Wednesday 29 May 2019

Review: A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty

I'm not one for women's magazines.  I never really enjoyed reading what was in fashion or whether flats or heels are more attractive or whether a cream that costs over £100 per pot will make me look 30 again (doubtful).  However, am I interested in what the woman of 1850 was slapping on her chops to make her look alluring?  Of course I am!  

Many thanks to Pen and Sword for sending me this gem of a book, because now I feel ready for the nineteenth century, style-wise.  Starting in the 1840s, author Mimi Matthews takes us through the every-changing silhouette (something that once you know, will infuriate you every time you watch a costume drama), what goes under, in terms of corsets and undies, and what goes over, with capes, bonnets and all manner of accessories.  I once wore a poke bonnet; it's much like when you put blinkers on a horse...

Bonnet from the National Trust Collection
We all knew the dangers of wearing a corset (as my daughter asked, where on earth is your liver??!!) but the crinoline also posed terrifying risk, for example this...

A woman in a crinoline is blown off a cliff in 1858.  Apparently.
Honestly, I think the greatest danger of a crinoline is what happens if you sit down in the wrong way and the damn thing swings up over your head which happened to me when I was a bridesmaid in 1981. Moving on.

Preparing for the Dance by Joseph Caraud
This is a lovely book, absolutely filled with details: split between the decades, it's a must-buy for anyone who has an interest in the history of fashion.  It also gives an insight on the lives of women and how the pressure to look a certain way is no different to what we put up with now.  When I was writing A Curl of Copper and Pearl I read all about the lives of seamstresses in the 1860s and the story of Mary Walkley was particularly grim.  At only 21, Mary worked for a court dressmaker, Madame Elise and her apparently classy establishment.  However, the life of even the snootiest stitcher was dire. 

John Tenniel's cartoon for Punch in 1863
The idea that a female industry like dressmaking caused the death of women for the benefit of richer women in a complex one.  As the years tick on, the extremes of fashion are mocked in contemporary papers but who is persuading women to wear tighter corsets or extreme sleeves? Probably the same papers that then mock their folly for the excesses of fashion, just as the media now encourages women to wear very little then calls them rude names when women follow their rules.

Catherine Walters, also known as Skittles, in her riding gear
I really enjoyed the sections on special fashions such as riding gear and holiday fashion.  I always use this image of Skittles who apparently was sewn into her skin tight riding habit when I am talking about Fanny Cornforth's weight. Against 'ideals' like Miss Walters, no wonder Fanny was known as Elephant.  Also, did you know there was special outfits for sport?  I suppose if women had to skip about in physical exertion, they should have a lovely new wardrobe to do it in...

The Tennis Party (1885) John Lavery
This is a smashing book, and as the holiday season approaches, this would be a perfect book for travelling.  There is a section on seaside fashion and the latest in daring bathing outfits! Easy to dip in and out of and packed with fascinating research, this is an essential for all Victorian women and twenty-first century readers.

A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty is available from Pen and Sword here and from all good book shops.