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…


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

Guest Post: Jane Austen’s Sanditon ~ A Talk by Eric Lindstrom for JASNA-Vermont

Gentle Readers: I welcome today Theodora Ziolkowski, * a student at the University of Vermont, who attended our JASNA-Vermont event on April 15, a talk on “Jane Austen’s Sanditon” by UVM Professor Eric Lindstrom.

Theodora wrote a piece for the UVM student newspaper The Cynic, and I append it here with her permission.  Always joyful to see young people at these events, and Theodora brought her friend Dan Bishop along as well – a young man with an interest in Jane is not an everyday occurance, so we were all doubly pleased to have them both in attendance!

The day started off with what is every organizer-of-an-event’s worst nightmare:  a major misspelling in the sandwich board signage that announces the talk on the street [on three corners of the campus] – I did not at first notice the signs while I was busy setting up for the day, but it was pointed out to me by some early-birds, and the inital shock of realizing my error of giving signage info over the phone rather than by email hit home hard – so

 “Jane Austen’s Sanditon”

was broadcast to the world as

 “Jane Austen’s Fanditon”

– that old “S” and “F” confusion over the phone, now permanently in print for all the world – and thankfully here photographed by one of our members – it did of course end up being the hit of the day – people thinking we had a full fan-fest in the works!  – and now I am thinking it would make for a great title for such an all-day event!

[Courtesy of Sarah at Two Girls Fishing]

Now on to Theodora’s essay on the talk, with thanks for her insightful commentary!:


Jane Austen’s “Sanditon”  –  A Talk by UVM Professor Eric Lindstrom for the Jane Austen Society of North America, Vermont Region – April 15, 2012.

by Theodora Ziolkowski 

Soft chamber music, peppermint bonbons, cucumber sandwiches and steaming cups of English breakfast tea: all means of transporting a community of Jane Austen fans to rural nineteenth century England.   

On Sunday, April 15th, the Hauke Conference Center at Champlain College held yet another event for the Vermont chapter of “JASNA,” the Jane Austen Society of North America. “Janeites,” or declared Austen enthusiasts, gathered in the Champlain College building to celebrate a shared admiration for a beloved writer.

The sunny afternoon event began with students and JASNA members filling up their plates and mugs for the talk.  Many milled about the tables of Austen memorabilia items for sale, including calendars, paper dolls, bookmarks and notecards.  Others stood in tea-drinking circles to speak with fellow Austen enthusiasts. 

Deb Barnum, JASNA-Vermont Regional Coordinator, introduced the event, the novel and UVM Professor Lindstrom, the event speaker.  Lindstrom’s talk, “How to Love ‘Sanditon’” revolved around Austen’s last and unfinished novel.  The [twelve]-chapter manuscript was first published by editor R. W. Chapman in 1925, many years after Austen’s death in 1817. 

Eric Lindstrom

Lindstrom began his talk sharing internet clips of Austen-related interviews and pictures, including a photograph of a Peep diorama entered for the competition held by the Washington Post

Peep Show – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

 [image from Jane Austen Today]

Lindstrom also showed a watercolor of Austen painted by her sister, Cassandra, in which Austen is seen only from the back.  The “history and mystery” of this faceless Jane, Lindstrom said, contributes to the appeal of this visual representation of the novelist. 

For a novel boasting a brief fifty pages, “Sanditon” offers an unavoidable contrast to the marriage plot typical of Austen novels.  The absence of the marriage plot leaves room for readers to study Austen’s temperament, Lindstrom contended.     

In “Sanditon,” we find a more ironic vision—a “book that might leave Austen readers cold,” Lindstrom said in his opening remarks.  In the novel, two towns echo one another, a trait indicative of the changing English national character, Lindstrom said.  “Sanditon” can thus be considered a “condition of England novel,” or a storyline where housing and the quest for perfect health exist at its heart.   

The novel’s characters themselves are caricatures, and the thematic obsession with illness and the decaying body can be seen as contributing to what Lindstrom depicted as the “menacing” mood of the novel.

Lindstrom described “Sanditon” as understanding beyond its limitations of England. Even the name, “Sanditon,” suggests an “un-foundational” place –   Austen, he pointed out, is discreet in the novel: she had to pretend the world was better than it was at the time. 

The Vermont branch of JASNA hosts many events throughout the year, including talks and an annual birthday tea. 

[This article also appeared in the online version of The Cynic here.]


Theodora and Dan

Theodora Ziolkowski, an English major and Film and Television Studies minor, will graduate in May from the University of Vermont (UVM). Theodora has served her four years as an undergraduate as an editor for Vantage Point, the student-run arts and literary journal at UVM. She recently began writing for The Cynic, the UVM student newspaper, for which she writes reviews and a poetry column for the Arts pages. A lover of writing, books and good coffee, Theodora wrote a manuscript of poetry for her senior honors defense. Her love for Jane Austen began in high school when she became enchanted by Elizabeth Bennet and her world of sisters, elegant dances, piano-playing, and romance.

[Theodora tells me that her first date with Dan was watching the DVD of her favorite Austen novel – Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility! ]

Copyright @2012 Jane Austen in Vermont