Beneath the Carapace:
virtue versus sexuality, and other contradictions behind meanings imposed on English female shape and clothing in the 1860s.
Judith Lauretta Crozier
(My exegesis/thesis of 2007 for my Master of Creative Writing, Melbourne University. It’s not a long read, as the original included a couple of chapters of what was to become What Empty Things Are These. I didn’t include them here (though I’ve kept the abstract), as the title’s changed, the point of view has changed, and most of the characters’ names have changed. May as well just read the book!)
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements
of the degree of Master of Creative Writing
by Minor Thesis and Coursework
Creative Writing Department
School of Culture and Communication,
The University of Melbourne
‘… the condition of women in nineteenth century middle class
culture … is of supreme symptomatic interest…’ (Gay, 1984, p. 5)
This essay argues that fashionable women’s dress of circa 1860 expressed and symbolised the condition of women. It seeks to demonstrate how the construction of dress and the stylised shape it created contained the contradictory attitudes then prevalent regarding women and sexuality. Femininity is, after all, a psychological concept (Gorham, 1982, p. 5), meant to describe the ‘not-man’, the other in society; as Barnes and Eicher say, dress is both an indicator and a producer of gender (1992, p. 7).
The essay also discusses ways in which dress circa 1860 can be deconstructed to form a view of British middle class society and how it expressed its gender relations. This is a discursive discussion of themes and sources, seeking to establish philosophical and social contexts and then move to a detailed discussion of dress and underlying meanings.
I will examine the contradictions in attitudes to sexuality amongst bourgeois Victorians of circa 1860, as exemplified by bourgeois women’s dress, and discuss how a strong ambivalence toward sexuality was very much a feature of this class. Dress – especially the dressed middle class woman’s shape in 1860 – reflected and was symptomatic of attitudes that will be examined briefly in samples of popular fiction, relevant socio/political thought, and contemporary notions of manners and mores. These samples will be contrasted with the dress codes favoured by the Aesthetic Movement and ideological similarities and differences discussed therein.
- not only to establish English middle class women’s fashions (circa 1860) as symbolising a repressed view of female sexuality but also that they were symptomatic of cultural and social aspirations and confusions representative across the bourgeois class of the time;
- to examine specific representations of women’s fashions and body image through period diary extracts, etiquette manuals and select period literature, as well as pertinent contemporary socio-political views; and
- to demonstrate how, within a society caught up in its own contradictions, women represented the ‘silent other’ of tradition (Kristeva in Moi, 1986) yet also displayed – to themselves as much as to men – a complex, contradictory sense of self reflected in the very physical ‘shape’ they presented to the world.
My final goal is to establish English middle class women’s fashion of circa 1860 as symbolising not simply a repressed view of sexuality or of gender role, but a much more representative confusion on these matters as a broader reflection of the rapidly changing times themselves.
It would be impossible to reflect seriously on the interlinked and/or contradictory meanings behind the ritual and display of Victorian middle class women’s dress without drawing on samples of contemporary political, social and cultural sources, discussing their meaning and relationship to each other, and the themes they represent. There will be an analytical interleaving of attitudes revealed in
- contemporary literary examples (Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White (1999); M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1998) ; Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market (1859 and discussed in Scholl, 2002)), which contrast inherent contradictions in attitude to gender and sexuality;
- relevant political/sociological thoughts of Victorian thinkers (Herbert Spencer’s ‘Manners and Fashion’ (1854); Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833); John Ruskin’s Arrows of the Chace, Vol II (1880), Sesame and Lillies (1865) and The Political Economy of Art (1867); with a contrast suggested by the lusts of Charles and Fannie Kingsley, strangely reminiscent of self-mortifying medieval saints, as described in Susan Chitty’s The Beast and the Monk: A Life of Charles Kingsley (1974)). These texts demonstrate a mid Victorian pre-Marxian struggle with notions of patterns in society. Yet they fall back on dehumanising symbolism rather than tackling notions of gender and sexuality. Politico/social confusion implied in the display of middle class women’s dress in circa 1860 carried through to the pre-socialist Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s notions of aesthetic dress. The Pre-Raphaelites intended to critique bourgeois society, but in many ways ended by reflecting it;
- some contemporary expressions of manners and mores (Mrs Sarah Stickley Ellis’s The Women of England: Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839); Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House (1879); Alice Miles’s Every Girl’s Duty – The Diary of a Victorian Debutante (1992); Cynthia White’s Women’s Magazines 1693-1968 (1969)) which emphasised the ways in which middle class women represented, and were representative of, the values of their class; and
- some detailing of salient aspects (corset and cage crinoline) of bourgeois women’s dress itself.
These aspects will be augmented by discussion and analysis of
- relevant psychoanalytical sources (Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol 1 (1990); Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (1997); Julia Kristeva, (Moi 1986)) looking at mid Victorian attitudes and self presentation, the many meanings of display in an increasingly overt capitalistic society, and the position of ‘the other’ within it;
- sources examining the significance of dress, gender and body image (Valerie Steele’s Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (1985); Beatrice Fontanel’s The History of Corsets and Bras (1998); Linda Setnik’s Victorian Costume for Ladies, 1860-1900 (2001); Mary Poovey’s Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid Victorian England (1989); Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes (1988));
- recent historical discussion of Victorians, their codes and aspirations, and their sexuality/body image (Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2004); Michael Carter’s Fashion Classics from Carlyle to Barthes (2003); Anna Krugovoy Silver’s Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (2003); Patricia Anderson’s When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians (1995); Sharon Marcus’s ‘Reflections on Victorian Fashion Plates’ (2003)).
The following questions will be answered:
- How is the shape of the fashionable bourgeois woman in Britain of 1860 unique to and representative of the times?
- What meanings lie behind this shape and dress, and how are the times reflected in it?
The essay has been structured in two main parts (aside from this Introduction, and Conclusion), firstly to give a context for the main discussion and then to move to specific discussion in themed sections on aspects of dress, contemporary commentary on dress, and expressions of sexuality through dress.
This will comprise two chapters from a novel based in London of 1860. The main protagonist, Adelaide Bradley, is a soon-to-be bereaved woman of the upper middle class. The main plotline of the novel covers her dealing with an impending financial crisis, and her emergence into London rather like a new visitor, a tourist, now that she has (relative) independence and must find her own economic solutions. What she will do is very much influenced by her environment, her class, the times themselves, her city and her dress – and the attitudes and rituals that pertain to these. Gender, house, and dress, were heavily coded by middle class Victorians, and my aim is to present a character shaped by this code and acting within it.
In these chapters I will continue to examine my female characters’ development in a world that is fundamentally changing for them. Much of this I will express through a detailing of that world, which includes, as a fundamental influence, their dress and how this defines an approach to Victorian life its many contradictions for women. The narration will be in the third person, in a voice in keeping with the nineteenth century.
Influential literature has included A.S. Byatt’s Possession, A Romance (1990), Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1985), M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1998), Charles Dicken’s Little Dorritt (1982) and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988).
This is to certify that this thesis (critical and creative) comprises only my original work, except where indicated, and due acknowledgement has been made in the text to all other material use.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Critical Essay
The British Bourgeoisie circa 1860
– some social themes
– layers of symptomatic meaning circa 1860
The Critical Essay
The British Bourgeoisie circa 1860 – some social themes
The ‘symbolic economy’ and its domestic centre
Bourgeois London, circa 1860, was wealthy and powerful, caught between love and loathing of its own materialism. Paradoxically, proliferation of sexual awareness and prudishness existed side by side (Foucault 1990, p. 49). Certainly, by mid-century, the Victorian tendency to define, to codify all things including the sexual, is also reflected in the heavy symbolism applied to all the trappings of their status. Well might Mary Poovey refer to ‘the Victorian symbolic economy’ (Poovey 1989, p. 12). For example, the bourgeois home was, unlike its 18th century predecessors, balcony-free, heavily curtained and inward-looking. The design stressed privacy in the specific uses of each room – including bedrooms – and specified who was to use them. The home demonstrated economic and social success in its layout and furnishings, particularly of rooms meant for visitors; it stressed both the notion of family and the hierarchical relationships within them (Flanders 2004). Thus the bourgeois home spoke of material success and of virtue. Domesticity provided a complex symbolism for the middle class that legitimised its position (Poovey 1989, p. 10). This was the place, away from the strife of competition, where the successful bourgeois man demonstrated his balance: that his home was a refuge and a display both of his virtues and his achievements. His wife personified this by her unworldliness, her comportment, the undertaking of (non-working) housewifely duties and by her very dress.
Importantly, class lines had altered and blurred by mid-century. There were new strata of professionals and tradesmen working in often very new fields; it was an expanded middle-class whose parameters on the one hand rivalled the wealth of the aristocracy and on the other hand mingled with the upper echelons of the working class (Adams, in O’Gorman (ed) 1986, p. 50) – it was prosperous with a sense of superiority to the working class, yet was uneasy about the enormous disparity in Victorian living standards (Briggs 1999, p. 255). By 1860 it was a class with power rather than a class with pretensions to power – though carrying with it the disquiet of guilt.
Women – bourgeois symbol with mixed significations
The woman of the house was, in effect, one of the trappings of the bourgeois status; she was its symbol. The domestic, moral helpmeet role defined her place – a changed and narrowed one, as expounded by women’s magazines of the nineteenth century. This contrasted greatly with perceptions and images of women in eighteenth century magazines. Here was a new vision of womanhood, with a ‘profound effect upon the character of women’s magazines, narrowing their scope and eliminating all mental stimulus’ (White 1969, p. 42). A virtuous woman was asexual, unaware of self; her power lay in moral influence, and this would compensate her for any disadvantages (Poovey 1989, p. 8). Said Coventry Patmore of women’s loving morality in his Angel of the House (first published 1854), a seminal text for Victorians on women:
“But blindest love is sweet and warm
And full of truth not shaped by thought…”
Yet the woman at home was a maternal and therefore, by implication, a sexual figure, and sexuality implies awareness of self, a certain level of selfishness, an individuality. And sex, says Foucault, was fixed in the Victorian mind as: ‘…the omnipotent cause, the hidden meaning, the unremitting fear’ (Foucault 1990, p. 80). Foucault wrote that the Victorians categorised what they regarded as ‘perverted’ sexualities in order to take away fear and mystery (ibid, p. 43). This must also in part apply to their categorisation of women, of what was seen as their ‘natural’ function. All in all, ‘We could take all these things that were said, the painstaking precautions and detailed analyses, as so many procedures meant to evade the unbearable, too hazardous truth of sex’ (ibid, p. 53). Yet, with sex itself as endlessly symbolic and therefore powerful and to be feared, women’s bodies came to be defined as ‘saturated with sexuality’ (ibid, p. 105). There is a fearfulness in the way Victorians approached the issue of sexuality in women – having designated the body ‘as female, while the mind, spirit and culture have been designated as male’ (Krugoroy Silver 2003). They sought safety, perhaps, in a clarification-by-categorisation, so that ‘two classes of women, wife and whore, accounted for the socio-sexual division under the double standard’ (Millette in Vicinus (ed) 1972, p. 121). 
Unsurprisingly, an unrecognised dichotomy underpinned the symbolic function of Victorian women’s dress codes and a ‘contradiction between a sexless, moralised angel and an aggressive, carnal, Magdelen was therefore written into the domestic ideal as one of its constitutive characteristics’ (Poovey 1989, p. 11). An unresolved contradiction like this was a threat to those, particularly in a patriarchal society, attempting to find security in clearly defined relationships within a clearly defined hierarchy, since ambiguity implies the unknown. It informed both the way sexuality, and therefore women, were under surveillance (Foucault 1990, pp. 116-121) and the abjurations that they exert self-control (see, for example, Mrs Ellis (1839) and John Ruskin (1880; 1867; 1865) below).
If, as Lacan says, (Lacan 1977) the recognition of the self arises largely out of recognition of the other, then much is also implied about bourgeois Victorians, who set about so to define the other (women). There is also, of course, the question of what happens when you are the other. Kristeva’s notion of the ‘abject’ (Moi 1986), or the point at which we reject mother, is here particularly relevant, given that women in nineteenth century patriarchy must accept the rejection of ‘mother’, (arguably the quintessential ‘other’ in a patriarchy), while accepting that they themselves are ‘the other’. For women, the meaning behind the sexual yet asexual maternal archetype put forward by a patriarchy as an ideal imposed a destabilising ambiguity with regard to any self-assessment.
The overlap of old and new
The 1850s and 1860s were a time of unprecedented levels of literacy (60% by 1852, according to O’Gorman 2006, p. 2) in an urban environment where London’s population was burgeoning. Rich and poor were becoming more aware of each other than ever. This unsettling rate of change – along with the trend from agrarian to industrial economy and the consequent increased primacy of the middle class – may even be seen as having helped bring about the translation of women into a moral symbol, to define and advertise bourgeois virtue, to anchor and give shape to what the bourgeoisie wished to believe about itself. There was also a communications explosion, arising out of the transport revolution and developments in printing, in which women participated as readers and sometimes as writers. And, in 1869, the first tertiary institution for women, Girton College, was established.
Contradiction existed, then, in the expression of the status of women, and it would be a mistake to assume that a time of such massive development, in that ‘climate of such questioning’ described by A.S. Byatt’s character Ellen Ash in Possession, a Romance (1990, p. 223), did not include manifestations of social and sexual repression, a response to the unsettling implications of vastly changing times. Equally, it would be a mistake to assume that the flourishing of pornography and a sex-based underground magazine trade, or, as one writer has insisted, the use of euphemism in everyday language (Anderson 1995, p. 8) indicated a society that was in the throes of dumping its inhibitions. After all, the point about euphemism is the avoidance of direct reference because of taboos – as Peter Gay says: ‘…the whole country of the senses was befogged by delicacy’ (Gay 1984, p. 285) – and much of the point of pornography was (and still is) about denigration and (unequal) power, depicting a female victim and male perpetrator(s).
Dress – layers of symptomatic meaning circa 1860
Actress, audience and performance
What women wore in the 1860s, at a time when symbolism and metaphor expressed what the middle class wished to believe or have believed about itself, was itself layered with meaning. If women’s clothing is ‘a form of self-perpetuating fiction’ (Hollander 1988, p. xv), then here we delve into the story – the fiction – that the clothing of bourgeois women in England of circa 1860 had to tell.
There was heavy emphasis by then on women’s dress as bearer of a certain kind of statement, for men’s dress had become its antithesis – dark, monochrome, tending to the ponderous. To use Benjamin’s imagery, men were dressed as priests (Benjamin 1997, p. 67), whereas women’s dress, as will be shown below, was not just a material display of success, but also a statement both of sexuality and chastity – a symbol of the confusion of the middle class about itself, the brunt of which was born by women. As Valerie Steele said: ‘If a person clothes herself as if for a role, what is the relationship between actress and audience?’ (Steele 1985, p. 20)
Adolphus Braun’s photograph of the Countess Castiglione (Appendix 1) presents an image of the fashionable woman of circa 1860. There is a clear sense of display, of wealth as well as of a particular view of the feminine, and also the woman’s self-display. Consider the acculturated notion of the body – the implications of the complete cover-up, the pressing out-of-shape to create a parody of the woman’s body as in a guitar or a violin, a shape representing a woman’s body rather than being one, along with a suggestion of the autoerotic. The Countess was unusual, however, as a relatively forthright woman with some power at the Court of Napoleon III. Hill’s photograph (Appendix 2) is more representative of the middle-class ideal: young girls, very posed, evidently ‘good’, slightly out of focus, infinitely soft and pliant, and apparently unaware of their own sexuality.
David Octavius Hill’s young girls were representative of demure Victorian womanhood familiar from the 1840s, yet by 1860 there was also a shift in the fashionable female shape to a more emphatic sexuality. Steele (1985, p. 21) says that fashion does not merely reflect a prevailing culture, as in the Zeitgeist theory of fashion, but it is also a reaction to previous fashion. Thus Bourgeois female dress by 1860 follows a logic that includes a display-point for value-laden conspicuous leisure (Ibid, p. 19) in an increasingly prosperous and influential middle-class, and an increased emphasis on sexuality through symbolism and contrast with the priest-like male dress, to the point of caricature (ibid, p. 35).
Social critique and dress
To delve into some of the layers (sic) of meaning implied in women’s dress is to recognise the otherness imposed on women by a patriarchal society and, as a result, to address the chaos implied by the contradictory definitions about women. Thus Spencer’s theory that a more egalitarian society brought about a broader range of styles (1854) referred to (non-bourgeois) men, and did not recognise women at all; Carlyle felt that clothing and their style, the “Architectural Idea” (Carlyle 1987, p. 28) of dress, was born of an ‘inner impulse’ and characteristic of human endeavours (Ibid, p. 28), while – as an expression of class consciousness – he rejected dandyism as belonging to a self-indulgent aristocracy with implications of religious decline (Carter 2003, p. 12). He did not, however, specifically mention women’s dress either, possibly linking it to fashion, a subject area therefore too temporal for serious discussion (Ibid, p. 8).
Ruskin referred almost exclusively to women as symbol – either of an ideal society or of the industrialised society he was criticising (see especially The Political Economy of Art, (1867)). This in itself raises a Derridan point (Derrida 1978): that Ruskin’s ‘reading’ of women placed himself as signifier in the centre, that normative point which defines all else, rather than the signified. Ruskin assumed that women’s role and dress were of symbolic importance; that is, that women’s role and dress made important political and religious statements about the patriarchal society. He said that “Right dress” was God’s will, and women must be “… always as beautiful as possible.” (Ruskin 1880, p. 226). The notion of ‘right dress’ reflected the views of the avant-garde in the arts particularly, broadly including the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and William Morris, who advocated ‘rational’ or ‘aesthetic’ dress in their criticism of corsets, crinolines and fashion (Rockliff-Steiin, 2001). This movement in general was also a political one, which saw fashionable women’s dress as symbolic of the bourgeois class, while not, as a rule, recognising fashionable women’s dress as symbolic of bourgeois attitudes to women. Thus there was a strongly prescriptive aspect to Ruskin’s writing on women and dress, as shown in his reference to the Scriptural authority of Proverbs xxxi 22, 23 and Samuel i 24:
‘… the passages in the Prophesies and Epistles against dress apply only to its
abuses. Dress worn for the sake of vanity, or coveted in jealousy, is as evil
as anything similarly so abused. A woman should earnestly desire to be
beautiful, as she should desire to be intelligent..’ (Ruskin 1880, p. 227)
In The Political Economy of Art (1867), Ruskin had made comments about the conspicuous display of wealth through displays of fashion (1867, pp. 69; 71; 72 etc). But in wrapping assumptions about women in references to the authority of religion, he was denying the existence of ‘unformulated prior suppositions’ about women (Kristeva, in Moi 1986, p. 221).  It is axiomatic, of course, that women were not the owners of the wealth they were displaying, and that this was not acknowledged by Ruskin et al. Further, when Ruskin spoke of intelligence in women, he applied this to the notion of an education to fit women for the domestic sphere alone (Sesame and Lilies (1865)). For Ruskin, an intelligent woman was one trained as a helpmeet, just as it was the duty of a woman to be beautiful for the benefit of her husband.
Thus it was that influential thinkers such as Spencer, Carlyle and Ruskin fed into the prevailing bourgeois symbolic economy relating to women. These writers made assumptions about the superficialities of women’s fashion, evading analysis except insofar as fashion and female beauty could reveal the ‘importance’ of bourgeois display.
Ruskin’s distaste for ostentatious display echoes the bourgeois disquiet at its own materialism. Mrs Sarah Stickley Ellis was an influential writer on manners and mores for women. Ellis’s The Women of England: Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (1839), both expressed and helped to set the pattern for Victorian middle-class ideology and its consciousness about itself. She emphasised women’s roles as domestic representatives, as bearers of moral worth, and as champions for others (Ellis 1839, pp. 92-94). A woman must present herself well, as ‘A careless or slatternly woman… is one of the most repulsive objects in creation’, and while Ellis speaks of public opinion, in reality the judges are male, for ‘no power of intellect, or display of learning, can compensate to men, for the want of nicety of neatness in the women with whom they associate in domestic life’ (Ibid, p. 96). Ellis assures her readers that ‘the praise most liberally and uniformly bestowed by men upon the dress of women, is, that it is neat, becoming, or in good taste’. She bemoans the effect of ostentatious display by wealthier women upon poor people (Ibid, p. 97). Further to this is Ellis’s discomfort at the breakdown of class lines – too many women are classing themselves as ‘ladies’, and ought really to dress appropriately rather than risk being made ridiculous (Ibid, pp. 100-102).
Religion, politics and dress
Thus there is a shift in Ruskin’s critique of ostentation in dress, which took on a more particularly political tone – underscored by religion – than did Mrs Ellis’s simpler plea for better manners. Religion was a definer for many. It could lend gravitas to the expression of traditional views reinscribed for a modern audience, providing the authority for Ruskin’s views on women’s duty and how they must present themselves. It enabled Charles Kingsley and his fiancée Fanny Grenfell to come to terms with their mutual sexual attraction in language (and drawings) reminiscent of a medieval religious ecstasy (Chitty 1974), though nonetheless rather shocking for most contemporaries. But it could also prevent the pursuit of political logic in women’s issues: Christina Rossetti used the language of the fall and hope deferred in her poem The Goblin Market (1859) to allude to women’s restriction by society (Scholl 2003), yet felt she could not support women’s suffrage because of her loyalty to patriarchal Christianity (Everett 1988). Rossetti’s dress was plain because she was a self-denying reclusive of strong religious feeling, but it was pre-Raphaelite Jane Burden Morris (among others) who expressed a new-found aesthetic politic in dress, fully aware of the counter-symbolism of the uncorsetted, uncrinolined pre-Raphaelite garment photographed in 1865 (Appendix 3). The dress itself owed much to themes of medieval romance embedded in the Pre-Raphaelite ethos, a reaction against the ostentation of the industrial age and of social injustice, a pre-socialism that in its critique sought to redefine ‘beauty’ as part of its opposition to grotesque display. Early Pre-Raphaelite work was often sacramental in flavour, and Ruskin spoke fervently in 1853 of spirituality being restored through Pre-Raphaelite art, though post-1858 work published by Morris, Swinburne, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw the dissolution of religious motivations, according to Herbert Sussman, with the sense of opposition to materialism remaining (Harrison 1988). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – painters, writers and craftsmen – reinterpreted themes such as the sexuality or punishment of women so that there was a slight shift from the Victorian tendency to leave the burden for sexual transgression entirely with the woman. The allusion was to a perpetrator who was male (such as the lover in Tennyson’s lyric poem ‘Mariana’, or John Everett Millais’s painting of the same name, see Kim 2004) but, still, Pre-Raphaelitism held to the notion of the primacy of beauty, and that women were destroyed by sexuality, by sexual love, as punishment. For Victorians therefore, whether for and against the prevailing corseted fashion, sexual meaning and gendered role was attached to either style of dress, even while the ‘aesthetic’ version made its political statement about conspicuous consumption.
Yet those discoursing on broad politics also included some who mapped out some vigorous alternative views. One of these was John Stuart Mill, who, in his new proto-feminist critique of society, contradicted the prevailing emphasis:
‘..the great and continual exercise of thought which all women who attach any value to dressing well (I do not mean expensively, but with taste, and perception of natural and of artificial convenience) must bestow upon their own dress, perhaps also upon that of their daughters, would alone go a great way towards achieving respectable results in art, or science, or literature, and does actually exhaust much of the time and mental power they might have to spare for either.’(Mill 1869, p. 50)
Barbara Bodichon, feminist and member of the Langham Place Circle, which argued for dress reform, had already written in 1850, after a walking holiday in which she and Mary Howitt opted for practicality and comfort, turfed their corsets and shortened their skirts:
‘Oh! Isn’t it jolly
To cast away folly
And cut all one’s clothes a peg shorter
(a good many pegs)
And rejoice in one’s legs
Like a free-minded Albion’s daughter.
(Wojtczak, date unknown)
The corseted package
Although corsets for women had existed for centuries, their use had died away temporarily in the early nineteenth century in that brief post-French Revolutionary period with its Empire lines and body-revealing fashions, and had only returned with the rise of a more conservative, mercantile and religious European society. By circa 1860, corsets reflected a combination of improved technology in industry, such as the development of the steel hook-and-eye and of the compressing capacities of whalebone (Glasscock 2004). Corsets exemplified both an economic boom-period as well as an underlying, socially based (see above) pressure to lend an emphasised sexuality to the shape it gave.
The A-line was gone; the hourglass was in. Women’s shape was stylised; there was a codification in the shape itself, unspoken yet reminiscent of the nostalgic literary codes Victorian poetry ascribed to notions of female beauty, parcelled into clichés such as ‘lips like cherries’, or ‘skin like alabaster’ (as observed by Walter Benjamin 1997 edition, p. 69). If, as Benjamin says, fashion puts sexuality at a distance, where sexuality is made material or inorganic, then the corseted shape by the 1860s certainly aided this effect – the shape stylised female sexuality, yet the garment hid and enclosed the real person and her shape. Further, rather like the way in which women’s makeup in the mid twentieth century came to represent conservative conformity (‘I must put my face on’), the wearing of the corset became associated with modest decorousness, while the uncorseted aesthetic or rational dressers, linked with the avant-garde (such as the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), were associated by the conservative middle-class with sexual looseness (Steele 1985, p. 161). In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret, Lady Audley is revealed in all her unsettling, evil (and possibly mad) sexuality through the (significantly generic) pre-Raphaelite portrait of her:
“No one but a Pre-Raphaelite could have given to the pretty pouting mouth
the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait…. Her crimson dress,
exaggerated like all the rest, hung about her in folds that looked like flames…..
Indeed, the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in
the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colours
of each accessory of the minutely-painted background, all combined to
render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.”
(Braddon 1998 edition, p. 72)
We can assume perhaps that the Lady Audley of the portrait was without corset, thus representative of a Pre-Raphaelite licentiousness opposed to Braddon’s implied Victorian ideal of virtuous womanhood, though Braddon was too ladylike to say so. Wilkie Collins, by contrast, was less tentative, and indeed was mildly provocative. He presented the archetypal feminine ideal in Laura, in The Woman in White (1990 edition), but offset her meek prettiness with the character of her half-sister Marian. Marian is bright, assertive and brave, but unattractive, so that Victorian readers need have no fears that she would prove the romantic interest of the story. Nonetheless, she is by far the more interesting of the female characters and second only in interest to the hero himself. That she also does not wear stays is an interesting inclusion by Collins (who didn’t approve of them). This could be seen as decidedly sensual were it not that Marian was so safely unattractive, and we are presumably meant to continue in this understanding even when she strips down to petticoats in order more easily to shimmy along the guttering in the rain to spy on his (thoroughly bad) lordship and the count. It is significant and representative of the two coexisting yet opposing attitudes that the two novels were published within a year of each other and appealed to a similar readership.
Corsets were both supported (sic) and opposed – opposed not just by the proponents of ‘rational’ or ‘Aesthetic’ dress, but by many physicians (Setnik 2002, p. 10) and others, of whom Collins is an example. Many doctors simply opposed very tight lacing (Steele 1985, p. 167). Possibly apocryphal stories abounded about the harmful consequences of tight-lacing – such as that apparently reported in a Paris newspaper in 1859 about a young woman who died from a corset-perforated liver (Fontanel 1998, p. 53) – and concerned social commentators joined doctors in listing the damage corsets could do. Early French feminist Countess Drohojowska was one:
“How many instances of gastritis, of liver complaints, of migraines,
of anxious or unhappy moods might not easily have been cured, at first,
simply by loosening a corset lace…”
(Ibid, p. 61)
Proponents of the corset, in the meantime, emphasised what they saw as its moral aspect – a woman must wear one if she were to be considered decently dressed (Steele 1985, p. 161). Contradiction abounds here: Quite clearly, the corset – especially by 1860 – was a sexualising device (Ibid, p. 161), an emphatic exaggerator of the female form and means to its stylisation. It also indicated, both in practical and in symbolic terms, the role of middle class women – to be ‘spectacularly useless’ (Fontanel 1998, p. 53), and in being so to demonstrate social superiority, rather like the corseted aristocracy of previous centuries (Ibid p. 38). Significantly, the middle-class was by 1860 a powerful group encroaching on the traditional ground of the aristocracy, and the dress of women spoke of this – even while Mrs Ellis, Mrs Lytton and John Ruskin abhorred the culture of conspicuous display, of the power of the wealthy (and those who would like to seem so). Money does tend to find a way to proclaim itself:
“Everybody is determined to bankrupt himself. Never have appearances been so despotic, so imperious,
and so demoralizing. The Field of the Cloth of Gold, so to speak, is outdone by the luxury in which women live,
wearing whole estates on their backs.”
(De Goncourt Journals 1851-1870)
Much, evidently, was being packaged in the display that was women’s dress – and the packaging in itself was of significance. Whalebone stiffened not only the corset but also the under bodice and bodice (Setnik 2003, p. 43). The result was a hard, unbending shape that inevitably implied the soft, vulnerable body beneath. The corset’s supporters themselves frequently opined that the garment supported the breasts and ‘prevented the viscera from deforming the abdomen’ (Fontanel 1998, p. 62), or would help maintain posture (Ibid, p. 10) – as if, indeed, women were limp and mollusc-like. Linda Setnik says that women did come to rely on the support of corsets, after a lifetime of muscles weakened by continual compression (Setnik 2003, p. 9). 
Exactly how tightly laced corsets really were is a matter of dispute. Steele points out that the shape of 1860, with its pronounced bell-shaped skirt, accentuated the waist anyway and obviated the need for very tight lacing, and thinks that many accounts of extremely tight-lacing were pure fantasy (1985, 163). Tight lacing was defined as a waist-reduction of four or more inches (Ibid, 162). However, it is undeniable that habitual constriction by two or three inches would itself have its effect, not just in physical terms but psychologically. Steele says that a small minority argued for tight lacing (Ibid, 162), while Fontanel implies otherwise (see above). Yet, regardless of views on and practices regarding lacing, it is clear that Victorian women’s self-awareness was affected by clothing that restricted activity, constantly impinged upon the consciousness, and required a daily, time-consuming ritual in dressing.
Some also say that tight lacing could be ‘a legitimate form of sexual expression and self-assertion’ (ibid 161), but here Anna Krugovoy Silver’s emphasis on the cult of the slim, as it arose in Victorian times, is illuminating. The slim Victorian girl, says Silver, ‘emblematises the sexually pure and ethereal woman in Victorian discourse’. Unlike that of the fat, overblown anti-heroine, ‘The slender body became a sign not simply of the pure body, but of the regulated body’ (Silver 2003, p. 10). Thus, the underlying Victorian requirement of self-control by women takes on a darker aspect – and anorexia is born. The anorexic, says Silver, ‘develops a weak sense of self that collapses at puberty’. She finds a sense of control only in her own body and so ‘disciplining her body becomes her particular arena of mastery, and she considers her capacities for self-denial and self-discipline virtuous’ (Ibid, p. 5). Whether or not a Victorian woman or girl developed full-blown anorexia, the psychology is implicit behind the stress on waist in the stylised figure: corsetry implied tight-lacing, which of itself was ‘entrenched in erotic ambiguity, an emblem of female narcissism and submission’ (Hollander 1988, p. 213). Girls may have been asserting their sexuality through tight lacing, but they did so from within the confines of the Victorian symbolic economy, not outside it. After all, they were taught that:
“It is the duty of the fair sex to cultivate their personal attractions, as these are the chief ornaments
of the household, and stand in the same important relation to woman as mental endowments do to man,”
(Silver 2003, p. 29, quoting from The Science of Dress, 1956 [1856?],
London: Groombridge & Sons)
Yet the shape itself implied sexuality and corsetry implied eroticism, while Victorians required that women’s bodies must be subordinated to the will, to discipline and self-control (Silver 2003, p. 27). Thus it is arguable that young tight-lacers were unconsciously taking advantage of implicit contradictions, and were indeed making a statement about both their capacity for control, and about their sexuality. Ambiguity was a highly Victorian characteristic, however: defender of corsets, Madame de la Sante, warned that to eschew corsetry was tantamount to refusing to control one’s sexual behaviours and desires (Ibid, p. 40).
A further observation of the mid-Victorian corseted shape is that, while the waist (in theory) implied girlishness, the shape also implied as desirable womanly flesh on arms and hips, a paradox arising from the stylisation of the female shape (Ibid, p. 30). The bust rose to prominence at this time, and proceeded nearly to spillage point towards the end of the century (Fontanel 1998). The ideal was further divorced from the reality of the individual.
Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel The Woman in White (1999), in the meantime, strove to subvert. Like Laura’s alter ego, Marion is active, intelligent and independent and looks set, by the end of the novel, to live her life outside of matrimony. Her lack of bracing underwear is entirely in keeping with the symbolism of the times – it is corseted Laura who strives merely to please.
The Cage Crinoline
At its most basic, the cage crinoline – at its widest by 1860 – represented advances in industry. Here was a much less weighty means of achieving the mid-Victorian bell effect, through more effective use of wooden hoops, whalebone or thin, hooped bands of steel. This was an improvement on the previous horsehair version with its multitude of heavy petticoats – now only a couple were needed. The cage crinoline was also more easily stored, an advantage in houses whose sleeping quarters had shrunk in dimension through the proliferation of privacy requirements, new dressing rooms, new bathrooms and so on. Width was possible without petticoats, and, in fact, was now limited only by the capacities of technology and mass-production. Fashionable women’s skirts soon reflected Benjamin’s comment that: ‘Fashion is the predecessor – no, the eternal deputy – of Surrealism’ (1997, p. 60). Very wide and lightweight skirts also tended to blow up in the wind, which of itself encouraged the rapid development and use of underwear.
The response to the crinoline’s notorious instability in the wind was occasionally quite bawdy, particularly in the by-now widespread press. Benjamin refers to implications of ease of sexual access, implications reflected too in the fashion for perched-back bonnets (1999, p. 80), but very clearly there are also implications for the increased vulnerability of women. Such public discussion could be almost salacious – Patricia Anderson thinks it may have been Sir William Hardman, later editor of the Morning Post, who quipped: “Why may the crinoline be justly regarded as a social invention? Because it enables us to see more of our friends” (Anderson 1995, p. 13, though she gives no date), and forgets, in her use of this as evidence that Victorians could thus be seen as sexually ‘robust and passionate’ (Ibid, Introduction) that women ventured outdoors in collars, long sleeves, shawls, gloves and, frequently, veils. Perpetual self-consciousness is implied by this head-to-heel packaging, even while it is true that concealment of women’s bodies, as it always had and has done, emphasises of itself women’s sexuality. With the anticipated lifting of veil and paletot, there is the ‘real erotic appeal of concealment and display’ (Steele 1985, p. 37), but, in 1860 certainly, the potential for sexual display also implied vulnerability.
Arguably, too, some at least of the impetus for snickering references to women and women’s wear arose from actual antipathy. Says Peter Gay: ‘One thing is certain: no century depicted woman as vampire, as castrator, as killer so consistently, so programmatically, and so nakedly as the nineteenth’ (Gay 1984). It was a time when ‘the rapid and intemperate response of male publicists to women’s conclaves and women’s demands strongly suggests that feminist activity gave shape to men’s anxieties just as men’s anxieties fostered, and shaped, feminist activities’ (Ibid, p. 207). John Stuart Mill notwithstanding, Thomas Carlyle was the more representative of male thinking in saying: “no woman has any right to complain of any treatment whatsoever,” and should “patiently undergo misery” (Ibid, p. 207, from a report by John Everett Millais to Mrs George Gray, May 10, 1854). In this environment the idiosyncrasies of the most fashionably wide crinoline gave ample ammunition for ridicule.
An unruly crinoline, though lighter to carry, did not make life easier for women whose role (and reputation) relied on self-control, with all the implications for repressed sexuality that this includes.  It did, however, serve very well to display the wealth implied in yards of cloth and accoutrements. Middle class women’s dress was a display, and understood to be such. 
The crinoline at its peak amply illustrates Benjamin’s reference to the surreal in fashion. A most effective frame for display, the crinolined dress took up possibly more space than women’s dress had ever done or has done since, and thus asserted the wealth and influence of he who could afford this garment. Further, the effect overall was of sumptuousness – an implication, entirely untrue, that this width hid a king’s ransom of petticoats instead of an expanse of air. Rather like the plaster columns and false frontages of graceful ant-bellum homes in the cotton-belt of America, it told an exaggerated tale.
Dress as sexual advertising
The display of fashionable women’s dress served not only to advertise the success of the patriarch; for girls, it also served as an invaluable adjunct to the search for a husband. Firstly, of course, it advertised gender (Barnes and Eicher 1992, p. 7), and then the material success of the girl’s family. Beneath all this was the underlying statement about sexuality.
Victorians held to the romantic ideal too, something that helped emphasise the concept of the ‘feminine’ and that a girl’s highest aspiration was to marry for love. This may seem a break with a past where, even in Regency times, marriages were routinely arranged (Hodge, p. 1996). Yet a Victorian girl’s choices were limited: she must love only a suitable suitor (Gorham 1982, p. 53), and, given marriage was an economic necessity, economics must play a large part in deciding this suitability. As ever, contradiction abounded: the family – as exemplified by its home – was meant to be ‘an area sealed off from competition’ (ibid, p. 53) and competition was, in any case, most unfeminine (ibid, p. 54), yet a girl must compete for a husband. The ideal was selflessness, and this was set against the image of the ‘aggressive husband hunter’ (ibid, p. 54). The assertion of self in the attraction of a potential husband risked the implication of sexual awareness so that ‘she was in imminent danger of becoming unchaste’ (ibid, p. 54). And self-assertion, bespeaking of necessity the sexually aware individual, contradicted Patmore’s template of the ideal, selfless girl:
The lack of lovely pride, in her
Who strives to please, my pleasure numbs,
And still the maid I most prefer
Whose care to please with pleasing comes.
John Ruskin and Mrs Ellis were representative of those calling on bourgeois women to control their ostentatious display. So was Mrs Lytton, who was caustic about the search for rich husbands by ‘idle, scheming middle-class girls … being no better than prostitutes’ (Gorham 1982, p. 54), even while W.R. Greg of the National Review in 1862 felt that unmarried women were ‘redundant’ (ibid, p. 53). Alice Miles, in the meantime, was seventeen and on the verge of stepping into that ultimate theatre of display – the London season in the 1850s – when she wrote: “I consider it every girl’s duty to marry £80,000 a year” (1992). Miles, however, was an aristocrat and beyond the class-based self-consciousness of the Bourgeoisie. She was safe from the criticism aimed at parvenu families who educated their daughters ‘above their station’ in order to ‘make upwardly mobile marriages’ (Gorham 1982, p. 52).
The almost impossible position many girls were in arose not just from the contradictions inherent in the asexual sexuality they must somehow live up to, but also from the instability of traditional class lines at a time of economic prosperity and expansion of capitalism. The strong sense of movement within the class system, as well as the economic imperative on the individual, meant there was pressure to rise in the ranks, to improve one’s station in life. Yet this was overlaid by a guilty self-consciousness brought about on one level by reaction to ostentation and augmented by the rise of a class-conscious politic, and on another level by the ongoing pervasiveness of traditional class views: that one should not rise above one’s allotted station. The boom in communications brought with it a cross-class influence in the form of fashion-plates, which served to link women into their own community, but also added another layer of complication to the mid Victorian understanding of the bourgeois female role (see Appendix 4), besides cementing the role of display in gender.
Peter Gay says, ‘… the condition of women in nineteenth century middle class culture … is of supreme symptomatic interest…’ (Gay, 1984, p. 5). This thesis supports that view, and, further, posits that the dress of British bourgeois women – representing, literally, how women were seen, as well as, very directly, the environment in which they existed on a daily basis – is, when analysed, a direct pointer to the condition of women. A close reading of meanings attached to fashionable dress of British bourgeois women circa 1860, as expressed in literature, pamphlets, etiquette manuals and by leading social and cultural thinkers, discloses a strong underpinning of contradiction and ambiguity in attitudes. Such contradiction and ambiguity in themselves were reflections of attitudes and aspirations prevalent at the time – attitudes and aspirations not just particularly relevant to women’s sexuality and their role, but also to a bourgeoisie increasingly influential yet self-conscious about their own moral worth.
Women’s dress displayed bourgeois success (including bourgeois industrial inventiveness), bourgeois self-consciousness, and bourgeois fear of the sexualised individual compressed beneath the carapace of the corset. Analysed in this thesis with close attention to the context of the nineteenth century, British bourgeois women’s dress thus represents an artefact that carries with it a complex of meanings specific to its environment and its times. The fashionable female shape of 1860, along with the structures – crinoline and corset – that brought it about, are a pointer to sexual and social history whose great value perhaps has yet, with the exception of some modern writers on history and/or fashion, to be fully appreciated.
Appendix 1. Appendix 2. Appendix 3.
Fashion plates, sexuality and the community of women
According to Sharon Marcus, fashion plates peaked between 1840-1870, while increased ease of printing and transport led to an increase in journals and their readership. The Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine reached 50,000 readers per issue by 1860 (Marcus 2003, p. 4). The theatricality of fashion was thus extended; the audience and its role changed because of the medium. If fashion puts sexuality at a distance, with sexuality made material and inorganic (Benjamin 1997 edition, p. 69), what occurs with the rise of fashion plates, and how does this relate to the meanings behind the shape of fashionable dress in the 1860s?
Benjamin says: ‘To be contemporaine de tout le monde, that is the keenest and most secret satisfaction that fashion can offer a woman’ (ibid, p. 66), and fashion plates extended a sense of group identity for Victorian women that almost cut across class as magazines appealed to an increasingly broader demographic. Fashion plates helped to identify the group, the idea of a collective articulated every time a woman viewed a fashion plate and what was reflected in it. Each fashion plate implied the setting of parameters for the group, that fashionable group, where, Benjamin says, self-expression or self-assertion is permitted to a degree, ‘but control by and criticism by the group is the price both of inclusion and self expression within the parameters’ (ibid, p. 66). On the face of it, fashion plates were complicit in the Victorian woman’s constant efforts to remain beautiful, as was her duty, but within this, the psychology of the group and its capacity for social control (inside the group), as well as the psychology of looking, gave the rise of the fashion plate’s additional layers of meaning.
Sexuality as expressed in fashion plates and the burgeoning activity of looking began with the emphasis fashion plates themselves gave to gender difference. Dress helps define gender (Barnes and Eicher 1992, p. 7) and here, by circa 1860, this definition was being reiterated constantly in the pages of every journal and newspaper. Yet, since the Victorian view that masculine sexuality was supposedly inherent while female sexuality was dormant (Poovey 1989, p. 6), there was the obvious problem of contradiction: behind any emphasis on gender, particularly where women represent beauty, must breathe a persistent suggestion of sexuality.
Yet that sexual message was one given specifically to women, in the first instance, as the viewers of the pictorial display. There is a sensuality in dress, in the sum of its parts which include the feel of material and its cut, that attracts attention to the fact of the body, that becomes almost an extension of the body and of the wearer’s body image. Barnes and Eicher comment that dress ‘has an impact on the viewer, but also on the wearer’ (1992). Fashion plates bore a sensual message for their viewers because these viewers were also potential wearers. Sharon Marcus makes a strong link between fashion plates and pornography, saying that the overlap:
‘existed because both were organised around soliciting attention and creating excitement … Both fashion and pornography invoked the sensual appeal of fabrics and ornaments; emphasized the display and concealment of the body; and dramatized self-discipline and the internalisation of prohibitions, mirrored by shame, excess, and transgression.’ (2003, p. 2)
Marcus argues that the eroticism plainly at work behind the scenes in fashion plates was a homoerotic one, saying that, because they were aimed at and absorbed by women, the plates were similar in intent to pornography. She justly comments: ‘to market femininity to women is to use hyperfeminine objects to solicit a female gaze and to incite female fantasy’ (2003, p. 1). Yet eroticism can be and often is a generic thing, here expressed in the individual 1860s woman whose gendered self was being emphasised, whose sexual self and any narcissistic tendencies was being endorsed by the group, by being the designated first-point viewer of the fashion plate. It could indeed be argued that pornography lay lightly beneath the fashion plate (ibid, p. 2), but this intimated the existence of female sexuality per se. Each fashion plate, as a rule, featured two women active in some setting – in the park, at the ball, in the street – each with generalised, identical facial features, together but not together in that they never looked at each other. The viewer could easily read herself into the setting, and so this gaze was female, as Marcus points out in opposition to the view that fashion plates presented objectified women for the gaze of men (ibid, p. 4). The inference however, was that a male gaze was the eventual aim, a prospect hovering around the outskirts of the group whose parameters fashion plates was helping to define. This added a dimension which must not be ignored – given male definition of women lay behind much of female definition of themselves. This even though homoeroticism suggests itself to us, in 2007, in the fashion plate ‘structure of looking, in which women consume images of women’ and ‘represent women whose relationship is undefined and uncontained’ (Ibid, p. 5).
The ambiguity behind fashion plates itself reflected that of societal views and representations of women, but they also made a statement about women as a group, as a community. In the shelter of this community – even while the male gaze and sovereignty waited at the gates, and rules about individual self-control and conformity to the group echoed those society imposed upon women – there was stressed an eroticism that could, ever unstated, exercise itself through the media of dress and the group, and through this an identity with the self and with femalehood.
Fashion plates built upon rituals associated with dress – of the ritualised pursuit of dress items newly approved by the group and of the act of dressing itself. E.P Thompson speaks of concepts of time and space changing with the development of an urban, clock-based society as opposed to the rural, season-based community (1967, pp. 56-97), and the concept can be applied to leisured time, of women’s time in a life of domestic or leisure tasks rather than clock-based male business. In part, this women’s time was expressed in the act of display – a parade in which each of the pictured figures of fashion plates took part.
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 At worst, Victorians believed that ‘women’s sexuality is diseased, sex is evil because women are sex…’ (Masson, 1986, p. xi). This explains the pathology behind many nineteenth century psychiatric and medical practices, particularly toward women – Masson’s A Dark Science (1986) includes an 1865 article by Gustav Brown: ‘The Amputation of the Clitoris and Labia Minora: A Contribution to the Treatment of Vaginismus’ (Ibid, p. 128).
 The Derridan notion that we can tell much from what is not mentioned is useful here, where the categorization of women according to their expression of sexuality – and the condemnation of those that do openly express sexuality – implies an underlying fear based on uncertainties surrounding women’s otherness. For example, the great social researcher Henry Mayhew felt that some lower class women experienced sexual desire, which was a problem that must be contained, because otherwise this would be the ‘driving force behind all crime, poverty and social disorder’ (quoted in Poovey 1989, p. 15).
 Ruskin began with supposition – rather like French scientist P. Broca in the 1860s and 70s, who held the premise that the white male was the most intelligent out of both sexes and all races, and then set out to prove it (Gould 1996, p. 117).
 Thus life came to imitate art, so to speak, in this and other instances such as the permanent incapacity induced by the design of sleeves, which restricted arm movement but made a girl look very demure (Ibid, pp. 44-45).
 This, added to the actual hazard a wide skirt posed next to a fire or a delicate piece of china, could be one major reason for the rapid morphing of crinoline into bustle during the 1860s and beyond.
 There were strong elements of this not quite a century later, when the ‘New Look’ – wide skirts, cinched waists and prominent bustlines – made a sensual and materialist declaration about times of plenty after the privations of war and, interestingly, did this while robust intellectual developments coexisted with repressive conservatism in both governmental and gender politics.