Museum Musings: Victorian Fashion at UVM’s Fleming Museum ~ “The Impossible Ideal”

It is really rather churlish of me to post about an exhibit that is no longer there – give you a sample of something you can’t anywhere find the full feast – but so I shall do because the exhibit closed right after I went and then the holidays intervened. But with the permission of the Collections Manager at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont, I shall show you several of the fashions that were on display at their recent “The Impossible Ideal: Victorian Fashion and Femininity” which ran from September 21 – December 4, 2018.

All the fashions are part of the Fleming’s collection and not usually on display. The exhibition of clothing and accessories, along with excerpts from popular American women’s magazines (Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine), explores “how fashion embodied the many contradictions of Victorian women’s lives, and, eventually, the growing call for more diverse definitions of women’s roles and identities.”

It is not a large exhibition, but each gown or corset has its own story: the fabric and accessory details, the history of the wearer, and how it reflected the times in Victorian Vermont. We see the changes during this “Victorian era’s ‘cult of domesticity’ and the idea that women’s place was in the home and not in the public sphere,” to later in the century, “when sleeker skirts, broader shoulders, lighter fabrics, and suit styles gave women greater freedom of movement reflecting increasing autonomy.” [Quoted text from the Fleming Newsletter, Fall 2018].

It is interesting to see the Victorian shift from the Regency era’s flowing and revealing dresses and wonder how women ever let that happen!

 

I will show you here some of my favorites: I’d like to hear which is your favorite from this small sample…

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Wrapper, c1850:
printed floral cotton with silk taffeta trim and embroidered buttons; a loosely-fitted at-home dress usually worn at breakfast

Have you always wondered why the Victorians had such a penchant for plaid? See below for some further reading on the subject…

White Wedding Dress, 1857:
off-white damasked silk taffeta with gold silk-fringe. Tradition has it that the trend to wear white for weddings began with
Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840
– but in reality, white was only used by the wealthiest of brides.
*

Ball Gown, 1860:
cream moiré silk taffeta with floral damask and trimmings in satin and lace

*

*Wedding Skirt (1865) and Afternoon Bodice (altered early 1870s):
yellow and green striped silk taffeta. This is a prime example of how even the wealthiest of women would have adapted their clothes to reflect fashion crazes or bodily changes.

*

Princess Cut Dress, c1870s:
purple silk taffeta with silk organza trim. The cuirass bodice, named for the chest piece on medieval armor was the latest fashion craze. And by the late 1850s, synthetic chemical dyes began to replace vegetable-based dyes, allowing for brighter, longer-lasting colors – and not entirely safe, as some of the dyes contained arsenic!

*

Opera or “Fancy Dress” Gown, 1875:
aubergine silk velvet, satin brocade bobbin lace, glass beads and tortoise-shell buttons,
and absolutely stunning in real life! (hard not to touch…)
*

Blue dress worn at UVM graduation in 1878:
silk taffeta with mother-of-pearl buttons

The University of Vermont began accepting women in 1871and in 1875 was the first American University of admit women into the honor society Phi Beta Kappa. This dress was worn by Ellen Miller Johnson (1856-1938) of Burlington Vermont – she majored in Classical Courses and graduated with the fourth co-educational class in 1878, one of three women in a class of seventeen.
*

Two-Piece Traveling Wedding Dress, 1885:
garnet silk satin with dark purple velvet and white bobbin lace, and I confess this to be my favorite – who can resist garnet and purple!


*

Two-Piece Suit-Style Dress, 1895:
black and red textured silk with white bobbin lace. The beginnings of a more masculine-mode of dress
*

Riding Habit, c1900:
brown wool broadcloth with black silk satin

 

And we cannot forget about the all-important unmentionables:

with a Brattleboro, VT advertisement from Brasnahan & Sullivan:

Which obviously gave the publisher this idea for a Persuasion cover (having literally nothing to do with the story but it’s worth a chuckle…)

And a few hats and shoes to finish off this exhibition:

***********************

All photos c2018 Deborah Barnum; with my thanks to Margaret Tamulonis, Manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the Fleming Museum, for permission to publish these images. If you have any interest in knowing more about a particular dress and who wore it, please ask me in a comment.

Select further reading:

c2019, Jane Austen in Vermont

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