Royal Women at Fashion Museum Bath


After our last essays were due, Destinee and I embarked on a lovely day trip to Bath, where we wandered among the limestone Georgian facades and marveled at the ancient Roman baths. But first, we took our pilgrimage to the Fashion Museum to see their new Royal Women exhibition.

The exhibition, which spans four generations of Britain’s royal women, begins with a large family tree introducing the women along with their royal, familial connection, setting the stage for the exhibition’s biographical and monarchial narrative.  Although none of the women featured in the exhibition was monarch, each woman played a key role in the British monarchy. Royal Women explores how their royal roles influenced their choice in dress.

Starting with Alexandra, Princess of Wales, the exhibition placed the women’s biographies side by side with their ensembles, emphasizing the strong correlation between biography and dress. Alexandra’s 1863 wedding dress, on loan from the Royal Collection, lent by Her Majesty The Queen, is an excellent example of a ceremonial object which marks a key moment in both the life of Alexandra and Great Britain.

Queen Mary’s gowns

Also on display is an ensemble of gold and pale green velvet, worn by Queen Mary wore to the wedding of her granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth as well as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s grey silk satin ball gown from 1954. Both dresses embody shifting roles for these royal women. No longer Queen consort, but mother and grandmother to the new monarch, these two formal ensembles are both elegant and subdued, reflecting the mature and regal image Queen Mary and the Queen Mother needed to maintain.

Two 1950s Norman Hartnell evening gowns worn by Princess Margaret

It could be because of my recent binge-watch of Netflix’s The Crown, but my favorite part of the Royal Women exhibition was the selection of dresses worn by the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. Pieces such as two 1950s Norman Hartnell evening dresses show the glamorous side of 20th century royalty and highlight and Margaret’s patronage of prominent London and Parisian couturiers. The sensuous display of skin and nipped-waists of these two dresses point to the sophisticated and alluring attitude Margaret was able to carve out for herself.

Initially, I was bothered by the small number of items in the exhibition and how the dresses shown were mostly formal or evening wear, when I was hoping to see a much more personal side of these royal women. But, upon reflection, I realized that the exhibition appropriately presents the calculated narrative of Britain’s royal women. The exhibition, much like the monarchy itself, only displays a limited view of the lives of the royals and in Royal Women, much like in real life, the public only sees the glitz and glamour, the ceremonial, and the put-together looks of the monarchy. Thus, the dresses in Royal Women tell us much about Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth, and Margaret, and how they chose to present themselves as royal women.

By Abby Fogle

Royal Women is on at the Fashion Museum in Bath until 28 April 2019.

All photos author’s own

An Attempt to Unravel Agnes Richter’s Jacket

Within The Fashion System Roland Barthes puts forth the notion that meaning from fashion can only be obtained by its relationship to image and text. The illegibility of the garment itself however, does not imply that said garment does not have meaning; only that it is obscured. This notion is interesting to consider in relation to an embroidered straitjacket produced by the psychosis of Agnes Richter within the confines of the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution in 1895. Various words and incoherent sentences are maniacally stitched upon every available space while visible perspiration stains map the contours of the jacket. This sense of corporeality gives a ghostly impression of the artist’s body and hand; a hand that punctured and stitched the very garment that restricted her. For Richter, the needle became the phallus that she, as a woman, was deprived of within the patriarchal structures of the 19th century sanatorium. The needle-qua-phallus operates as an object that gave Richter a mode of expression, whilst the jacket itself — designed to restrict the arms thus inhibiting the ability to sew — can be seen as an object of castration. The puncturing of the jacket thus becomes an act of aggression that enabled Richter to conquer the object of castration while simultaneously embedding herself within it.

Within her book Agnes’ Jacket, Gail A. Hornstein closely analyses the textual content of the straitjacket and ultimately concludes that it remains illegible to the viewer. Written in German in a style called Deutsch Schrift, the jacket’s musings have never been discerned from the erratic stitchings that line the topography of the garment. What can be deduced however, lies within the abstract nature of the piece; such as the unravelling and withering threads that represent the decomposition of the artist’s mind during the jacket’s production. What Hornstein ultimately concludes is that the ghostly corporeality of the garment comes to embody Agnes and allows the viewer to revel in the obscurity of trying to ascertain who she was.

This obscurity and illegibility, in relation to Barthes’ statements on fashion, provides interesting insight into the gendering of language as well as Richter’s rejection of it. Whilst Barthes claims that language is one of the vessels through which fashion can convey meaning, language itself —as explored by Lacan — is a patriarchal structure that signifies a child’s entry into the Symbolic Order. It is therefore no surprise that Richter, alongside many of her contemporary female patients, rejected language and relied upon other means of expression. Charcot’s hysterics, for example, relied upon contortions of the body while Richter utilized the needle and thread as a means of communication. The similarity that lies between the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ is one that becomes divided when considering the gendering of each. The written word was a privilege predominantly gifted to men while women were often delegated to crafts such as embroidery and weaving. In rejecting language Richter makes a return to the feminine art of embroidery that ultimately subverts and obscures meaning. Trying to unravel the threads of Richter’s jacket is a task that no one seems to be equipped for; and it is in this rejection of the symbolic that allows Richter to speak in a voice that no one understands but everyone wants to listen to.


Further reading:

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

 Gail A. Hornstein, Agnes’ Jacket

Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self


By Niall Billings

Beneath the Corset

X-Ray image showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

X-Ray image showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

X-Ray images showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

X-Ray images showing the ill-effects upon the ribcage. Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, Le Corset (1908)

The corset is a highly problematic garment that represents a multitude of signifiers. Imbibed with connotations of gender, history, and sex, the corset is an example of how dress can transcend mere sartorial choice, and come to represent more than just undergarments. In whichever context the corset is placed, the undercurrents of its history and its present are brought to mind in a clash of temporalities, whereby contemporary connotations of sex and fetishism are placed onto the historical garment. More so than any other object of dress, the corset raises questions of the body, pain, control and oppression as well as history. When thinking about the way dress shapes and changes the body, one automatically thinks of the extremes; implants, tattoos and piercings. However, body modification through dress, or the way that the body is altered through dress is not relegated to subcultures and foreign groups, but is part of the history of dress, and the present fashion system.

The nineteenth century fashion for tight lacing that gave women tiny, waspish waists through the aid of whalebone corsets is an example of how dress can change a person’s physiognomy through extreme body manipulation. Though these effects are evident in the altered external silhouette of the body, the internal, and often damaging, modifications are difficult to comprehend.

In 1908, Dr. Ludovic O’Followell, a French doctor interested in the long-term effects of corsets on the body, published x-rays of women’s bodies altered by the constricting items. The images show the movement of the rib-cage structure, with the lower ribs pointing downwards and collapsing towards each other in some cases. Medical images and testimonies such as these, along with stories of organs being shifted, women fainting, and the suppression of appetites, provoked debate and calls for Dress reforms in the nineteenth century; a call that was answered when the uncorseted designs of Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny were in vogue.

The images also help to cement the contemporary preconception of the corset as a tool of bodily constriction and nineteenth century social oppression of women. The contemporary association of the corset to the body in pain, its relationship to fetish subcultures and therefore its alignment to sex, heighten this notion of the corset as a gendered, taboo, and archaic object of dress. Images of contemporary tight-lacing enthusiasts such as Ethel Granger, Mr. Pearl, Fakir Musafar, and Cathie Jung show the body transformed permanently through corsetry. The defiance of modern hetero-normative gender roles, ideal body shape, and silhouette through their practice distinguish them as ‘other’, and not part of the mainstream, everyday fashion system.

However, the corset is an object that has arguably never left fashion. Corsets appear and reappear each season as items of supporting underwear and risqué outerwear. Even the subculture icons of Ethel Granger and Mr Pearl entered the conventional fashion system. Photographs of Ethel Granger appeared in Vogue Italia, inspiring and featuring alongside an editorial photo-shoot starring Stella Tennant. Mr Pearl, a corsetiere, is renowned throughout the fashion world for his craftsmanship and skill, with regular commissions from Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Thierry Mugler. He also designs the corsets worn by Dita von Teese during her Burlesque performances.

 For the majority of people though the corset is no longer an item of everyday wear, however it is impossible to say that the sartorial choices we make do not impact our bodies. Though not to the bone-crushing extent of the nineteenth century, our clothes leave imprints and indents in our skin. Items of underwear like bras or the fashion for tighter and tighter skinny jeans leave imprints and lines in our flesh from the restriction of these garments. The photographer Justin Bartels documented women’s bodies that show the ephemeral traces of clothing. As examples of body modification in fashion the photographs oppose the concept of twentieth century fashion as a site of bodily liberation. They suggest that contemporary standards of beauty have simply replaced older regimes of discipline. Where once a framework held the body in place through fabric and laces, our bodies are now kept in line through exercise regimes and diets. Bartels’ photographs literalise the traces of the nineteenth century whalebone corset on the modern female body.


Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory (United Kingdom: Polity Press, 2004)

Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (United States: University of California press 1992)

Susan Vincent, The Anatomy of Fashion: Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today (United Kingdom: Berg Publishers, 2010) p.133.