I often find myself wishing that I owned a stash of Victorian fashion magazines – perhaps those gorgeously volumnious bound editions that are practically bursting at the seams with patterns, tidbits and illustrated fashion plates. Sigh, there’s the dream. Until I have the luxury of even more shelf space, there are plenty of ways to make do and mend – and you don’t even need to scrimp on the detail. Mimi Matthews of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon Fame has an offering in the form of A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty – neatly slimline bound for your convenience and immediate perusal.
It was the age of ateliers and boy, was it an exciting chapter in the history of fashion. Who couldn’t be left feeling slightly spellbound by the flowery promise of a miracle cream, a pattern cut in the latest style or a Parisian parfum, all in a bottle cut from crystal? Granted, if I could go back and just try on the clothes without the risk of consumption/dysentery, I would in the flutter of a fan.
If you’re a costume drama aficianado, you’ll be no stranger to the great many changes to the silhouette in the Victorian era: From the giddying heights and bustling skirts of the high Victorian through the no-nonsense hour glass silhouette and cyclist pantaloons. For your pleasure, it’s all there in this neat little tome – charting the 1840s through to the 1890s by decade. Of course, being a creature of absolute fancy, I jumped in the 1850s and spent a good amount of time fawning over the full colour fashion plates – a tempting display of full ball gowns, crinolines, pagoda sleeves, engageantes and festooned roses a-plenty (for myself, that’s a real treat).
From the perspective of luxury consumption and material culture, Mimi goes to town on delightfully readable social history hors d’oeuvres – whether that’s the importing of exotic fabrics to satisfy the tastes of ladies of fashion or the advent of the sewing machine and its impact on freeing the would-be couturist in the comfort of her own home. Chapters 1 through to 6 are devoted to all things fashion and the outfitting of the ton. Included within are discussions on subtopics such as dress reform, health and feminism that reference contemporary excerpts from editions of the Morning Chronicle, Ladies’ Companion, satirical etchings and etiquette manuals to name but a few of Mimi’s sources.
The guide is a guide in every sense of the world as Mimi leads you through dress codes, rituals and etiquette in chapters on What to Wear and When to Wear it. Here, being recently engaged, I had a rather dreamy read through the Proper Dress for Marriage from a wholly indulgent perspective, which made me think that this little book would make a lovely gift for any bride-to-be! I’ll definitely be bringing my copy to along the Something Old Something New exhibition at Eastgate House (on the invitation of my fabulous cousin Mark who is to be one of my ‘Men of Honour’ along with his husband!)…
If you fancy swapping your carefully curated cosmetics (tailored to your skin-type) for miscellaneous powders, lotions, pomades and potions, then there’s a chapter for that! Of course, I wouldn’t recommend the laborious processes documented in the book unless it was for a very special occasion where you had a) a lot of time on your hands and b) perhaps a willing (or unwilling) ladies maid at your disposal for all that primping and preening. You’ll read this part of the guide knowing exactly how a Victorian woman of a certain class may have whiled away the hours.
I’d personally like to thank Mimi for an attentively researched and delightfully intriguing report on the styles, whims and, at times, woes of Victorian-era Fashion. She must have had a lot of fun throughout her own reading of nineteenth century beauty books, fashion magazines and lady’s journals! It’s a real pleasure being able to dip in and out of such a book and my own copy is now flagged with lots of page markers so I can recount astonishing anecdotes to equally astonished friends and family.
As I’ve seen with Dutch Dollhouse Culture in the 17th century, throughout history, women have found ingenious ways to express themselves creatively within the confines of a society that wasn’t always in their favour. I like to think that these days, how we dress is an extension of how we think and feel. A Victorian Lady’s Guide puts you into those corsets, crinolines, stockings that, in a significant way, shaped the existence of women living in a time that can feel distant to our own.