In today’s world, the words fashion and contemporary are often regarded as synonymous. Fashion is rooted in a desire to embody something new; new materials, new patterns, and new silhouettes often represent a dialogue of shifting social, political, and economic constructs. As a traditional era defined by the opposition between inherited traditions and modern innovation, the Victorian age is perhaps best represented by its clothing. The rapid development of mass marketing and consumer culture after the Industrial Revolution created an entirely new appreciation for both fashion and the contemporary. For the first time, the patterns and materials for popular clothing designs became widely accessible to all classes. Fashion as a cultivation of the latest, of-the-month trends, became a product of constant demand.
The Queen’s W.D. Jordan Special Collections Library houses a unique Canadian edition of the Young Ladies’ Journal published between 1872-1879. The collection is comprised of over 200 printed fashion supplements, which include full-size dress patterns, panoramic fashion plates, and needlework and embroidery design templates. The survival of such a large collection of these supplements is incredibly rare. As the majority of them were meant to be cut, sewn, or drawn over, few fashion supplements exist today in their original state.
This collection is important for several reasons. First and foremost, it provides an extensive volume of homogenous material. The majority of the supplements are created by the same lithographer and publisher, meaning that the format of the fashion plates and needlework and craft designs are consistent throughout the collection. This allows viewers to focus entirely on the illustrated content, making differences in fashion and design trends easier to spot and to compare across other supplements. When organized in chronological order, the supplements foreshadow a reaction against traditional women’s roles within the domestic sphere. 1870s fashion witnessed both the rapid development of new dress styles and the stagnation of innovative needlework designs. In particular, the drastic rise and fall of the bustle in popularity and the end of the domestic crafts movement demonstrate a consumer demand for more progressive clothing and occupations. The timeline exhibit explores these occurences in depth. Each of the chosen items highlights an important fashion or embroidery trend, while the accompanying text explains both the practicalities and implications of the resulting styles.
The collection also comments on some of the more general trends in Victorian consumer culture. Its major revelations fall under three broad categories; the production and publication of periodicals as a literary medium (Beetham and Boardman, De Ridder and Remoortel, VanArsdel and Vann), the societal impact of women’s roles within the domestic sphere (Boardman, Korte, Ledbetter, Loeb), and mass consumerism and the evolvement of fashion and needlework (De Ridder and Remoortel, Kortsch, Schaffer).
The structure of the Young Ladies’ Journal periodical is an accurate reflection of the genre of Victorian periodicals as a whole. Periodicals became an increasingly popular reading medium during the Victorian era, due to improvements in both mass distribution and public literacy rates (VanArsdel and Vann). The excessive volume of periodicals produced during this era legitimized the “professionalization” of popular occupations and hobbies, while their inclusion of printed illustrations engaged a wide range of audiences (VanArsdel and Vann). As a visual medium by nature, fashion lent itself well to the medium of illustrated periodicals. Fashion magazines issued their patterns and designs through additional supplements, which frequently took the form of fashion plates, large cut-out designs, printed sewing templates, or even additional magazines that ran after the allotted annual publication run (De Ridder and Remoortel). The Young Ladies’ Journal, being marketed for young girls between the ages of 13 and 25, falls under the broader category of young women’s periodicals. Its inclusion of both title and short-articles, paragraph articles, prose fiction, fashion plates and features, poetry, advertising, letters, and reviews of books and products mimic the appearance of these same genres in older women’s domestic magazines, indicating that the supposed general interest in these topics is generated beginning at a young age (Beetham and Boardham).
The content of the Young Ladies’ Journal supplements lends further insight to the influence of women’s roles inside the domestic sphere. Responsibilities available to most women were limited to household activities. In some ways, fashion merchandising reinforced female submission into a male-dominated society; crafts and sewing activities were meant to occupy all the leisure time for women of the middle class, while the products of these activities often remained the only source of income for working-class women (Schaffer). Fashion also polarized women from authoritative presence by using drastic colours and patterns to emphasize women as objects of a masculine gaze (Boardman). However, fashion merchandising also allowed an outlet for women to begin negotiating power structures. They were solely in charge of purchasing and sewing clothing for both themselves and members of their family, which allowed women a sense of economic responsibility (Loeb). Women who also sought to break free from the limitations of the domestic sphere used fashion periodicals to comment on the relationship between politics and appearance; as Victorian society progressed towards a movement in women’s rights, periodicals fuelled an interest in women’s history and historiography (Korte).
The evolution of Victorian women’s fashion and needlework combined societal influences with trends of mass production and consumption. The consumer patterns of material in the Victorian era were considerably widespread and varied in terms of both functionality and influence, as they reflected the wide range of demands across all classes. (De Ridder and Remoortel). However, some fashion and needlework trends remained consistently prominent in the Young Ladies’ Journal collection. The 1870s saw an increase in the use of corsets, bustles, and synthetic dyes in the creation of dresses (Korstch). The two former elements emphasized the structure of the idealized feminine figure, while meanwhile emulating this figure as an aspirational symbol of power (Korte). The recurring appearance of bright colours created by synthetic dyes reflects the influence of novel materials, as did the emergence of sewing and craft culture twenty years prior. Domestic needlework and crafts that appear in mass throughout the Young Ladies’ Journal once represented meaningful, productive labour for middle class women, however by the 1870s their novelty has worn off and they have become a staple, “wholly specular and pragmatic” product of mass production whose major continued value was of educational teaching for young girls (Schaffer).
Beetham, Margaret and Kay Boardman. Victorian Women’s Magazines: An Anthology. New
York: Manchester University Press, 2001. Print.
Boardman, Kay. ‘”A material girl in a material world’: the fashionable female body in Victorian women’s
magazines.” Journal of Victorian Culture 3(1) (1998): 93-110. Print.
De Ridder, Jolein and Marianne Van Remoortel. “From Fashion Colours to Spectrum Analysis:
negotiating femininities in mid-Victorian women’s magazines.” Women’s History Review 21(1) (2012):21-36. Online.
Korte, Barbara. “Between Fashion and Feminism: History in Victorian Women’s Magazines.” English Studies, Vol. 96, No.4 (2015):
Kortsch, Christine Bayles. Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy,
Textiles, and Activism. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009. Print.
Ledbetter, Kathryn. “Victorian Needlework.” Santa Barbara, Praeger: 2012. Print.
Loeb, Lori Anne. Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1994. Print.
Schaffer, Talia. “Novel Craft: Victorian Domestic Handicraft and Nineteenth Century Fiction.” New York:
Oxford University Press Inc., 2011. Print.
VanArsdel, Rosemary T., and Don J. Vann. Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1995. Print.