illustration for ‘Salomé’, an evening gown by Paul Poiret, is striking in its simplicity. By placing the figure on a plain black base, the artist focuses attention on the dress. The design speaks to the sensuality of the legendary Salomé, as fishnet stockings emerge from beneath the diagonal skirt hem and the figure’s nipples, colored the same red as her lips and nails, peek through the swirled, off-the-shoulder bodice.

George Barbier, ‘La fontaine de coquillages’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Simone A. Puget, ‘Salome’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Every turn of the page in Gazette du Bon Ton offers a new feast for the eyes. At just 25cm x 7cm it is very easy to hold, though the heavy paper prevents the issue from feeling flimsy. With at least one color illustration in the pochoir technique on every page, the magazine presents itself as something to be slowly cherished. The difference in style of the vivid ‘La fontaine de coquillages’ and stark ‘Salomé’ plates exemplify how artistic variety creates the tantalizing feeling of ‘What’s next?,’ urging the reader to turn the page. This sumptuous array of visual delights did not come cheap: the price of a yearly subscription was 100 francs, or more than 400 pounds today!

Artists sometimes used striking metallic paint to enliven their illustrations. Here is one illustration of dancer Armen Ohanian viewed straight on and at an angle. Valentine Gross, ‘Armène Ohanian’ in Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1914. History of Dress Collections, Courtauld Institute of Art.

Gazette du Bon Ton invites haptic interaction as well. The metallic paint used on some illustrations, for example, requires the reader to tilt the page to get the full effect. Should the reader give into temptation and run a finger over the fashion plates, they may feel more than just the horizontal ridges of the thick paper. In ‘Salomé’, the outline of the figure and the dots on the skirt are debossed. Contact with the flat surface of the page brings the gown to life, but also acts as a tangible barrier to the beautiful world displayed in the plates. That space of breathtaking couture fashion, endless luxury, and carefree joy exists only between the covers of Gazette du Bon Ton.

Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating the Courtauld’s History of Dress journals archive

Fashion magazines provide a space for escapism and fantasy, but this imaginative realm of image and text is centred on the very real interactions that viewers have with these material objects. How does it feel to read a fashion magazine? Do you read it dutifully, from cover to cover? Or do you flip through more sporadically, waiting for something exciting to halt you in your tracks? Of equal importance is where we read fashion magazines. Is it in the silence of the library, inhaling the smell of the archive? Or at home, from the comfort of the sofa? Perhaps it’s on the tube, amongst the rush of commuters and the jolt of a train braking? These multisensory encounters all play a part in our interpretation of what we see – and read – within the fashion magazine.

These are some of the questions we are going to be thinking about on Saturday 6th May, at our conference ‘Reading Fashion Magazines: Celebrating the Courtauld’s History of Dress journals archive’. In celebration of the Courtauld’s recently catalogued History of Dress journals archive, our one-day symposium will examine how the fashion magazine has constructed and circulated social, cultural and political ideas concerning dress, body and identity.  In opening up the collection, we will examine fashion magazines more broadly as documents of the time in which they were produced, reflecting changing tastes and attitudes as well as social and technological developments. We will explore how the fashion magazine has been consumed by readers, whether glanced through or thoroughly read from cover to cover, and consider the sensory connections to be made between looking, seeing, being, feeling and wearing.

Speakers include Paul Jobling, Alice Beard, Rebecca Arnold, Lucy Moyse, Marta Francheschini and Maria Angela Jansen, will consider these overlapping themes from the interdisciplinary perspectives of design history, fashion studies, visual culture, sociology, and those working professionally within the field. The day will include a viewing session of some earlier examples from our collection as well as an opportunity to see a fashion magazine display curated in collaboration with History of Dress MA students. This symposium will provide the opportunity to question changes in the way that dress has been documented, worn and consumed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as to study the fashion magazine as image, object, text, idea and experience intertwined.

Booking is now open at the link below, so hurry!

http://courtauld.ac.uk/event/reading-fashion-magazines

Dressmaking – Rethinking Fashion in the 1930s

Spring Styles from Roma's Fashion, 1936

‘A Spring Medley’, from Roma’s Fashion, 1936

I’ve been sorting out my 1930s magazines and found three lovely mid-decade sewing journals that are a wonderful way to see how trends were disseminated – and re-fashioned – for a wider range of women.  Although high fashion magazines included columns on dressing on a budget, especially during the Depression, the amount of money needed to obtain such a wardrobe would still have been out of reach to most.  So titles such as Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal and Roma’s Fashions filled a gap in the market and enabled women to deploy their skills in dressmaking.

Women were keen to emulate the styles they saw in magazines, in newspapers and at the cinema – both in feature films and in newsreels that covered society events, and the latest fashions.  As one woman commented in the Mass Observation survey for 1939:

‘I always study fashion articles, advertisements, women’s magazines to keep my ideas up to date.  I never discuss with friends, but I take note of what well-to-do people wear, and notice photographs of the Queen or Duchess of Kent as naturally the fashion houses who dress those people should know what is coming in.  I take every chance of studying the displays in the best shops though I could not afford to patronize them.  Fashion in this locality [Burnley] lags behind the fashion in a large city like Manchester so I like to see the shops there.’

Magazines including those pictured here, therefore encouraged women to transform what they saw into reality, and to look to a variety of sources, as well as considering occasion and figure type when translating ideas into clothing.

Although ready-to-wear fashion was developing apace, there was still some prejudice against it – as middle class women were unsure how respectable such garments might be.  Women’s anxiety about the ways fashion was procured could be assuaged by reassuring magazine articles, and letters pages where readers could ask for advice anonymously.  Patterns could be made up at home, or taken to a local dressmaker.  Barbara Burman has written convincingly about the creativity involved in home dressmaking.  She argues that it allows women to adapt fashion or ignore it, even to pass off garments as shop bought and thus subvert the value system attached to how and where fashion was acquired.  She offers this description of the process as:

‘…a sort of autobiographical practice, home dressmaking is an intimate process. The garment made at home is not so swiftly had as the ready-made.  In its measuring, cutting, assembling and fitting, the form and realities of the maker’s own body must be met again and again.  Home dressmakers using a dressmaker’s dummy see their own body shape from all angles, as seen by another person or in a three-way mirror.’ 

So this gives the pages from my 1930s magazines a new perspective – not just a glimpse at earlier visions of femininity and domesticity, they in fact offer ways to rethink women’s agency in the period, and their approach to self-fashioning.

(L) Selection of 1930's Dressmaking Magazines, (R) 'How to Dress for Jubilee Year', Weldon's Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Selection of 1930’s Dressmaking Magazines, (R) ‘How to Dress for Jubilee Year’, Weldon’s Ladies Journal, 1935

(L) Looking at Hollywood styles, Weldon's Ladies' Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma's Fashions, October 1934

(L) ‘Looking at Hollywood Styles’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (R) Knitting and Crochet, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934

(L) C(entre L)

(L) ‘Dressing the Fuller Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (Centre L) ‘Styles for Business’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, 1935 (Centre R) ‘A Dress Stand That Moulds to Your Figure’, Roma’s Fashions, October 1934 (R) ‘How to Dress like a Parisienne’, Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal 1935

Sources:

Barbara Burman, ‘”What a Deal of Work there is in a Dress!”  Englishness and Home Dressmaking in the Age of the Sewing Machine,’ in Christopher Breward, Becky Conekin and Caroline Cox, eds., The Englishness of English Dress (Oxford: Berg, 2002)

Catherine Horwood, Keeping Up Appearances: Fashion and Class between the Wars (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2005)