A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

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While attending two great free workshops on aspects of Scottish history at the Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library last week, I picked up a flyer for another event in Stonnington – also free. (I’m prepared for the jokes about stereotypical Scot being mean!)

This is a fabulous opportunity to learn some historical background and context for many of the female characters in the classic novels of Charles Dickens and to see yet another superb collection of clothes from the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume that provided the wonderful collection of clothes and other items for Be persuaded – Jane Austen, an exhibition by Glen Eira Council in January 2019.

Fiona and Keith Baverstock use the period fashion, textiles and fashion ephemera in their collection to create a themed exhibition, which they then take on tour. The research and attention to detail and the information supplied truly awesome.

Similar to many people, I read Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist while at high school. Later, I watched the many film and television adaptations of novels such as Bleak House, David Copperfield, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Nicholas Nickelby produced by the BBC among others.

Many of Dickens’ characters and their utterances are household names. I’ve used quotes from his books in my creative writing classes, also extracts from newspaper articles because Dickens was a journalist before becoming a novelist.

Although, as one exhibit explains, he would fit right into the current complaints of  ‘fake news’ because Dickens had a dramatic streak. Always a creative writer at heart with emphasis on the ‘creative’ instead of factual reporting, he embellished stories to make them more interesting for the readers!

Charles Dickens is revered as a writer and most of the accolades are well-deserved. However, a neat summary of his life, plus many books, plays, and articles written revealing his complex personality, misbehaviour, and shabby treatment of his wife may disappoint some fans.

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First impressions of the Exhibition are of being on set preparing to make a historical film; the display of dresses stunning and cleverly grouped. The varied colours and designs catch your eye and display cases have accessories laid out as if in preparation to be donned.

You start to wander around the room and become absorbed in the stories of the women who peopled the novels of Dickens. You may be fascinated when examining the outfits and imagining their lives. What must it have been like moving around in voluminous gowns, restrictive corsetry and even more restrictive social mores and expectations?

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Sairey (Sarah) Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Dickens had a talent for creating memorable caricatures – comical but also despicable. They often personified the seven deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath… and introduced words from the vernacular that became common usage.

Sarah Gamp exemplified greed, selfishness and as a drunken nurse/midwife displayed a callous disregard for others. She was ‘ a potent weapon in the campaign against untrained, incompetent nurses. It took a Florence Nightingale to fully expose and sweep aside the armies of Sarah Gamps.’

 

The 1840s gown with evidence of wear and tear is slate-coloured striped taffeta. She presided over so many deaths so wears a mourning apron and black, crepe trimmed taffeta mourning cape and her ‘gamp’ (umbrella).

The image of Mrs Gamp’s ‘gig’ umbrella clutched to her person wherever she went, or displayed ‘with particular ostentation’ against the chimney breast of her bird-sized apartment above the bird fancier’s shop in Holborn so resonated with readers that ‘gamp’ became synonymous with umbrella, just as ‘Sarah Gamp’ became synonymous with a slovenly, inebriated ‘nurse’.

A gig was a light carriage with two wheels pulled by a single horse. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was deemed suitable for ladies to drive around their estates or into the village.

... ‘the lady would need a nifty weapon to beat off any ne’er-do-wells with the temerity to approach, and when stepping down she would need a handy little parasol. The gold cap comes off the sycamore case, the parasol slides out and screws neatly into the gold tip on the other end, Voila, protection from the sun or rain.’

There was nothing dainty or lady-like about Sarah Gamp. She would have driven a cart and her ‘gamp’ a heavy umbrella.

Catherine Dickens – the discarded wife

It was the actress Miriam Margoyles portraying Catherine Dickens in her play Dickens’ Women based on or inspired by 23 different characters in the novels by Dickens that made me think more deeply about how women were portrayed by the great storyteller.

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One reviewer said the production highlighted Dickens’ “obsession with youthful beauty and his baffling relationships with his sister-in-law”.

The detailed notes along with the chosen gown for Dickens’ wife are not complimentary to the man and emphasise how unfair the legal, as well as the social system,  was regarding the treatment of women.

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Reading about Catherine and looking at the dresses on display you can’t help but notice the tiny waists, the design drawing attention to the breasts and of course, being the era of gloves and hats, there was a dress code or expectation a lady had accessories.

  • How long did it take to get dressed?
  • How complicated were the designs to maintain – especially considering the material used?
  • And in an era of women producing baby after baby, how unsuitable were those clothes for pregnancy, breastfeeding and caring for children, let alone housework.

My paternal grandmother was married in 1900, the clothes hadn’t changed that much from the years before and the family story is that she fainted twice on her wedding day as her sister pulled the corset strings tight enough to ensure she had the obligatory 18-inch waist to fit her wedding dress!

Nancy in Oliver Twist, a ‘fallen woman’

Dickens never used the term prostitute or sex worker in his novel but readers are under no illusion about Nancy and her friend Bet described:

“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”

I read Oliver Twist when I was fifteen and stark images of Victorian England and the appalling living standards of the poor in cities like London remain with me. Dickens

… knew how to hold an audience. The themes in his novels did, however, challenge the accepted beliefs of the day. Oliver Twist shines a light into the dark underbelly of life in the cities like London, confronting the comfortable complacent with the relationship between poverty and crime, revealing the iniquity and inequity of the Poor Laws and the Workhouse system – and its inept and corrupt officials.”

I can remember hoping that Nancy, who showed kindness to Oliver, would somehow be miraculously transformed and freed from the seedy clutches of Bill Sykes, but deep down knew her shockingly violent death was inevitable.

The ruched and frilled dress with elaborate cording, tight waist, laced back and revealing cleavage was chosen because the silky style would have appealed to Nancy, even if she would have preferred a more striking colour. This dress was ‘Perkins Purple’ and faded over time to mauve and then pearly grey.

In my imagination, Nancy would have worn feathers in her bonnet and always had a shawl!

Miss Havisham – who can forget a woman scorned?

There have been many adaptations of Great Expectations and it remains one of Dickens’ more popular novelsAgain he takes on the establishment, the ‘haves’ and emphasises the divide between the rich and poor.

The powerful regard poverty as a crime and use prison to punish those who ‘have not’. The story of a young man overcoming obstacles to achieve success another of his recurring themes.

But it is the jilted, embittered, and wealthy Miss Havisham living in a ruined mansion with her adopted daughter Estella, who fascinates and intrigues readers and leaves a lasting impression. She still wears her wedding dress as if frozen in time.

Twenty minutes to nine was the moment the letter arrived revealing the calumny of her fiance. There she was in her wedding gown, the wedding breakfast and adornments laid out in readiness, one satin slipper still to don. And there she remained. Since then, the wedding breakfast, the decorations, the room have been weighed down by dust and cobwebs, have been nibbled by decay and vermin till the house itself is crumbling. The fraudster Compeyson took her future and her fortune (although obviously not all of it) and might as well have taken her life.

Her revenge is Estella, whom she has fashioned into a weapon to destroy men and the hapless Pip is the whetstone on which Estella is to hone her skills…

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The addendum to “Expectations unfulfilled – Miss Havisham” states that

Dickens has trouble with consistency when he sets his novels in an earlier era. This is certainly evident with the ages and setting of Great Expectations. We’ve chosen to place Miss Havisham’s wedding in the early 1800s and have dressed her in a distressed, disintegrating Regency style gown.’

All of the costumes are original 19th-century outfits and so the ‘distressed’ signs are natural. Dressing Australia’s disclaimer that they’ve chosen what they think fits/suits each character rather than adhering strictly to the publication date of the novels, although many of the costumes coincide nicely.

Oliver Twist was published in 1837, but Nancy’s gown is from a later decade. It was chosen to represent the ‘tart with a heart‘ and Nancy’s notion of what is ladylike. Estella’s exquisite gown is from the late 1850s when Dickens was writing Great Expectations, published in 1860, although the story was set in an earlier era.

Madame Defarge – Knitting while heads rolled

Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel set in the time of the French Revolution is the embittered wife of a wine shop owner who owed his status and business to her revolutionary fervour.

She enjoyed knitting the names of the aristocrats she plotted to send to the guillotine and while weaving their names into Liberty Caps sat and watched their heads roll off the beheading machine.

Acknowledged as a leader of the Tricoteuse Movement, which evolved from the Market Women heroines who marched on Versailles and became ‘too uncontrollable and troublesome, and barred from the gallery of the National Convention and from political assemblies’ she proves to be devious and brutal even if her vengeful crusade facilitated by The Reign of Terror is justified.

Madame Defarge’s sister and unborn child, brother, brother-in-law and father were all killed by Darnay’s uncle, assisted by his father.


The green shot silk gown is ‘somewhat distressed’ polonaised over a black quilted satin petticoat. The Liberty Cap is pinned with a rosette and a rose. (Madame Defarge popped a rose in her cap warning that ‘outsiders’ were nearby and it was not safe for revolutionaries or the Tricoteuse to speak.)

Confronting the Ghosts of Christmas

A Christmas Carol probably ranks as one of the most read of Dickens’ novels along with Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. If not read, most English speaking people will still have heard of Scrooge or know what it means to call someone a scrooge!

A Christmas Carol sold out the minute it hit the bookstands in 1843 and has remained a favourite ever since. It has the feel-good factor – goodness triumphs over the mean and mean-spirited, adversity can be overcome, redemption is possible…

A man without conscience is not confronted by his own humanity, yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Past does to Scrooge. Look at how you used to be. Look at how others used to view you. Look at how you felt when facing rejection. Look at the beginnings of your loss of innocence when you chose greed over love.

A man entirely without compassion cares not when confronted by disturbing images of the distress of others, a man without imagination does not see what he might be missing. Yet that is precisely what the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge.

A man who is impervious to the consequences of his actions, who cares not that he has alienated all who might care for him, who does not mind a lonely, uncelebrated life and death will take no notice of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. And yet Scrooge does.

He has confronted his ghosts, is redeemed and regains his humanity and compassion.

The exhibition’s vision of the three ghosts as women enabled an interesting choice of costumes:

  • Christmas Past represented by a distressed Regency gown – a style from Scrooge’s youth
  • Christmas Present represented by a brown moire two-piece gown – a style from Scrooge’s present.
  • Christmas Yet to Come represented by a brown stripe taffeta gown of 1869 – a style yet to come.

There are so many characters from other novels with their stories summarised and the reasons for the choice of garments explained – please catch the exhibition before it closes.

Stand and ponder how these women lived – imagine riding in a carriage beside them, walking down a crowded London street navigating flower sellers, spruikers, beggars, even chimney sweeps… attending a dress fitting, visiting for high tea, soliciting, waiting for an errant husband or an abandoned lover, knitting while aristocrats lost their heads or haunting mean-spirited men!

Pity the poor seamstresses

Whenever I read about the world of Dickens and see the clothes of the era, the textiles, antiquated machinery, and the appalling factory conditions I am amazed at the complicated patterns, intricate beading and buttons, and delicate embroidery on the gowns, shawls and hats.

How resilient and talented must those tailors and seamstresses have been and yet we know workers in the clothing trades historically and even in current times are consistently some of the most abused, underpaid and exploited.

In much more modern times, my Aunt Chrissie was a tailoress in Scotland and eventually owned her own sewing school when she migrated to Australia. My older sister, Cate inherited Chrissie’s gift for sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery… all handicrafts and I’ve written about her talent and her award-winning quilting.

One night, watching my sister sit and sew by a bedside lamp I was inspired to write a villanelle…

A Stitch in Time
Mairi Neil (2014)

She sits sewing by dim lamplight
embroidered threads by her side
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

In the stillness of evening light
needle and thread silently glide,
as she sits sewing by pale moonlight.

Cross stitches pattern small and tight
new techniques taken in her stride
contented, happy, eyes shining bright.

Her creativity in wondrous flight
imagination flows like the tide
as she sits sewing by candlelight.

Machines embraced despite Luddites
mass production becomes her guide
contentment gone, eyes no longer bright

History records seamstresses’ plight
workers stripped of all but pride
many still struggle in shadowed light
exploited, sad, eyes no longer bright.

It was standard practice for women to learn how to sew and for those who did not have to work or scrabble for their living, sitting doing crochet, cross-stitch and embroidery of Bible texts, the alphabet or seasonal motifs considered a genteel pastime.

The exhibition has a lot of interesting historical detail and invaluable research for any would-be writer. Information about waves of migrants bringing new skills, new technology and techniques and of course, fashion fads. Wonderful background fillers that may even inspire short stories or novels.

Stitched with Love

“The first printed patterns for stitching woolwork on canvas were produced in Berlin in the first half of the 19th century. The craft, which became known as Berlin woolwork was promoted at the Great exhibition of 1851 in London just as the middle classes were expanding and more women had the leisure to stitch, and just as new chemical dyes produced never before imagined colours.

Some of the most popular designs were for slipper vamps and uppers. Some, like these, were never attached and have survived for us to admire. A favourite dog stitched with love.”