This article challenges scholars to look beyond conventional audiences for Victorian studies and to go beyond conventional subjects, into the world of Victorian and Neo-Victorian fashion. It holds up the career of Dr. Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, as a model for how to conduct historical research into Victorian clothing and how to bring the results of that research to a broader public. It encourages academics to use the Internet to connect with a non-academic public that is already engaged with the Victorians through the medium of clothing, and it urges readers in general to see Neo-Victorian “mashup” dressing as an opportunity for serious exchange of knowledge about nineteenth-century culture.
On my shelf sits a copy of Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age (1985), now nearly twenty-five-years-old. Unlike many academic texts that I own, this hardcover book shows signs of frequent use, and some pages are dog-eared, including one that contains a memorably insightful analysis of an 1877 fashion illustration. The section I’d marked begins with a description of what the two female figures in the drawing are wearing, including the colors of the material, the type of decorative trim on their dresses, and the construction involved. What follows are thoughtful questions, meditation, and speculation about the meaning of the two garments, particularly about their erotic subtext, all grounded in impressively detailed knowledge of nineteenth-century taste, culture, and sexuality, as well as dressmaking techniques:
How might these styles be read? The bow on the derriere obviously serves to call attention to that part of the anatomy, and was a common feature on evening dress of the period. The bows running up the front of the pink dress look like fastenings (though they are not), and call to mind the images of the dress opening down the front. It is unlikely that the bows are icons for knots and thus symbols of bondage. The lacing up the back of the yellow dress, however, clearly recalls corset laces and would have obvious connotations of undress. . . . Decorative diagonal bands could be signs that signify movement, as could tassels which were also popular in the 1870s and 1880s. On the other hand, since Oriental art was something of a vogue . . . the use of asymmetrical decoration could reflect an awareness of Japanese design.Steele 64
The same combination of careful attention to historical fact and informed musing on material objects distinguishes this study as a whole—which, to the delight of anyone interested specifically in the Victorian world, features a nearly one-hundred-page-long discussion titled “Fashion and Erotic Beauty in the Victorian Period,” covering everything from Pre-Raphaelite ideals of beauty to the principles of the Rational Dress reform movement, along with another thirty pages devoted to “The Corset Controversy.” Sixty pages of useful endnotes and bibliography conclude the volume, with the latter containing such invaluable extras as lists of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century British, French, and American fashion periodicals. Looking now at the inside flap of the dust-jacket and re-reading the publisher’s description of this book, I see that the anonymous writer of the advertising copy got things right in calling the author’s methods “sensible and precise—a far cry from the usual prurient and anecdotal histories of sexuality” and in praising the “conclusions . . . based on prodigious documentary, visual, and material research . . . set within a sophisticated interpretive framework.”
When I think of books that represent interdisciplinary scholarship as I would like it to be practiced by future generations of Victorianists, this one always comes to mind, and I wish I could assign it to my students as a model text. But I can’t. Oxford University Press published it in 1985 in hardcover format only, not paperback, and never reissued it, so it remains out of print today. Used copies for sale on Amazon.com begin at seventy-five and go up to two hundred dollars, depending upon condition, indicating that its initial print run was not a large one. If it is now beyond the means of impecunious undergraduate and graduate students, it is equally out of reach for most members of the general public, who may never encounter this example of how historical information about the Victorians can be turned into an absorbing narrative on two subjects—dress and sex—that connect with everyday life of the past and present alike.
But if the book has become scarce, that doesn’t mean the author of it has disappeared from the scene. On the contrary, the twenty-something academic with the sweet expression, whose photograph is reproduced inside the dust jacket and who is identified there as having “received her Ph.D. in history from Yale University in 1983,” is now the ubiquitous doyenne of Fashion Studies, Valerie Steele.
Looking very much the urban diva and trendsetter, she is likely these days to turn up on television being interviewed by Oprah or in the pages of the New York Times (where, indeed, she has been profiled by Elaine Louie as the “High-Heeled Historian”). In the years since Fashion and Eroticism, she has founded and has continued to edit Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, which is published by Berg; she has written a raft of books on topics ranging from the work of the designer Ralph Rucci to the history of the black dress, many of them tied to exhibitions; and, perhaps most important, she has been the chic public face of the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where she serves as Director and Chief Curator. In that last role, she has successfully attracted and entertained, but also educated, an audience much broader and more numerous than the one for scholarly monographs.
Looking back at the direction of her own career, she once explained to a reporter that,
‘In academia, fashion is frivolous, sexist, bourgeois, materialist and beneath contempt,’ Ms. Steele said. But one day in 1978, she was taking a seminar on European history when a classmate gave a presentation on the Victorian corset. . . . The proverbial light bulb went on. ‘I could have this new field in cultural history, in material culture, and study gender, sex and social psychology in fashion,’ Ms Steele said.Louie 6
Could she “have [had] this new field” as a professor of Victorian studies in a history or literature department at a traditional U.S. university in the 1980s, 1990s, or even in this post-millennial decade, rather than as the head of an institution sometimes seen as a trade school for future leaders of the garment industry? Or would she have had to relegate fashion to a side interest in her teaching—to something introduced briefly as part of a standard nineteenth-century survey course, not as the topic of a separate seminar—and to a research subject to be pursued safely only after she had earned tenure and promotion? Would she, moreover, have been able to curate museum exhibitions, too, for the general public, or would those have been frowned upon as “frivolous” distractions from the serious business of Victorian scholarship? Have conditions changed all that much since Elizabeth Wilson declared, in Adorned in Dreams, her groundbreaking study from 1985, the same year as Steele’s Fashion and Eroticism, “Because fashion is constantly denigrated, the serious study of fashion has had repeatedly to justify itself” (47)? Is it still justifying itself within Victorian studies, even as the latter field becomes increasingly interdisciplinary?
In 2002, under the rubric of “Editors’ Topic: Victorian Fashions,” the Cambridge University Press journal Victorian Literature and Culture published a group of nine essays on matters ranging from the significance of jewelry in Middlemarch, to the implications of “Quakerish” dress in Jane Eyre, to riding habits and clothes for nineteenth-century horsewomen. This was an unexpected and quite fascinating assemblage, and it raised hope (at least in this reader) that the authors of these excellent short studies would produce further and fuller works in the field of Victorian fashion—that they were not approaching these projects merely as discrete, one-shot efforts. But recent Amazon.com and Google searches show that only one of them appears to have gone on to write a monograph about clothing or to teach related courses. The one exception, moreover, is a faculty member in a School of Fashion—someone employed in a program that, like Steele’s FIT, combines history and theory with practical training in design as part of its curricular structure. The other eight writers, who seem not to have continued their advances in the field of Victorian fashion studies, are connected to literature departments.
This pattern, which suggests that sustained study either of actual Victorian clothing or of fictional representations of it has yet to find a permanent place in academic research or teaching about the Victorians, is scarcely an anomaly. The well-reviewed Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World (2000) offers much information not only about the discovery of aniline dyes in 1856, but also about its use in shawls and crinolines; its author, Simon Garfield, is a journalist and freelance writer rather than an academic. Some of the most illuminating recent writing on the importance to nineteenth-century novels of how their characters are clothed occurs in Clair Hughes’s Dressed in Fiction (2006), which devotes four of its nine chapters to Victorian texts such as Pendennis, The Woman in White, and Lady Audley’s Secret. Once again, though, this work has been accomplished by someone neither in a history nor an English department; Hughes is instead identified as “an independent scholar.” At the time that The Cut of His Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860–1914, an excellent study of late-Victorian gentlemen’s shopping and sartorial choices, was published by Ohio University Press in 2006, Brent Shannon was a visiting faculty member in an English department; as of Fall 2009, he continues in a visiting appointment, rather than a permanent one.
Why does this matter? By neglecting or marginalizing the analysis of clothes
—whether those actually worn by Victorian men and women or those represented within Victorian texts
—and by excluding the topic of fashion from most undergraduate and graduate classes in nineteenth-century studies, what have we in academia been missing? For one thing, we have lost out on the possibility of attracting large numbers of students, the very sorts of populations that have flocked to exhibitions produced at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum and, increasingly in recent years, at museums of art.
For another, we have failed to establish bonds with professionals in other kinds of cultural institutions, especially with curators, who would benefit from our historical knowledge and our support as much as we would benefit from theirs.
The movement towards incorporating clothing in exhibitions, as Fiona Anderson explains in “Museums as Fashion Media” (2000), has in part been “stimulated [by] anxieties about funding and declining visitor numbers”; the “need to address an ‘audience’” and the desire to draw bigger crowds into the galleries have “become fundamental parts of the climate in which many curators of dress are working” (372). But even in the world of art museums, as opposed to institutions founded specifically to display past or current fashion, anything that puts the spotlight on the subject of clothing remains controversial. In her article titled “Dress Sense” for the Atlantic magazine of May 2007, Virginia Postrel sums up the problem: “fashion collections throughout the country are enjoying a new prominence”; yet, as she notes, “despite huge public interest—or perhaps because of it—fashion departments still find themselves constantly required to justify their existence.” She tells a cautionary tale, moreover, of the “comment book” accompanying a fashion-based exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which “records a debate between fans . . . and detractors,” the latter of whom “decry” the museum administrators’ decision to present clothing in such an environment. “‘What’s next?’” writes one of the anti-fashion crowd, “‘Victoria’s Secret Xmas Collection?’’(Postrel 133).
Outside of a museum space such as FIT, which was already dedicated to the display of fashion, Valerie Steele’s determination to decode the “secrets” of actual Victorians from what they wore might have met with similar hostility, just as it might have encountered indifference, if not resistance, within an academic program in nineteenth-century studies. For Steele has indeed remained dedicated to the Victorians and their dress, despite her attention to more current styles and stylemakers. Paying homage to that revelatory moment in which a fellow graduate student pointed her toward a new kind of historical analysis, she has specialized in the subject of the corset, and her 2001 book, The Corset: A Cultural History, combines the virtues associated with an exhibition catalogue—high-quality production values and a profusion of illustrations—with a thorough examination of nineteenth-century controversies, such as debates over tight-lacing and over the materials used in corset construction, as well as of the material manifestations of gender roles. With this study, published by Yale, she has even crossed over into the market for so-called “coffee-table books” in a way not often accomplished by authors of books from university presses. The trajectory of her career, which has involved making an ever-widening public interested in Victorian objects and in the Victorians themselves, has much to teach those who have stayed within the academy.
There may be even more for us to learn from her recent efforts in the sphere of what we might call “Victorian mashups.” In her FIT Museum exhibition in 2008, Gothic: Dark Glamour, and in the catalogue of the same title, written with Jennifer Park and co-published by Yale and FIT, Steele has labored self-consciously to be an ahistorical historian and to bring street culture, past and present cults, contemporary haute couture, and Victorianism into conversation with one another, while demonstrating that nineteenth-century fashion is undead—that it is perpetually being reanimated and remade through gothic/goth styles. She has displayed Victorian mourning jewelry and bat-shaped belt buckles from the turn of the century alongside modern skull and spider jewelry in a recreation of a “cabinet of curiosities,” where all of the juxtaposed pieces reveal themselves as both ordinary decorative objects and extraordinary exercises in perverse artistry that seem perfectly at home with one another. So, too, in her catalogue, she has placed images of nineteenth-century widows’ weeds in dialogue with “Gothic Lolita” dresses from Tokyo, emphasizing their shared status as exaggerated and paradoxical garments that carry with them an aura of rigidity, hyperbolic femininity, and deep strangeness.
Such an interpretive framework has less to do with gazing backward at Victorian practices from a distance than with recognizing a vital continuum that stretches from the past through the present—a continuum, moreover, that incorporates the actual with representations from the imaginary. As Steele remarks of contemporary goths, “Not only do they draw inspiration from subcultural antecedents . . . they also draw on an eclectic historical canon” that includes Victorian literature (Gothic 41). Thus, one young goth dresser “became a member of the Vampyre Society, which organized balls and visits to iconic sites such as the town of Whitby on the northeast coast of England, where the ship that carried Dracula supposedly landed” (Gothic 43).
Steele’s curatorial approach to working with nineteenth-century materials is not, however, unique. We can see similar principles of Victorian-inflected cultural mashup elsewhere, too, as in the highly publicized and popular exhibition AngloMania, organized by Andrew Bolton for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006. In his 2008 essay “‘We’re Not in the Fashion Business’: Fashion in the Museum and the Academy,” Peter McNeil praises Bolton’s show for having “demanded a high level of viewer engagement with both currents of contemporary fashion and historical concepts” (76). Among these historical concepts was Victorian mourning dress, as represented in a tableau titled “The Deathbed.” There, one of Queen Victoria’s own black crepe dresses from 1862–3, worn by a featureless white mannequin, was unexpectedly and incongruously posed in a room with a seventeenth-century bed from Hampton Court and with three other mannequins clad in contemporary designs by Alexander McQueen; the latter express, according to Bolton’s catalogue text, “poetic morbidity” through features such as “ravaged” hems, which function as reminders of “the violent passions that fueled the Romantic cult of the heart” (Bolton 51).
The critical response to such dislocating sights was not unanimously favorable. “Purists were upset regarding the juxtaposition of garments of differing periods and styles,” McNeil informs us; “however, the exhibition seemed to have learned . . . that verisimilitude will lead to a waxworks” (76). The public, moreover, eagerly flocked to a show that was “informed by scholarship but delivered via the styling and media devices of the twenty-first century” (78). Perhaps AngloMania’s chief appeal lay in its formal recognition of individual and collective ways of sampling, appropriating, and interacting with history, often by wearing objects plucked from fashion history. These practices may be new to the discipline of Museum Studies and even newer to certain academic disciplines, but they have been ubiquitous in the larger world where they often have centered on new relationships with Victorian garments such as the corset, the crinoline, and—especially among men—the cape or cloak. Indeed, as Gaynor Aaltonenen notes in “Good Vintage” (2005), which appeared in the magazine of Britain’s National Trust, a poll conducted recently in Britain shows that the cloak is the item of historical clothing that present-day consumers would most like to be able to add to their wardrobes. No one should be surprised, for “vintage dress is back with a bang—old style is the new look” (Aaltonenen 22).
In “The New Antiquarians,” her 30 July 2009 article for the New York Times, Penelope Green celebrates this kind of stylistic and chronological hybridity, which is now being abetted by both online and brick-and-mortar shops: “Not since Ralph Lauren moved into the Rhinelander mansion more than two decades ago have so many merchants focused on exhuming the accouterments of the turn-of-the-19th-century leisure class.” Among the many proponents of what Green labels a “sepia-toned . . . world view” are two New York-based sisters, Hollister and Porter Hovey, who live with “Victorian memento mori” and who describe themselves as having an “‘extremely previous lifestyle’” that relies on a magpie aesthetic. But they are not alone, as they spend “‘Saturdays in flea markets’” in what Green calls a “hipster-Brooklyn neighborhood”; according to one of the sisters, “‘Now everyone is dressing like Ulysses S. Grant’” (Green D1).
Lessons in how to accomplish this feat can start early in life. In a recent edition of its mail-order catalogue devoted to paper dolls, Dover Publications featured a full-page section titled “Fashion: Victorian Elegance.” The advertising copy there reads, “Dress prim and proper ladies and gentlemen in crinolines, corsets, bustles, two-piece suits, and more from one of the most beloved eras of Western fashion design.” Ten different books of nineteenth-century cut-out figures and clothing are for sale, such as Fashion Paper Dolls from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1840–1854 by Susan Johnston and Late Victorian Costumes Paper Dolls by Tom Tierney. (Dover’s website offers even further titles in this series.) Certainly, children or older purchasers can acquire information about Victorian material culture from these thin, inexpensive books; as Dover’s catalogue proclaims, “Each edition is beautifully illustrated and the ready-to-wear costumes are meticulously researched.” But no matter how historically accurate the designs may be, there is no way to impose limits on the kind of play for which they will be used, and no reason to wish to do so. Some young consumers surely will give in to the temptation to mix costumes from one Dover publication with figures from another—perhaps putting an aesthetic tea gown from Great Fashion Designs of the Belle Epoque Paper Dolls on a Whitney Houston cut-out from Favorite African-American Movie Stars Paper Dolls, or one of Dolly Parton’s outfits from Famous Country Singers Paper Dolls on a petticoat-clad model from Elegant Debutante Gowns of the 1800s Paper Dolls.
Those who wish to graduate from dressing Victorian paper dolls to dressing themselves in elements of Victorian fashion, thus becoming the living embodiments of mashup, have seemingly limitless choices. The consuming public for Victorianism is so great that it now supports an array of websites with both “authentic” nineteenth-century garments and “Victorian-inspired” outfits for sale. “The River Junction Trade Company, Manufacturers and Dealers in 19th Century Dry Goods” (www.riverjunction.com), for instance, prides itself on “Fine Victorian Fashions” and can supply the buyer with everything from a lady’s “walking suit jacket . . . [with] leg-o-mutton sleeves and wide lapels . . . indicative of the 1890s” to an assortment of “reticules.” “Clockwork Couture, A Fine Steampunk Clothier” (www.clockworkcouture.com), specializes in the sorts of edgy adaptations of Victorianism that characterize the steampunk movement in general; yet it also promises that its “Frilly Filly Riding Coat,” with its “corseted back and long lace cuffs,” will transform its wearer and will “make you a dainty lady.” To be without computer access does not mean being barred from indulging in the purchase of a fan, a cameo, or a hatpin, for there is still the Victorian Trading Company, which continues to send paper catalogues through the postal system. Those who want, however, merely to look at and learn about Victorian dress or to discuss it with others in a social network also have options. Thanks to Facebook, they can join the “Society for the Revival of Victorian Fashion” and post messages about events such as a “Victorian Tea” or watch videos that showcase an “1860s ball gown.” But they can also subscribe to the free online magazine Victoriana (www.victoriana.com) and gain access to informative features such as “Dressing the Victorian Lady from the 1850s,” which provides a “Step by step description of Victorian clothing worn by the Victorian lady from the 1850s, starting with her undergarments to her Victorian dress.”
Such fervent interest in knowing more about Victorian material culture and in creating new styles of self-presentation that draw upon Victorian fashion may be recent, but the impulse behind it has been building for decades. Since the 1960s, it has spurred related phenomena, including the transatlantic circulation of reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Beardsley posters, William Morris wallpapers, and art nouveau decorative objects; the attention to dress merely continues this mining of the nineteenth-century visual arts. The potential for this development, though, has been there from the start, for the revival of the desire for Victorian things has gone hand-in-hand with the popularity of the literary movement now known as Neo-Victorianism. Neo-Victorian novelists, in particular, have led the way both in providing their readers with details about costume history and, when it suits their purposes, in ignoring historical accuracy. In adapting these writers’ works to the screen, moreover, film directors and costume designers have done their own further mashing up.
One of the first (and still one of the most commercially successful) examples of Neo-Victorian fiction, John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), sets the pattern for the genre in its opening pages, where it establishes the distance between the reader’s present and the Victorian past in which the novel’s action will occur, using precise descriptions of clothing as a chronological marker:
The young lady was dressed in the height of fashion, for another wind was blowing in 1867: the beginning of a revolt against the crinoline and the large bonnet. The eye in the telescope might have glimpsed a magenta skirt of an almost daring narrowness—and shortness, since two white ankles could be seen beneath the rich green coat and above the black boots . . . and perched over the netted chignon, one of the impertinent little flat ‘pork pie’ hats, with a delicate tuft of egret plumes at the side.Fowles 4–5
Shortly afterwards, the narrator will explain the seeming loudness of the colors of these clothes by alluding to the recent discovery of aniline dyes.
But there is more than merely historical interest at stake here or a wish, on the part of the author, to create a narrative voice that smacks of the lecture hall. Instead, a deep delight in thinking about women’s clothing comes through the text—a relish in being able to treat the female characters, in particular, as though they were Victorian paper dolls in a book by Dover Publishing, to be played with, undressed, and dressed again. So strong is this obsession that, at moments, it spills over from the narrative into the conduct of the fictional figures, as well. The apotheosis of the impulse to costume women according to masculine fancy occurs after the novel’s male protagonist, Charles Smithson, has cheated on his fiancée, the “young lady” in the violently colored clothes, and slept with Sarah Woodruff, who is known as the “French Lieutenant’s Woman.” As he decides what to do next, a “cascade of concrete visions” tumbles through his consciousness, including some involving the possibility of an alternative life spent with Sarah by his side. Suddenly, what the author and his narrative persona have already conspired to do with her conflates with what the protagonist himself desires, as Charles imagines this pleasurable self-indulgence: “And dressing Sarah! Taking her to Paris, to Florence, to Rome!” (Fowles 365). The charm, the thrill, of sexual and romantic possession expresses itself through a fantasy of aesthetic possession by means of dress.
Ultimately, though, Fowles refuses to share with the protagonist his own power to dress Sarah; Charles’s fantasy comes to naught, for by the time he decides to make her his beloved paper doll, she has already disappeared. For the next two years, Charles will search fruitlessly for her. When he does come upon her at last, her circumstances are very different. She is now employed in the house of the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, D. G. Rossetti, enjoying a freer and more bohemian existence among a circle of artists. Charles registers the change immediately through his careful observation and cataloguing of her clothes:
And her dress! It was so different that he thought for a moment she was someone else. He had always seen her in his mind in the former clothes, a haunted face rising from a widowed darkness. But this was someone in the full uniform of the New Woman, flagrantly rejecting all formal contemporary notions of female fashion. Her skirt was of a rich dark blue and held at the waist by a crimson belt with a gilt star clasp; which also enclosed the pink-and-white striped silk blouse, long-sleeved, flowing, with a delicate small collar of white lace, to which a small cameo acted as tie. The hair was bound loosely back by a red ribbon.Fowles 443
To emphasize the difference that these two years have made, Fowles, who began his novel with rigorous attention to dress history, engages in Victorian mashup. In the year 1869, there was, of course, no such being known as the “New Woman,” for her arrival on the British political scene would not happen until more than two decades in the future. The characteristic shirtwaist outfit she would wear was also still to be invented. (As Elaine Shefer points out in “Pre-Raphaelite Clothing and the New Woman,” the so-called “ ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ dress” worn by the women of Rossetti’s circle was in some cases a “totally loose, flowing design worn beltless,” and in others a “belted version,” but always a one-piece garment with attached “bodice and skirt” .) In Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (2007), Cora Kaplan rightly speaks of Sarah Woodruff as “less a coherent or credible character in the novel than a cut-up or montage of types and anti-types of the feminine arranged to suggest a new prototype for thinking gender” (98). Yet Kaplan does not appear to notice how that “montage” effect is embodied in Sarah’s deliberately anachronistic clothing, in which Fowles represents the styles of the later Dress Reform movements and “New Woman” movements avant la lettre.
If Fowles’s 1969 novel began the process of training audiences to think of the mid-Victorian wardrobe as something that could be redesigned freely and modernized by the twentieth-century “eye in the telescope” (Fowles 5), Karel Reisz’s 1981 film version certainly took this to a higher level. At the time of the film’s release, critics reacted with surprise and some displeasure to Harold Pinter’s screenplay, which juxtaposed Fowles’s narrative with a new story, involving the adulterous affair between the two performers who are playing the roles of Charles and Sarah. The screenplay is sometimes heavy-handed in its nostalgic admiration of the Victorians, as it contrasts the elevated romantic ardor of the fictional nineteenth-century relationship with the rather sordid and depressingly passionless sexual liaison of the contemporary actors, one of whom is stepping out on his wife and children. But the clothes created by the costume designer, Tom Rand, make the same point subtly, through visual means alone. Throughout the film, the outfits of the Victorian characters are richly detailed, colorful, individualized, and expressive of nuances of class and taste; the late-twentieth-century figures wear jeans or generic and unmemorable clothes in neutral shades that provide little information about their backgrounds, personalities, or politics. At the end, however, where the worlds of past and present collide—Pinter’s actor-protagonist calls out the name of Fowles’s heroine, “Sarah,” instead of that of his lover, “Anna”—Rand gives the audience a sartorial mashup to express this confused layering of time and of different realities, even before the actor cries out the wrong name.
For the wrap party, where the cast that has been making a film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman gathers to celebrate, the character of “Anna” wears an outfit that seems unremarkable in early-1980s terms—a long skirt and an open blouse over a camisole top. The audience, however, recognizes the skirt and the buttoned-up blouse from the previous scene —the scene that corresponds to Sarah’s emergence, in Fowles’s novel, as the prototype of the New Woman. In the filmed version of that fictional moment, Sarah’s clothes are anachronistically avant-garde—a late-Victorian ensemble worn twenty years too soon—much as they are in Fowles’s original; in the contemporary scene of Pinter’s invention, that same late-Victorian costume blends seamlessly, so to speak, with fashion of the early 1980s. Thus, Tom Rand creates a Sarah/Anna whose clothes function as a visual palimpsest, wordlessly turning her into an icon of the “modern woman” of both periods simultaneously, as well as a fantasy-object of masculine desire across different eras.
The pastiche costume that results not only is politically significant, but also attractive and visually appealing; it could serve as a model of Neo-Victorian dressing and, indeed, probably has done so for the generations of viewers who have seen the film since its release nearly thirty years ago and have been consciously or unconsciously influenced by it. Rand’s mashup focuses the spectator’s interest on historicizing, as well as decoding, the elements involved. It invites research in the annals of fashion to determine which of them are and aren’t mid-Victorian, late-Victorian, or late-twentieth-century; it arouses the sort of curiosity that we usually identify as a spur to academic research, but does so in a far wider public than we associate with the pursuit of scholarly studies in Victorianism. If those of us who teach at universities use Rand’s design as a classroom text, it can help, not hinder, our work in getting students hooked on learning more about the nineteenth century, by allowing us to approach issues of politics and culture through the seductive prospect of thinking about dress—one of the subjects that proved so enticing to John Fowles himself, as he began writing his Neo-Victorian historical fiction.
Despite the potential for exploiting interest in Victorian dress in order to reach out to a broader public, and despite the increase in ways to connect with non-academics who are currently buying, exhibiting, or blogging about items—whether actual or recreated and adapted—from the Victorian wardrobe, few of us in the academic sphere appear to have taken full advantage of these opportunities. Instead, a greater number of scholars have been producing analyses, usually aimed at and circulated among other professional scholars, which attempt to explain why contemporary popular culture has embraced Victorian material culture. Among the most illuminating of these are essays such as Jennifer Green-Lewis’s “At Home in the Nineteenth Century” (in Victorian Afterlife, 2000), Ellen Bayuk Rosenman’s “More Stories about Clothing and Furniture” (in Functions of Victorian Culture at the Present Time, 2002), Lisa Madden Miller’s “Modern Lace: Victorianism in Contemporary Dress and Decorating” (in the journal Mid-Atlantic Almanack, 2002), John Gardiner’s “Theme-park Victoriana” (in The Victorians since 1901, 2004), and books such as Simon Joyce’s The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (2007). Each of these provides a brilliant account of how and why Victorian things have enjoyed renewed transatlantic appeal, and I do not wish to minimize the importance of the contributions these works have made. Yet the theories they present do not, on the whole, actually bring practitioners of Victorian studies any closer to the mass audiences that find delight in the artifacts of Victoriana.
Surely it must be possible to speculate as to why people today are adopting and dressing in harmony with a “sepia-toned . . . world view” and, at the same time, to foster interaction with them. Can we find ways to show this new public that the work we do is valuable—that our scholarship can offer greater understanding of and access to the culture from which the cloaks and corsets emerged? Would we sacrifice our intellectual respectability if we did not merely comment dispassionately upon Victorian and Neo-Victorian dressing as a cultural phenomenon, but engaged with it and even in it ourselves—if we admitted, moreover, that fashion studies and more traditional sorts of text-based Victorian research might be inextricably linked?
In the U. S., at least, state legislators who affect the budgets of public universities and boards of trustees who oversee private institutions have been openly dubious about the ongoing appeal of the humanities and about the urgency of supporting what we do as teachers and researchers in higher education. Fortunately, when it comes to Victorian studies, our next constituency is already here, waiting for us to reach out. But to connect with it, we might need to seek it out at flea markets, or online through the “Society for the Revival of Victorian Fashion,” or in exhibition spaces such as the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology; we might also need to educate ourselves, both about fashion history and about the pleasures that contemporary audiences are receiving from their contact with it. Victorian scholars of the future must continue to engage in rigorous archival exploration. But like Valerie Steele, they should do so while also welcoming and working inside and outside the classroom with a public that appreciates pastiche, adaptation, and mashups of Victorianism.
Perhaps they might even put on a cloak or a corset themselves and cheekily proclaim, as Steele once dared to say to a reporter for the New York Times, “‘Authenticity is such a fed-up idea’” (Green D1).
Margaret D. Stetz is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware. Among her recent books are Facing the Late Victorians (2007); Michael Field and Their World (2007), a volume of essays co-edited with Cheryl A. Wilson; and Gender and the London Theatre, 1880–1920 (2004). She has contributed chapters to the following recent volumes: Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture (2009), Antisemitism and Philosemitism in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries (2008), Transatlantic Print Culture, 1880–1940 (2008), The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle (2007), Gender Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2007), Bound for the 1890s (2006), Rebecca West Today (2006), and Vernon Lee: Decadence, Ethics, Aesthetics (2006). Her next book, Oscar Wilde, New Women, the Bodley Head and Beyond, is forthcoming from Rivendale Press in 2010. For Rice University Press, she is producing a digital edition of Fantasias, by the “New Woman” writer “George Egerton,” in 2010. She has also curated or co-curated numerous exhibitions on Victorian print culture, including (with Mark Samuels Lasner) the upcoming London Bound: American Writers in Britain, 1870–1916, which will open at the University of Delaware Library in conjunction with the conference “Useful and Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites” (7–9 October 2010), to be held at the University of Delaware, the Delaware Art Museum, and Winterthur Museum and Country Estate.
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