Recently, I’ve found myself tweeting lots of pictures of beautiful clothes, rich fabrics and intricate needlework, all with the hashtag #fashionhistory. These pictures have been stunning to look at and admire. The dresses and shoes were made to be admired. They were made to draw the eye, the observers’ attention. But what can we learn from them?
Following the history of fashion is a way of following the daily lives of individuals. Our clothes today cultivate an appearance and an impression. It was no different for our Regency and Victorian ancestors. Clothes are, and were, a series of ‘signifiers’ for gender, class, morals and norms. For example, the tightly laced corsets of the Victorian era suggest control and restraint, not only of morals, but of women in general.
Fashion and Values
Fashion trends are also indicative of wider social, cultural and military events and public opinion thereof. Decorative military influences upon women’s clothes during the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, were a form of patriotism. And we could look at military influences upon women’s clothes as a form of overturning established gender norms. War is a manly matter, after all. However, it could also be interpreted as underlining these norms. Men could and would fight for power and glory, while women were restricted to showing their support through personal adornment. Men’s political and military engagement was active; women’s was passive and ornamental.
Both interpretations briefly outlined above, and whether they’re accurate or not, will depend on the attitude of the historical wearers and viewers. I suppose, like beauty, fashion and its meaning are in the eye of the beholder. That doesn’t make the attempt to deconstruct it, from all points of view, any less valid. In fact, the more doors of enquiry fashion opens for us, the more ways we can think about people and the way(s) they lived. Fashion consequently displays norms and morals, freedom and restriction, power and control.
Fashion can also provide an insight into imitation and aspiration. The wealthy have often been the leaders of fashion; it is up to the rest of us to follow. This is in many ways correct and shows the role of power and money in fashion. However, the attempt to follow is also an important topic for conversation. It indicates a means of social acceptance and advancement. Also, with the expansion of the nineteenth-century middle classes, it reveals a changing social structure.
Fashion and Power
Yet if we return back to the question of power, we also have to consider the question of choice in dress in the history of fashion. Creating fashion suggests freedom and autonomy. Following fashion implies a choice and a desire to so do.
It was the wealthy few who chose the ‘fashionable’ livery, for instance, and the un-consulted footman who wore it. Where does this leave the footman? And what does this say about the time? We have to go beyond fashion and consider clothing more broadly.
This returns us to questions of gender, class and power. While we can say corsets restricted women, that men could be active and physical in their patriotism, we should not forget the currency of power. We should not forget the men who did not have choices. Shiny buttons on a the uniform of a man who’s taken the King’s shilling to avoid a hanging may be less active – less engaged, less personal – than the wealthy women who has chosen her own dress with military-inspired details.
What we wear does not always say how we feel; it can also be an imposition of the aims and desires of others. Agency in clothing and fashion is another core question if we are to consider this as a means of engaging with daily life and lived experience.
Perhaps we could take this further still, and put a slightly Marxist-like spin on the history of fashion, by insisting that we consider not only the end product, but also the means of its production. We could look at lace, for example. This used to be a cottage industry which produced a high-end item for high-end consumption. It was so expensive that it might be purchased instead of jewellery. After primary education was made mandatory, children in lace-making families were kept home because it was thought the income generated was worth more than the schooling. When lace production became mechanised and more freely available on the market, we should still consider the conditions in which the factory workers laboured.
Again, what does this say about the creation, wearing, following and making of fashion?
In short, fashion and clothing are important mediums for historical analysis and interpretation. However, it is important to consider them as a whole. One high-end product must be considered in its wider social, political and cultural context. Imitations are, to us, as important as the real thing. And what they can tell us about the maker is as important as what it can tell us about the wearer.
Weston Thomas, Pauline, ‘Theories of Fashion Costume and Fashion History’, Fashion Era, http://www.fashion-era.com/sociology_semiotics.htm
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