Fashion Meets Fiction To Help Writers With Authenticity

In January 2013, I attended a wonderful exhibition at the Burrinja Cultural Centre in Upwey, presented by Eastern Regional Libraries Corporation and the Centre, to celebrate the National Year of Reading.

The exhibtion promised ‘travels through time and fiction of the periods, drawing together the threads of character, period, fashion and finery.’

The costumes on display accompanied by a novel of the period. I recognised many of the books, either read in school or turned into television or cinema classics. The costumes spanned 170 years of fashion history and were overwhelmingly for females. Women’s clothing underwent many radical changes of style, and until recently, despite ‘clothes maketh the man‘, the mention of fashion usually conjures images of predominantly female models on catwalks and shining in events like the Melbourne Cup’s Fashion on the Field.

I’m writing this blog as the postmortem on the recent United States Presidential Inauguration Ceremony is being mulled over with comments on the clothes of the participants – Bernie Sanders’ mittens, leading ladies purple outfits, Lady Gaga’s stunning appearance – and of course everyone wearing face masks and sending a powerful message about COVID19 and the mutant viruses.

Including costumery for characters important for writers and can improve a story on many levels, with detail valuable, whether you write fact or fiction.

The exhibition I attended, provided a mine of information for writing historical fiction. There were rare items such as a delicate crinoline dress dated 1860, bustle dresses from the late 19th century, suits from the Second World War era, 1950s ball gowns and 20th-century cocktail dresses and pant suits.

Accessories featured too: hats, gloves, shoes and handbags, jewellery … a feast of fashion for designers and researchers; especially wonderful for writers looking for colourful authenticity.

Most characters for a short story or novel require relevant research, and if you are delving into a particular period of history, the knowledge and inclusion of fashion, social mores, and specific idioms or jargon help the reader enter the world you have created.

If you make a mistake, believe me, there will be a critic somewhere who will notice!

Your blunder may not be as obvious as Brad Pitt wearing his 20th Century wristwatch in a fight scene in the 2004 Hollywood version of ancient Greece’s Troy, but may encourage the reader to question other details in your story.

I speak from experience.

A friend picked up a mistake in a Facebook post I made when I mentioned the first bicycle I owned in Australia bought secondhand at a high school fete in 1963. I said it was 50 cents when I should have said 5 shillings because Australia didn’t introduce decimal currency until 1966.

Details matter. When it comes to fashion it might alter the storyline, the timeline you decide to use and the location – even the need for minor characters. Consider the time it took a female to dress when layers fashionable: underwear (vest, knickers, corset, bloomers, stockings, underskirt, bustle and hoop), dress/skirt and outerwear of shawl/cape/coat/jacket, hat, gloves, shoes.

Depending on their wealth and station in life, they may have a dresser or maid, butler, hairdresser, even someone to apply make-up and choose jewellery. Or they may be so poor, they have one outfit, whatever the season that is altered and repaired!

When I spent a Christmas period in Toronto Canada that coincided with their worst winter blizzards in 50 years, I learnt to allow 10-15 minutes to take off or put on, the boots, coats, woollen hats and scarves. Each time you moved from outside to indoors visiting or shopping became a repetitive exercise.

Museums, art galleries and libraries often have permanent displays, plus special exhibitions, which provide a wealth of visual reminders about life in other eras and may contain hidden gems of information or give ideas useful for your writing. Events are sometimes free or available at a minimum cost.

Display at NGV focusing on French fashion and inspirations for artists

The Darnell Collection

I’ve blogged about the Jane Austen era a couple of times before and also an exhibition on the women in Dickens‘ novels. Fabulous exhibits to mine for information.

The Fashion Meets Fiction exhibition in 2012- 13 was created from a collection that grew from one woman’s passion for vintage clothes and accessories. Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania collected for over 70 years. The social history behind the items donated and gifted from around the world was ‘as important as the items themselves and preserving them and their stories for future generations became an important part of her passion.’

Letters, photographs and stories accompanied the gifts linking them to their original owners or donors, often detailing the occasion/s they were worn. The Australian goddaughter of Doris, inherited the collection in 2004. Charlotte Smith has grown the collection to 7,500 pieces, representing 23 different countries, to become the largest private international vintage clothing couture in Australasia.

Often the focus is on women’s clothing – and usually the glamorous items – however, clothing for men and children are represented. There are wedding dresses and sportswear, plus many reference library books, journals and exhibition catalogues.

The Darnell Collection provides fashion history education and is a design resource. Charlotte, the current custodian promotes the collection’s mission ‘to preserve, develop and enhance the collection’s ability to educate, interpret and inspire existing and new audiences for the better understanding and appreciation of the art of fashion.’

At the Burrinja Cultural Centre, the focus was on the style of memorable characters from popular novels: Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly, Phryne Fisher, Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Woodruff and others. The backstory of the clothes and accessories explained too.

This ball gown of rayon, cotton thread and sequins, by Margeaux Couture is c1950s America. The ornate handbag of silk, velvet, gold and glass beads from Hong Kong, same era. They were chosen to represent the world of David Dodge’s novel, To Catch A Thief, where the main character, a daring cat burglar thieves from hotels and villas on the French Riviera. I remember watching the film on black and white television. I can imagine Grace Kelly in this stunning red gown.

Since the 1950s, formal attire has evolved from private events to public ones – from debutante balls and gala evenings in sumptuous venues to red carpet entrances. As written in Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, “Carefully chosen for special occasions, a ballgown should not only flatter the wearer and demonstrate her sense of style but also illustrate an understanding of the event to which it is worn.”

Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, is set in the 1870s. The two-piece dress chosen for the exhibition is American c1880 of silk faille, silk velvet and gilt metal to suit her upper-class characters.

Silk faille a popular fabric during the Victorian era with its strongly defined, ribbed texture and dramatic draping qualities. It is weighty and has to be cut carefully to ensure the ribbing of the two connecting pieces match to avoid uneven patterns. The material came back into vogue with Christian Dior’s New Look and is popular today with wedding dress designers.

Whenever I see these voluminous dresses with complicated layers, frills and beading, I think of the seamstresses because even with the invention of machines much of the sewing would be by hand.

The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier’s machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his sewing machine invention. https://www.thoughtco.com/stitches-the-history-of-sewing-machines

My Aunt Chrissie, a tailoress, served her apprenticeship prior to WW2, and opened her own sewing school when she emigrated to Melbourne from Scotland in the 1950s. My older sister Cate, inherited her talent but my sewing skills are average.

However, sewing and fashion touches everyone’s life in some way. My generation experienced compulsory needlework classes at school, homemade clothes the norm for many working class people. Hundreds of stories and characters can be created around the subject.

The dress chosen for Daisy Miller, in Henry James’ novel Daisy Miller also c1880s, and made by Mrs C Tracey of New York. This silk faille Bustle Dress with silk taffeta lining and lace, has metallic thread, metal sequins and glass beads.

Bustles were semi-rigid structures of wire half circles held in place by cotton tape and secured around the women’s waist, sitting over her bottom thus creating an unnatural protrusion in silhouette. Less cumbersome than the crinoline, it still required a restrictive corset to achieve the tiny waist fashionable in the Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

This desire for a tiny waist had shocking consequences. A family story about my paternal Grandmother who married in 1900 mentions how she fainted twice donning her wedding dress because the corset strings had to be pulled tight to ensure the obligatory 18 inch waist!

The crinoline dress chosen for Eleanor Bold in Anthony Trollope’s, Barchester Towers, published in 1857 is from that era and also American. It is silk taffeta with silk thread and wooden buttons and the shape has been altered from the enormous dome usually found in crinolines to early bustle shape.

The mannequins used to display many of the Collection’s Victorian dresses are the equivalent to the average modern 12 year old! Most Victorian women were tiny, including Queen Victoria who was only 150cm tall. (That’s under five feet for those still dealing in feet and inches!) Mum was 150cm and was resigned to taking hems up on bought skirts and dresses.

The Day dress, c1860 America of roller printed cotton with natural dyes, chosen for Lucinda Leplastrier in Peter Carey’s novel of colonial Australia, Oscar & Lucinda. It has a wire hoop petticoat to create a domed or bell shape. An ungainly and dangerous style blamed for women swaying too close to an open fire and being trapped in smouldering garments. Hoop petticoats provided fodder for cartoonists to lampoon female social gatherings depicting the cumbersome dresses in small Victorian parlours.

I can vouch for the accuracy of the difficulty negotiating movement with a hoop in the hem of your dress. For my 60th birthday, I held a party inviting friends to dress as their favourite literary character. I went as Jo March from Little Women, after she sold her hair! A plastic hula hoop bought from a Two Dollar Shop provided the shape.

A friend helped me make this dress for my 60th Birthday bash

If your fictional heroine is wearing one of these dresses don’t add to her clumsy misery by having her drink a lot of tea or other beverages requiring visits to the bathroom!

Another Bustle Dress c1880s America was chosen for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. It is one of the most individual Victorian dresses in the Collection; an apt choice for Sarah Woodruff. Wool with Mother of Pearl buttons it has unusual paisley panels, which suggests the dress was made by a small town dressmaker or to be worn by the maker because apart from the bustle, it does not follow other Victorian fashion trends.

I remember reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman for HSC English Lit in 1970 and can imagine Sarah wearing this dress. Even with a dark cloak and hood, she looked striking and attracted attention ensuring her walks along the cliff top and by the sea did not go unnoticed.

Two of the displays triggered more memories of Mum. A wool suit with silk crepe lining by Paul Horla for Fritzels, Milwaukee c the early 1940s is a wonderful example of fashion during World War Two. It was chosen to represent Dominique Francon, a character in Ayn Rand’s, The Fountainhead, first published 1943. It reminded me of Mum’s wedding suit but of course, in 1948, Scotland still had rationing and her suit was not as upmarket as pure wool and silk crepe. However, the style is similar.

When material was rationed, wool fabric allocated to uniforms and war related outfits was still difficult to obtain and dressmakers and tailors ‘took extraordinary steps’ to ensure no scrap of fabric wasted. Skirts became pencil shaped, requiring minimum metres and jackets tailored for a snug fit.

The clever details of this suit, which makes it look truly decadent in a time of austerity, are the collar, pockets and cuffs are fake… actually layers of leftover fabric cut and sewn individually… the ‘pockets’ are scraps of fabric stitched to the bodice and not usable.”

My Mother loved reading and had a penchant for genre novels – mysteries and romances her favourites. She introduced me to Agatha Christie and when I lived with a friend, in a Canberra flat while attending ANU, I discovered Margaret loved Agatha Christie too and worked my way through her bookshelf.

No surprises that Mum liked to read Maigret novels, Georges Simenon’s French detective and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, like The Case of The Lonely Heiress. Perry Mason being a Californian lawyer and both of these characters subjects for popular television series and films. I can remember watching them in the 1960s and 70s and Maigret has been revived recently with new adaptations.

Perry Mason had a devoted secretary, Della Street, who helped him solve cases and the Ball Gown with Shawl by Lucy Sector captures the evening glamour c1950s. This outfit of silk brocade and silk satin was made in Melbourne. The Governor’s secretary wore the gown when she attended a ball at Government House, Sydney 1954.

Lucy Sector’s fashion career began in Melbourne in 1930s and her respected label became fashionable and exclusive with dresses sold throughout Australia, including her own shop in Northbridge WA. The black handbag of glass beads and silk brocade lining was from France c1950s.

The Swinging Sixties & Groovy Seventies

The 60s and 70s heralded big changes in acceptable attire for women with dresses becoming shorter and more revealing and pantsuits designed for afternoon and evening wear. Candice Bushnell’s, Sex and the City, a popular bestseller in 1997 as a collection of essays on the lifestyles of her social circle. Later a movie was made and television series. The silk faille cocktail dress by Christian Dior chosen for the character Carrie Bradshaw has glass beads, sequins and silk lining c late 1990s.

In 1997, John Galliano replaced Gianfranco Ferre as Dior’s head designer. He combined his love of theatrics with inspiration from the Dior archives and the fitted, elegant and feminine dress is reminiscent of the 1950s.

The leather shoes are more recent c2009 by Manolo Blahnik and come with a fascinating backstory, inspired by a similar pair of shoes Blahnik produced for designer Ossie Clark in the 1970s. Blahnik was producing men’s shoes in his shop in Chelsea, London when Clark asked him to create shoes for his next couture collection. Making women’s shoes filled a creative void for Blahnik and his outrageous and flamboyant designs became the fashion must-have. Bushnell’s novel republished in 2008 and the 2009 television series of Sex and the City gave Blahnik shoes cult status.

In Octopussy, Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book, a collection of short stories and published posthumously in 1966, the main character is Octavia Charlotte Smyther (aka Octopussy). Attractive, smart and athletic women a feature of Bond novels and movies so the pant suit by La Gaye Parisienne, Sydney of lurex and lame fabric perfect. A pant suit fits the 1960s setting but vamped to look trendier and sexier than the ordinary.

London 1956, saw the first couture collections using metallic yarn. By the 1960s, silver and gold lame fabrics (as well as pastel colours) replaced black as the favoured colour for the popular cocktail scene.

Love Story by Erich Segal, set in the 1970s and first published in the USA 1972 to popular acclaim, capturing the mood of the era of breaking down barriers and shifting boundaries. One of the main characters Jenny Cavilleri is studying music in Massachusetts and is matched to a machine-made lace and silk pant suit by Ann Pakradooni, a well-known dressmaker in Philadelphia in the 1960s and 70s.

Two years ago, this suit was part of a small display at the Philadelphia Art Institute. An 80 year old visitor asked if she could take a closer look at the inside of the jacket. Upon inspection of the stitching of the hooks and eyes, she realised she had made the suit when she worked for Mme Pakradooni in the early 1970s. She recognised her stitch work and explained each seamstress had a unique signature stitch, their secret signature for every garment they made.

The straw Hat with cotton flowers and satin ribbon is Australian c1970s, and the leather Handbag, French by Pierre Cardin c1970s.

Agatha Christie’s, Death On The Nile, a Poirot Story was first published in 1937 and set in that era. The silk organdie Day Dress c1930s an example of the softer more feminine look to replace the boyish 1920s. Soft, transparent fabrics like silk organdie were popular with colourful and complicated designs printed on silk, rayon and crinkle crepe. Daywear became less decorative and more practical, reflecting women’s busier roles in society. The brown straw Hat has cotton and plastic flowers on velvet ribbon.

The Great Gatsby, by S Scott Fitzgerald is out of copyright this year so prepare for a slew of adaptations and interpretations. It was first published in 1925 and featured the memorable Daisy Buchanan and the Roaring 20s United States. The blue silk chiffon and satin Dance Dress has paste diamantes and the silk shawl c1920 from China is stitched with silk thread.

The Evening Bag by Whiting & Davis is c1920 America and is woven metal mesh with hand screened-printed pattern and gilt metal frame. Whiting & Davis was one of the biggest and best known mesh handbag manufacturers and still manufacture today. Screen printing allowed for a myriad of patterns and colours.

The shoes by YuYee c1920s China with the maker’s stamp reading ’embroider shoes made in China’ and comprise of cotton, silk thread and leather soles. China’s export industry ensured wealthy expats could purchase garments and accessories with a ‘westernized’ Chinese look. in the 1920s, popular fashion included the wallpaper effect of Japanese decoration and rich embroidered patterns of flowers from China.

Georgy Girl, by Margaret Forster embraced the Swinging Sixties, and is another popular novel that made it to the big screen. It also inspired The Seekers hit song Georgy Girl used for the movie. The Cocktail Dress by Guy Meliet is silk faille from Caracas, South America, and the hat is synthetic mesh with faux pearls, c1990s, England. Although made in the 1990s the hat is 60s inspired and pairs well with the straight A-shape of the dress and suits the personality of the novel’s swinging Meredith.

Guy Meliet trained in Paris before moving to Caracas. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many designers and milliners trained in Paris alongside a well-known couturier before launching their their own salons in countries demanding expensive, French inspired clothes. Meliet is credited with dressing some of the most beautiful socialites in Venezuela, including Chesley Larson, the owner of this dress. A world that was anathema to Forster, a lifelong feminist and socialist.

Although published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, characterises the late 50s and early 60s, known as the Cold War era when spies and double agents were in the news. The chosen dress is Italian c1960, woollen and by Spinelli.

Elena and Sante Spinelli immigrated to Australia from Italy in 1958. In 1960 their luxury knitwear label, Spinelli began in Adelaide, South Australia. Their international influences and flair spiced Australian fashion, evidenced by this ‘mod’ 1960s dress. Combining fine Australian merino wool and the skill of Italian craftsmanship produced a unique Australian fashion statement. The wool Hat by Mr M c1960s America and the Australian crocodile Handbag with leather lining finishes the elegant outfit.

What would any fashion or life story be without the ubiquitous wedding dress. Nicholas Sparks 2003 novel The Wedding, focuses on a couple celebrating 30 years of marriage and while planning their daughter’s wedding, the husband is ‘re-courting’ his wife. It is set in the 70s and the Wedding Dress by the House of Henry Josef, Sydney, is machine-made lace, silk satin, net and polyester.

There were many other novels and outfits to satisfy a variety of historical periods and a writer’s curiosity. I’m sure many exhibitions are available online, especially with the disruption of 2020 and the continued adjustments to life trying to be Covid-normal.

Explore, research, read – then write!

To end with a smile (and we certainly need more of them!) here is a poem I wrote last Christmas for one of my daughters who loves cosplay and comes up with wonderful ideas for costumes, which we make on a low budget.

A Dickens of An Exhibition For Writers of Fashionable Fiction!

the best of times sign.jpg

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.

poster info on Dickens.jpg

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?

dickens quote

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.

catherine dickens info.jpg

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…

miss havisham dress.jpg

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.”

 

 

Forget Your Pride and Prejudice and Be Persuaded to Embrace The Regency Era

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At the end of last year, I went to a talk at Glen Eira Art Gallery, one of several in their Be Persuaded — Jane Austen exhibition. It brought the literary icon Jane Austen’s world to life through a fascinating selection of rare fashion, accessories, and ephemera from the 18th century and Regency era but it also sent me off on a journey to the immediate and not so immediate past!

As I’ve said many times, I like joining dots, discovering connections and links that enhance my understanding of people and the world, move me from my comfort zone and add to what I thought I knew or better still challenge my assumptions…

Presented by Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume, the exhibition highlights included an 18th-century silk gown, diaphanous Empire line frocks, spencers and other undergarments, capes and shawls, bonnets, parasols, and rare hand painted watercolours documenting fashion from the 1790s to 1840 but it also gave historical context and relevance.

The selection of little paintings – 27 in all – a unique collection illustrating the development of fashion styles during that period and according to organisers, there may not be others in existence.

Jane Austen used words, this artist used drawings – original drawings from 1793 – 1830 – to tell little stories. The drawings are detailed and in context whether it is streetwear, formal or informal and covers a range of age groups. The 18th century and Regency era’s Vogue Magazine with some tongue in cheek observations thrown in.

An exhibition of fashion we have all seen and perhaps admired/envied in period films but in reality comes with a suitcase full of disadvantages, class distinctions, and choices dictated by obedience to societal mores!

Everyone was invited to step back in time and play with games and toys that were popular during Jane Austen’s childhood as well as imagine what it must have been like wearing clothes on display. 

Memories triggered

A fabulous day in Bath immersing myself in Jane Austen country. Met so many interesting people including a couple of Aussies from Newcastle. Caught the bus to Swindon, a meandering weekend path swapped for a very fast train to Bath with just one stop! Bath is another place that could absorb a week and you’d still have a list to do but I’m happy – I had an enjoyable walk after “Jane” checking out the Regency Circle and Georgian houses before visiting a fashion museum with 100 costumes plus accessories from the early 17th century to 2017. And it was Free Comic Book Day so cosplay characters were everywhere delighting passersby, including me.

My Facebook Post May 6th 2017

Bath, a World Heritage City, yet most of my time spent tracing Jane Austen’s footsteps when I discovered a free walking tour and delightful guide with seemingly infinite knowledge of where Jane lived, visited, walked and shopped, along with places made famous by her two Bath novels: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Like many others, I admire Jane Austen as a writer and studied Northanger Abbey for HSC Literature and surprised myself at how much I could recall.

There was an instant rapport with the guide who had a great sense of humour, even posing for a photograph with one of the cosplay characters from Planet of the Apes. All of us doing an impromptu dance together because music blared from a portable player nearby.

When I mentioned my daughter was a Whedon fan (the writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon) I was inundated with free comics to take back to Australia. I’ve blogged about the importance of comics and also cosplay before.

Cosplay conventions the modern generations Austen world on steroids and what fun I had attending my first one in Australia.

A wonderful, heartwarming hug at the end of the Walking Tour made my day.  In the beginning, I was the only one on the tour with two others joining when they eavesdropped and discovered the tour was free.

Am I the only person who reads brochures and local leaflets?  There is always a host of free stuff available and you get to meet amazing volunteers or organisations committed to history, the arts, and other community activities. 

If ever in Bath, the free Walking Tour a must – it leaves from the Post Office and ends at the Jane Austen Centre and you meet people passionate about their work.

The young man who accompanied me a great raconteur. We discovered a mutual love of history, had read and liked similar books – and even shared our opinion about Brexit which was a talking point everywhere in 2017. (Methinks that hasn’t changed!)

Plus, he thought I was brave travelling by myself because ‘I was older than his mother‘. He wanted to know how I got on in Russia. I told him how much I enjoyed it and to separate countries from governments, people from politicians, and not be scared to travel and find out for yourself!

outside jane austen museum.jpgThe other gentleman in the photo is Martin Salter, ‘England’s most photographed man‘ a title awarded March 2017  to recognise his ten years of outstanding service as the meeter/greeter at the Jane Austen Centre.

An icon recognised around the world because of the number of people he has welcomed, photographed, and posed beside for photographs – including me!

In the Georgian mansion that houses the Jane Austen Centre, I tried on clothes and delved into all things Jane Austen having a great giggle with other tourists and the enthusiastic employees and volunteers.

I was grateful it was just pretence because I don’t think my patience or spacial awareness, let alone deportment, would cope with the clothes of the Regency era or the lifestyle –  definitely not the lack of rights for women.

I can’t imagine living in a time where beginning a novel with the following statement is so well understood:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

                                        Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice

After the museum, I wandered through the main streets of central Bath where the past and present nestled together with a few misfits, adaptations and imaginative additions.

Eating my sandwiches in the square I also digested what I’d learned about Jane’s life, her family, and the Bath that existed during the period she was writing. I imagined all the ladies and gents from middle and upper classes strolling through the city, admiring each other’s fashionable dresses, noting the designers and where it was purchased.

  • But what of the workers who keep the necessary machinery of life turning?
  • Where are the names of the seamstresses and the tailors who made the creations?
  • Who were the washerwomen who laundered and ironed, the maids and butlers who kept the clothes in good repair?
  • And considering that sweatshops still exist will tourists of the future attend exhibitions and ask the same questions about modern fashion?

At the nearby Fashion Museum, I barely absorbed all the interesting details because I’d reached the stage in the day when my brain signals ‘information overload’.  The exhibition at Glen Eira a great opportunity to refresh or add information. 

A different perspective is always good – especially when it comes to history and this free exhibition so close to home at Caulfield Town Hall – a magnificent period building in its own right.

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I missed the opening by Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, but got to hear the engaging floor talk from Fiona Baverstock from Dressing Australia — Museum of Costume who provided the exhibits.

Her talk ran the scheduled 45 minutes and her passion and knowledge of the subject,  kept the whole room enthralled, even begging for more.  She moved around the floorspace discussing each exhibit in detail – a 3D Powerpoint presentation with pertinent asides adding to the excellent information already provided.

Fiona explained her credentials as owner/curator of Dressing Australia Museum of Costume, which is not a ‘bricks and mortar’ museum. She only does travelling exhibitions with her private collection.

Jane Austen Perennially Popular

Mention Jane Austen and people come, especially since contemporary films and TV serials have introduced Jane to new audiences and her novels appear regularly on school booklists.

The timing was right, 2017, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. The last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in Austen mania – good news for Fiona who thought she had sold most of her costumes from the Regency era.

She normally weaves a story about who owned the clothes but couldn’t for this exhibition because she had got rid of so much of her collection. Instead, she chose Jane’s family and a few major characters from the more popular novels and looked for clothes to suit their persona.

Jane was born in 1775, therefore, an 18th-century girl and 25 years old when the 19th century began. Her fashion taste well-established, however, the new century meant moving away from stiff conservatism and from what we know of Jane’s personality and lifestyle, she probably embraced new styles.

We know a little about her through her novels and lead characters but which character’s characteristics match the author? Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, the two Dashwood sisters? When she sat down to write what personal thoughts and experiences did she channel?

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Jane probably had at least one love attraction, never realised, and one proposal of marriage… accepted and almost immediately turned down. Love and marriage often discussed by her characters…

There are such beings in the world – perhaps one in a thousand – as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own country.
Letter to Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814

Jane’s nephew wrote the first biography of Jane Austen and he gave us a staid view, presenting Jane as a sweet, unassuming homebody. He censored or ignored letters – and Jane was a prolific letter writer – and did what I suspect many family historians do, sanitising, omitting and caring more about what people might think than accuracy or honesty.

Jane was not like his impression, she had an acerbic tongue and a more accurate impression is gained from letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra.

Unfortunately, shortly before Cassandra died, she destroyed the bulk of their correspondence – perhaps she too was worried about Jane’s reputation, or that the words would be taken out of context.  Perhaps she wanted to shield family members and friends from forthright comments such as :

Poor woman! How can she honestly be breeding again?
                             Letter to Cassandra Austen, 1 October 1808

This quote from a beautifully illustrated book from the Bodleian Library I discovered in Dymocks. Fifty Illustrated Quotations are drawn from Jane’s letters and novels, testifying to her wit and candid humour – and some not so humorous observations.

Her comments about the effects of the Peninsular War, dislike of parties and social obligations and impressions of London, ranging from acerbic, ironic to poignant.

No surprise that her characters sometimes use bitter sarcasm when speaking of women’s inequality, ageing, the disappointments of marriage, fashion, and the social scene.

Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin to find already my morals corrupted.
Letter to Cassandra Austen (on arrival in London), 23 August 1796

I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most proliferate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.
   Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 January 1796

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Our ball was rather more amusing than I expected… the melancholy part was to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders! It was the same room in which we danced fifteen years ago! I thought it all over, and in spite of the shame of being so much older, felt with thankfulness that I was quite as happy now as then.
                       Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9 December 1808.

Jane Austen observed – everything.

She captured behaviours, dialogue and idiosyncrasies of the people around her. As a writer, she is famous for her ironic omniscient narrator – detached and amused. For example that oft-quoted opening sentence of  Pride and Prejudice.

Her observations of life and manners of the gentry class have been described as ‘a comedy of manners’.

I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.

No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816

Her characters are lively and believable so that even today’s readers engage with them when society has dramatically changed because she focuses on relationships and minutiae we can identify – and thank goodness she remained true to her own style!

All six of Austen’s novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry and the larger world of the French and American Revolutions,  the Napoleonic Wars and simmering Irish and Scottish unrest don’t intervene except in her private letters.

How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!

Letter to Cassandra Austen on the Peninsular War, 31 May 1811.

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Discovering A Different Jane

The following novels by Jane Austen were successful in her lifetime but published anonymously:
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815)

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818. Jane died in Winchester in July 1817, at the age of 41.

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception, they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …

Virginia Woolf’s observation about the literature of her time in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own

I discovered earlier writing by Jane that certainly gives a clue her personality and thoughts far from staid!

She wrote the ‘history’ book when she was sixteen and we can thank the writer  JL Carr for publishing it in a series of Pocket Books:

… the originator, compiler & publisher of these Pocket Books did so in order to subsidise the writing of novels; the best known of which ‘A Month in the Country’ was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1980 and won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian’ is dedicated to Cassandra and from start to the end of its 15 pages offers witty, barbed, and radical ( perhaps treasonous!) summations of various English monarchs.

teenage jane austen history

The intro has two telling quotes – I wonder if it started off as a school assignment or a rant against how and what history is taught:

Read me anything but history, for history must be false
Sir Robert Walpole

History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortune… All ancient history is no more than accepted fiction.
Voltaire

No doubt Jane was above average intelligence and better read and informed than many teenagers of her day, which probably went with the territory of having an educated father and many brothers in a variety of occupations.

I can imagine active and lively discussions over dinner and all those long country walks but I’m guessing when the manuscript came to light it would have raised a few eyebrows. 

Was it a reaction to whatever history was considered the most important to learn or items in the news or an exercise to explore the power of words to tell a story – they could be the first examples of flash faction.

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

                                            Anne Elliot, Persuasion

I’ve kept her spelling and style in these snippets –

Henry the 4th

Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2d, to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is supposed that Henry was married, since he certainly had four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his Wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales took away the Crown; whereby the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays & the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, & was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.

Henry the 5th
This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed & Amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions & never thrashing Sir William again… Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very Agreeable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, & was succeeded by his son Henry.

Henry the 6th

I cannot say much for this Monarch’s Sense – Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & The Duke of York, who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History… This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & Misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her…

Edward the 4th

This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage… his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs… One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore who had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy & therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his majesty died, & he was succeeded by his Son.

Edward the 5th

This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that no body had time to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3d.

Richard the 3d

The character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man… Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace for Henry Tudor E. Of Richmond, as great a Villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it…

Henry 7th

This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage, he had two sons & two daughters, the elder of which was married to the King of Scotland & had the happiness of being grand-mother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of her, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future… his Majesty died, & was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth…

What the teenage Jane alludes to is the belief that Mary Queen of Scots should never have been executed and in fact, after she describes the reigns of Henry the 8th (‘Crimes & Cruelties too many to mention’),

Edward the 6th (“a favourite” … “He was beheaded…”),

Mary ( “the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, inspite of the superior pretensions, Merit &  Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland & Jane Grey..),

Elizabeth ( It was the peculiar Misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers – Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif had not these vile & abandoned men connived and encouraged her in her Crimes.),

James the 1st ( Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.) and

Charles the 1st (This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered Misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother…),

she concludes with –

…my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, (tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my Scheme.)

I wonder what witty observation or acerbic put down she would write regarding her popularity today, which is almost cult status thanks to – museums, festivals, competitions, documentaries, films, sequels and prequels and of course Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy – all that focus on a man!

Fiona in her talk said she had to include an outfit close to what people imagined Mr Darcy wore in that famous scene from the TV series that people remember yet it never actually happened! You know the scene when Colin Firth walks out of the lake after a swim and his partly unbuttoned undershirt is clinging to his body!

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Well, with another detour taken care of – I’ll get back to Fiona’s talk and the exhibition –

When History Is Fashionable

Be Persuaded had a firm focus on fashion but Fiona threw in lots of historical asides and gems to think about when she explained why she chose particular items:

from the rare 18th century gown which her mother might have worn at the time of Jane’s birth, through to the elegance and daring of the Regency era with its classic Empire line gowns, to the 1840s when women such as Cassandra had to once again retreat behind tight waists and voluminous skirts…

Jane was a keen observer of fashion and the role it played in defining status and the complex relationships in the society of her novels, even if in private she thought much of the detail and rules ridiculous.

I learnt from Mrs Ticker’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15 September 1813

 

Next week (I) shall begin my operations on my hat, on which you know my principal hopes of happiness depend.
Letter to Cassandra Austen, 27 October 1798

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Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim.
                                                       Northanger Abbey

In her research, Fiona found that the French open robe style usually didn’t come with a petticoat because few survived – they were frequently taken on and off and most probably wore out. Petticoats were often made of the same fabric as the gown in a complimentary or contrasting colour.

Women didn’t wear knickers in the eighteenth century (audible gasps and giggles around the room) but diaphanous see-through gowns led to pantaloons – although many of these were knitted and flesh coloured to give the appearance of no knickers. (more audible murmurings…)

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What Influences Fashion?

Classical Greek and Roman lines are often the basis for design but also things like the Hussar Soldier Uniform and other unusual inspirations for accessories.

In the 18th century, the American revolution interrupted the supply of raw cotton and English industrialists looked to India and other colonies. The East India Company imported not just raw cotton but ready-to-wear material. Muslin, a popular dress material became available plain, coloured and even patterned.

Revolutions and wars are big influences.

For example, in WW2 and years immediately following, stripes and shoulder pads introduced and women’s suits were made from sturdy fabrics mimicking the style of military uniforms. It was a sad and serious time with material shortages plus more women in the workforce requiring suitable clothes.  Less frivolity and more practicality.

When it is happier less threatening times, clothes reflect the change of mood – frills, fripperies, colour, softer material, flowing designs …

Who can forget the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the shock of mini-skirts and Jean Shrimpton attending the Melbourne Cup hatless, in sandals without stockings, and a mini dress?

Often military inventions lead to a fashion use (nylon, rayon and drip dry fabric, lycra) or in the case of the 18th century because of the French Revolution wearing silk, which was considered luxurious, became a ‘no no’.

The Empire Line named after Napoleon’s determination to create his empire another example of fashion reflecting what is happening in society.

Muslin easier to look after than silk but still hand washed, rinsed, squeezed – towel dried and ironed. Bows and vandyke edging needed a special tiny iron to get into tucks with its point.

When dresses long, if they swept the ground women didn’t walk in parks and gravel and avoided dirty paths. They stepped from the doorway to carriage. For those stepping out more – hems went up a bit and wore gowns that could be washed or survive regular washing.

18th-century shoes had thin soles for dancing pumps. Boots were for country lanes and lace-up boots had a slightly thicker sole and heel. Fashionable shoes wore out quickly – poorer people needed stout leather because they walked more and their leather shoes thicker and more uncomfortable.

In the Regency era parasols tended to have straight handles and small canopies. Folding handles appeared mid 19th century as did the metal spoke. The parasol in the exhibition dated to the late 1840s, it has metal spokes but a straight handle and the canopy of polished cotton has ruching, a frill and wooden finial.

 

Fiona dressed Cassandra in crinoline – it was a time when there was an absence of war and the men were back and the male idea of femininity emphasised. Women were ‘financially dependent so had to kowtow.’ 

Fiona compared the dress on display to the 70s fashion of bell bottoms, describing both as ‘ridiculous’. I agree – the above illustrations from the Fashion Museum emphasise how limiting those voluminous dresses would be.

I wore bell bottoms in the 70s and they were a short-lived fashion item. The nearest I’ve been to a crinoline is a hooped dress a friend made me for my 60th birthday party when everyone had to come dressed as their favourite literary character.  I chose Jo from Little Women and the hooped petticoat and puffed-out gown not ideal for movement.

Just like in the 1820s/30s dresses were designed with restricted shoulder lines because women were not supposed to raise their arms – again we are talking about women in a particular class!

long woollen cloak:shawl.jpg

Anne Elliot, from Persuasion, was chosen to model a gown with a floor-length shawl.

Fiona asked us to note the sleeves and ruffles around the neck. The dress, fine cotton circa 1815 with flounces around the skirt. The lace a later addition. The bodice has ruching and the neckline an organdie tucker with ruffled collar. A Norwich shawl is over her shoulder.

The Norwich shawl, a long rectangle not square – perfect for wrapping or draping around Empire-line gowns. It could also be a Paisley or Edinburgh shawl, the name denotes where they were made. A Paisley square often folded into a triangle later in the 19th century when the voluminous ‘crinoline’ gowns returned to fashion.

The bustle killed the shawl as a fashionable accessory.

dress with bustle

The shawl on show magnificent, Fiona’s own version of an expensive imported Kashmir shawl fashionable in the 18th century, which encouraged weaving centres like Norwich and Paisley to produce their own versions. However, original Kashmir shawls popular with the very rich.

This shawl is ‘partially filled’ – an assistant (usually a woman) sitting beside the weaver hand sews extra, thicker strands to the back of the shawl to make it stronger and warmer. In 1845, fine wool began to be imported from Australia and the fashion industry incorporated this in dresses as well as shawls.

Lizzie Bennet’s Wedding Dress?

Any exhibition must have the young Lizzie Bennet and Fiona chose a wedding gown circa 1810 imagining it was Lizzie’s because she considered after all the build up in Pride and Prejudice,  Jane Austen could have at least given a description of Lizzie Bennet’s wedding dress.

The classic Empire line gown is of ivory silk and so fine it needs a padded hem to give it weight. The bonnet is a reproduction of the original. The pumps 18th-century shoes.

White became a popular option in 1840, after the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, when Victoria wore a white gown trimmed with Honiton lace. Illustrations of the wedding were widely published, and many brides opted for white in accordance with the Queen’s choice.

Regency era it was white or pastel colours because white was a fashionable colour not just for brides. In Brideswear Revisited – 200 years of gowns: off-white, cream, ivory and oyster more popular because ‘white flatters no one’.

The Provenance of the Gown an interesting story

It was worn by Emma Cato who married George Daniel at Chelsea Old Church in London 1810. Emma, born in Holborn 1787, was one of nine children to Thomas and Elizabeth Cato. Thomas described as a wireworker who made items such as needles, fish hooks, cages, chains, traps, decorative architectural embellishments and garden decorations.

He would have belonged to the Worshipful Company of Tin Plate and Wire Workers, a City of London Trade Guild. Fiona said he must have been a master rather than a mere worker because he left a Will.

George Daniel, variously described as book collector, literary critic and author, meant Emma came into contact with some of the literary giants of the day as he claimed membership of an exclusive circle including Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

He published critiques of their work as well as those from ‘superstars’ like Sir Walter Scott often inserting some of his own ‘dubious attempts at verse’ in the critique.

Fiona adds we can ‘only imagine what Emma’s life with a self-important wannabe poet and author must have been like. Perhaps he earned enough from his published literary criticism to keep them in comfortable circumstances.’

She surmises that if Jane Austen had been a man, George Daniel may have critiqued her work and Emma might have met her – considering Jane’s early novels were written anonymously perhaps he did come across them – how would we know?

I don’t think he could have been too horrible considering he composed a poem to his daughter for her birthday (c1815) and it was stitched together as a booklet – a reproduction on display and the original is at the University of Indiana.

And Yet Another Sidetrack… Huguenots

I always learn something new whenever I attend a talk, workshop, gallery, museum… and Fiona’s had me searching online about the Huguenots who were French Protestants active in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were forced to flee France due to religious and political persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown.

I knew their story of persecution but not their contribution to the fashion industry and beyond.

Still a lightning-rod for collective anxieties, the word “refugee” entered the English language when the Huguenots landed. Although migration had begun beforehand on a modest scale, around 50,000 French Protestants came to England after Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes at Fontainebleau in October 1685. Another 10,000 fled to Ireland, part of an exodus of perhaps 200,000 people. Other large contingents went to Holland, Sweden and Prussia. That still left the bulk of a hard-pressed but robust population of 750,000 or so to weather hardship in France and wait for more tolerant times…

According to one estimate, one in every six Britons has some Huguenot ancestry. Names of obvious French origin tell only a fraction of this tale. Yes, it’s easy enough to spot a Laurence Olivier, a Simon Le Bon, a Walter de la Mare, a Daphne du Maurier, a Samuel Courtauld, a Jon Pertwee, a Reginald Bosanquet, an Eddie Izzard, even – as the Ukip leader happily acknowledges – a Nigel Farage. Yet, just like Jewish incomers two centuries later, Huguenot migrants often changed their names or had them changed by impatient clerks.

As a Victorian history of London puts it, “the Lemaitres called themselves Masters; the Leroys, King; the Tonneliers, Coopers; the Lejeunes, Young; the LeBlancs, White; the Lenoirs, Black; the Loiseaux, Bird”.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/refugee-week-the-huguenots-count-among-the-most-successful-of-britains-immigrants-10330066.html

Proof refugees enrich society

The Huguenots arrived in Britain from France and brought their skill of silk weaving to Spitalfields where 300 families settled transforming it into London’s centre for silk-weaving. The most amazing silk designer of that period was a woman – Anna Maria Garthwaite.

The type of motifs, scale, rendering, and colour palette in textile patterns went in and out of fashion and can be used to identify a garment as being from the 1710s, 1740s, or 1760s.  The importance of silk-weaving and new designs to Georgian fashion cannot be underestimated as they conveyed not only taste but also status and wealth for the wearer.

Remarkably, one of the most successful and influential designers of silk patterns was an English woman, Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), who came to Spitalfields in 1730 and quickly infiltrated the male-dominated and family-based industry.  In fact, the establishment and prosperity of Spitalfields silk-weaving were due largely to waves of immigration by French Huguenots fleeing persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom were weavers bringing advanced skills.

As a forty-year-old single woman, it is unlikely that Garthwaite received much if any of the formal training required of her male counterparts.  She worked in watercolour and at her most prolific produced approximately eighty designs a year, tapering off in the 1750s to about thirty designs per annum

http://blog.courtauld.ac.uk/documentingfashion/2016/11/03/anna-maria-garthwaite-spitalfields-silk-and-english-rococo/

Spitalfields was a major force in shaping eighteenth-century fashion because it was the centre of the silk-weaving industry in England.  Silk manufacture drove the very business of fashion as trends concentrated on new textile patterns rather than garment styles.

Weavers, joiners, smiths and merchants set up shop in Soho or Spitalfields and textile and design students at London Metropolitan University, now study some of their crafts, such as silk-weaving, silversmithing and upholstery. 

It is remarkable that a woman like Anna Maria Garthwaite achieved the level of success that she did.  It is a testament not only to her sheer talent and vision but also her courage to value her own abilities.

A woman Jane Austen would have admired and loved!

 

Alphabet Wordplay and A Blessing of Unicorns.

An International Exposition of Wordplay

For all the efforts of purists like Johnson to defend it, the language is incomparably flexible. It is like molten glass: you can stretch it, shape it, chop it, misspell, mispronounce or misinflect it, cruelly misplace its elements and somehow you still end with English. It’s a fun tongue.

The British Council is about to send an exhibition, under the title of “Wordplay”, on just that theme for four years around Eastern Europe. It is backed by The Economist–what is the Czech for “blowing your own trumpet”?–and fun it is, full of puns and palin­dromes, dialects, jargon, simplicity and pomp, cliches, metaphors, oddities, inventions (Bernard Shaw’s famous spelling of “fish – ­ghoti, with gh as in cough, 0 as in women and ti as in -tion–is only just beyond the bounds of the possible). No one, maybe, will learn to write a better computer manual from this exhibition; anyone who does not profit from it, be he as English as Johnson, must be a dull stick. Or, if you prefer nowspeak, a lamebrain.

The Economist, 23 Oct 1993

Just as the quote explains, English is a fun and flexible language and as a writer, I love exploring the different ways you can tell a story, or write about an experience.

Alphabet poems have been around a long time and can be a fun form to try. Often associated with children’s writing, or writing for children, it can be a good tool for adults too. Here is another site with examples of poetry, including alphabet poems and below is a poem I wrote many years ago when I started teaching at Sandybeach Centre.  I used it to introduce the class anthology produced at the end of the year.

WHY WRITE?

What motivates people to put pen to paper? In writers’ groups and creative writing classes, people reveal much more than words…

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children, but is libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything producing performance pieces to entertain
and Z – well –
Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!

Mairi Neil 2002

The poem by Australian Bruce Dawe that inspired me to use the alphabet is a lot grittier because it’s about prison life.

Behind the walls

the walls begin,
behind the bars
are bars
A can make a knife of tin
B can cut out stars
C can get you what you want
a needle, drink or smoke
D can laugh through broken teeth
E can tell a joke
F can fake a heart-attack
G can throw a fit
H can write a letter home
as quick as you can spit
I can con the chaplain
J can con the con
K will know someone to ask
just where your wife has gone
L can keep an eye out
M can pass the word
N can hear the gospel truth
and then forget he heard
O will know which warder
can be got at – and the price
P will offer nothing
but a lot of free advice
Q will want no part of it
R will not be told
S will roll a cigarette
and shudder with the cold
T will hum a lonely tune
U will turn his back
V will lie as still as death
W will crack
X will read his bible
day by holy day
Y with eyes like torches
will burn the bars away

and Z, poor Z, will think the walls
must end where they begin
and that a man, outside, will be
the same as he went in.

Bruce Dawe

Please explore Bruce Dawe’s poetry – he writes about ordinary people facing the everyday. However, his use of poetic techniques makes his poems resonate. They are emotionally engaging and memorable – what more can a poet ask?

Although often used to encourage children to write, I’ve found students in my adult writing classes have a lot of fun with form poetry and having a set structure can encourage the creative juices to flow.  I certainly enjoy the challenge and always write when my students are writing! A lesson I prepared about Acrostic poetry and some of my other poems can be found in Celebrating Poetry: 2014 Poetry Anthology, by Karenzo Media.

I decided to use the alphabet form to describe a wonderful experience I had this year when I went to Sydney with my daughter and experienced my first Oz Comic Con. It was a different way to write about the experience!

The glimpse into a world I had heard my daughters and others talk about, but didn’t really appreciate, an amazing weekend. A world where cosplay lets everyone dress as their fantasy character regardless of gender, race, body build or age. A world of tolerant people who know how to enjoy themselves without hurting others, or themselves, and where there are activities for all the family. I expect for those into popular culture, attendance is deemed compulsory. As a writer/observer there are a hundred stories jumping at you – even as you queue to enter the convention hall.

We flew to Sydney, stayed in a backpacker hostel, and walked to catch the ferry across to Glebe Island where the convention was held. The return ferry trip each day across Sydney harbour a delight, especially at night when the harbour lights twinkled and reflected on the water.

A Blessing of Unicorns

At Glebe Island Sydney on a weekend in September, Comic-Con 2014 was held.

Because my daughter, Mary Jane wanted to attend, I went along for the ride, courtesy of a cheap flight on Tiger Airways.

Celebrities from popular culture such as: films, television, web shows, Anime, Manga, and conventional comic books, attend every year to entertain fans at forums.

Day one, on the Saturday was manic with hundreds of excited attendees queuing to be inside where stalls loaded with merchandise beckoned, plus the possibility of bumping into favourite actors.

Excitement and enthusiasm bubbled; laughter and loud cheerful conversations bouncing off the concrete walls and echoing around the cavernous entrance area.

Friendliness and good humour everywhere despite the wait for the gates to open.

Good vibes from the participants, stallholders, and a host of volunteers with wide smiles and bright green t-shirts created amazing energy reminiscent of childhood anticipation of Christmas or birthdays.

How some of the people squeezed into their costumes a mystery, as was the effort and ingenuity so many displayed to create accurate depictions of their heroes.

I have never seen such an array of characters with so many different interpretations; the cosplay truly remarkable and I could see why Mary Jane found the event attractive.

Just when I thought a character too outrageous or too magnificent to beat, another super hero, or comic book character appeared and my camera worked overtime.

Knights in shining armour, fairytale princesses, royalty galore walking the aisles, their servants, guards and army captains from various historical periods or fantasy worlds, following close behind.

Loki from The Avengers came in different genders as well as all shapes and sizes, as did several other easily identifiable legends.

Marvel Comics have spawned a number of super heroes and villains, their readership spanning generations as well as decades;  their inspiration and influence evident everywhere.

No two costumes looked alike, even if the person inside cosplayed Batman or Wonder Woman.

Over and over again, I witnessed the generosity of those dressed up, as they patiently posed for photographs or shared facts about who they represented, and how their costumes were made.

Photos were available with celebrities too – at a price – William Shatner and Orlando Bloom the most expensive, but generally prices started at $30 upwards to $100.

Queues for tokens to meet the celebrities and for photographs could be lengthy and take up to an hour or more, however fan dedication knows no bounds and manifested in good humour and patience.

Remembering my childhood fantasies, I recognised some of the characters, but as queens and kings roamed the centre, their regal bearing clearing all before them, I struggled to name many, especially the cast of the popular Game of Thrones.

Some characters of course were interpretations and adaptations from literary books that have now become comics, films or graphic novels.

Transformation an obvious theme because cosplay is ideal for shy or introverted people to act out their fantasies or face their internal demons by pretending to be another persona.

Underneath lycra, cotton vests, an array of wigs and headgear, cardboard shields and other paraphernalia, anxieties and feelings of inadequacy disappear.

Various incidents of kindness and courtesy marked the convention too, whether it was people sharing knowledge, helping repair a costume, or saving a place in the many lengthy queues.

Witches and wizards, from Maleficent to Harry Potter, mixed happily at lunchtime; a mutual admiration society gathering around tables sharing pizza slices and sandwiches.

X-rated costumes were few because it is a family convention, although female super heroes in comics and graphic novels have trademark sexiness, and many aspiring lookalikes flashed the flesh.

Young and old, fat or thin, all displayed the same enthusiasm with whole families dressed as the crew from Star Trek, Game of Thrones, the Hobbit, Unhappily Everafter, Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Serenity and numerous other fantasy families.

Zany behaviour perfectly acceptable at these conventions with people indulging in outrageous poses and play-acting, leaving an indelible impression of tolerance, harmony and acceptance of difference and I ponder how truly blessed I am to have been part of Oz Comic-Con 2014.

Mairi Neil 2014

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