Lily Calcagnini ’18
This paper explores how women of different socioeconomic standing utilized their clothing and knowledge of what was in vogue to fight for female empowerment in mid-Victorian English society. Though a considerable amount of research has been devoted to studying the periodicals directed at working middle-class and lower-class women in mid-Victorian England, this essay offers new analysis of the New Monthly Belle Assemblée, a magazine that was patronized by the Duchess of Kent and thus positioned itself as an arbiter of distinctly upper-class lifestyle. By closely studying Belle Assemblée’s idiosyncrasies in the context of its competitors, I find that a wide variety of movements to empower women operated in British society in the mid nineteenth century, each with different tactics and goals depending on the social classes that leveraged them. Whether these groups espoused or subverted an understanding of the fashions of the day depended on its members’ social status. This provokes a reconsideration of how women of differing socioeconomic classes might fight for women’s rights even today. Indeed, it seems that women find certain ambitions to claim agency for women as inaccessible or unrealistic depending on their social status.
A Picture Warrants a Thousand Words:
Fashion, Female Agency, and What’s in an Image,
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what shall we make of one published along with hundreds more? The fashion illustrations in the New Monthly Belle Assemblée, a British “magazine of literature and fashion,” appeared only after several pages of detailed descriptions of the pictured dresses (Fig. 1). If fashion magazines exist to teach women how to dress, this one—which I’ll henceforth refer to as Belle Assemblée for short—seemed to believe that simply modeling the fashions of the day was not sufficient; a host of texts were necessary to elucidate the meaning behind the aesthetics. This paper will firstly explore the implications of pairing fashion illustrations, or “plates,” with extensive descriptions and show how such a setup informs an understanding of the magazine as well as women’s fashion in this historical moment. Specifically, I will argue that, in both scenarios, the endeavor to achieve a certain visual was merely a superficial manifestation of a mission to communicate more complicated subtexts. To do this, I will analyze the fashion illustrations from Belle Assemblée’s March 1846 edition and proceed to contextualize them within the larger universe of written work that was published by Belle Assemblée in the entirety of the year 1846. I hope to reveal for whom this advice was created, how it was intended for use, and thus, how it represented the role of fashion in the lives of British women. I want to demonstrate that wealthy women dressed fashionably in order to procure incremental but nonetheless unprecedented levels of empowerment within their social structure in deliberate ways, a phenomenon that, in my opinion, prefigures current movements to empower women by celebrating a diversity of feminine identities. And yet, this type of subtle power, which Belle Assemblée’s female publisher and writers arguably claim for themselves was accessible only to women whose fashionable clothes reflected abstract truths about her social standing. In this way, both dressing in vogue and leveraging fashion to achieve a modicum of gender equality was a privilege afforded to upper class women willing to accept classical gender norms. Meanwhile, middle-class career women were forced to use markedly different tactics to obtain equality.
To begin understanding how this magazine’s fashion advice affected its readers, it is best to understand first how magazines functioned in British society in the mid nineteenth century. For though formal analysis of Belle Assemblée—which was published from 1834 to 1870 (De Ridder and Van Remoortel, 2012)—can provide insight to how its writers and publishers conceived of fashion and its links to female empowerment, historical contextualization is necessary to prove that its content reflected trends occurring in society. In the mid nineteenth century in England, the industrial revolution helped grow the magazine industry by simplifying the process of printing and, more indirectly, affording more middle and upper-class women the leisure time in which to read (Phegley, 2004). Thus, magazines like Belle Assemblée saw increased readership at this time. Accordingly, Phegley’s contention that “these magazines self-consciously packaged themselves as tools to help women become culturally literate…and to become proper middle-class citizens” is key to understanding the clout that Belle Assemblée carried in influencing its readers (2004). Though Phegley does not deal explicitly with Belle Assemblée, her work analyzes magazines from the same genre—the not-so-affordable, regularly-published “shilling monthlies”—that featured a compendium of literature and fashion advice aimed at “increasing women’s cultural knowledge and improving their readerly reputations” (Phegley, 2004). Thus, I apply Phegley’s analysis of these magazines to Belle Assemblée and contend that its conception of fashion as it relates to female empowerment reflect some of those held by the concurrent Victorian British society at large. Moreover, I join Phegley in insisting that we “transition from thinking of periodicals as mirrors that reflect society to understanding them as active shapers of culture” for the reason that, at this time, an entire industry of male policing of magazine literature developed out of a fear that females might read and internalize the wrong information (Phegley, 2004). This indicates to me that the information in magazines was presented as serious advice for women. Whether women truly needed or heeded men’s help while reading I will explore shortly. Here, I only note that Belle Assemblée likely shaped and informed its readers as much as it reflected them.
Who, then, were its readers, and what were they being told about clothing, fashion, and how the two were related? As for its audience, Belle Assemblée seems to have been written for upper-middle class women with significant funds, few professional aspirations, and large amounts of leisure time. As a “shilling monthly,” Belle Assemblée would have cost significantly more than its biggest competitor, the Englishwoman’s Daily Magazine, ensuring that only a woman of means could purchase it (Ward, 2008). Though one might imagine how women of lower classes could glance at Belle Assemblée’s illustrations without buying it, these women would miss out on the accompanying texts that I contend were integral to understanding its definition of fashion. From a cursory glance at the plates, the corsets and large skirts it features seem compatible only with a leisurely, work-free lifestyle. Valverde corroborates this reading when she explains that “crinolines hampered the kind of movements needed to perform housework, [thus] the fashion of large crinolines helped to reinforce the mid-Victorian ideal of the leisured lady: dress distinctions…[indicated] degrees of leisure or labour” (1989). Thus, the fashions in Belle Assemblée likely alienated middle-class career women just as its price alienated lower-class women. Further, Belle Assemblée was unique in that it was published “under the Immediate Patronage of Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent” (New Monthly Belle Assemblée, 1846). As such, its focus on fashion advice for the most leisured lifestyle seems apt, as the Duchess could best act as a pundit on this world and its fashion.
A deeper dive into this text provides specific evidence about its readership. Compared to its competitors, Belle Assemblée distinguished itself by dictating what was in fashion without providing its readers with the tools to replicate it for themselves. Though its descriptions of the clothes were highly detailed and technical—like that of a “tight sleeve descending to the elbow, and terminated by a ruffle à la Maintenon composed of a single fall of Brussels lace” (“Descriptions of the Plates,” 1846)—it did not provide patterns or instructions like its competitor the so-called EDM did (Ward, 2008). Belle Assemblée was willing to identify formal characteristics of a dress that rendered it fashionable, but it stopped short of welcoming any readers who needed instructions to create these dresses rather than purchasing them from a seamstress or tailor. If, as Ward proposes, the EDM “positioned itself as an authority on middle-class domestic life, but it did so in order to speak to those who did not have such an authority” (2008), Belle Assemblée seems to operate with different motives. In fact, it goes beyond neglecting to include dress patterns to actively alienate certain readers. The section entitled “Fashions for March” is written from the perspective of Adrienne De M., who reports what the “élégantes,” or fashionable women, are wearing (1846). Though readers may be élégantes themselves, she does not assume as much, maintaining a measure of distance between potentially lower-class readers and the truly fashionable. Even the illustrations are alienating: every one of the ten figures is shown in profile or in a private chat that excludes the viewer. In “Fashions For March, 1846,” the sole woman even directing her gaze in the direction of the viewers is the half-figure in the center of the top row on the left page (Fig. 1). And yet, even she averts her gaze; with her downcast eyes and tilted head, she is anything but engaging to readers. Meanwhile, in its most drastic iteration, the illustrator’s endeavor to exclude readers from the interactions occurring on the page is almost counterintuitive. Because of the way the page is designed, the illustrator only has room to display four full-bodied outfits. And yet, two of these full figures are depicted in conversation with each other, their arms folded and bodies turned to each other in such a way that their torsos—especially the torso of our green-clad model—is obscured. In this, we see the illustrator prioritizing narrative rather than aesthetic detail in these illustrations. Clearly, it is not tantamount that readers view every detail of the gowns; moreover, such details are less important to the composition than the sense that there is some sort of narrative scenario taking place between the characters on the page. If readers could not imagine themselves in the pictured scenarios, they were effectively blocked out of them.
With a better sense of Belle Assemblée’s intended audience, we now can parse what it was telling them about fashion. Of the magazines at the time, Belle Assemblée “was known for its superior graphic design and coloured fashion plates” in addition to its vast array of intellectually stimulating literature (De Ridder and Van Remoortel, 2012). Indeed, the folds and shadows in each figure’s dress are carefully painted in various colors, and everything from flowered headpieces to eyelet handkerchiefs is drawn in with care. That the illustrator for Belle Assemblée pays close attention to detail in these visuals signifies that the magazine expected its readers to spend time looking at them for guidance. And yet, only two pages are devoted to the illustrations of ten women, while the preceding four are devoted to a written treatise on the “Fashions of March” and a “Description of the Plates” (New Monthly Belle Assemblée, 1846). That the magazine’s editors consistently granted twice as much page-space in each month’s issue to words about fashion rather than the clothes in their purest form is indicative of what information they deemed more valuable. For the Duchess of Kent and Belle Assemblée as a publication, dressing “in vogue” was not solely a matter of clothing as an image, but understanding the details of clothing in a specific social context (De. M, 1846). To be fashionable, a woman needed to understand the more complex, implicit messages underpinning her clothes.
It turns out that the information that made clothing into fashion related to social factors completely separate from the industry of clothing design and production. “Fashions for March” opens with the explanation that “balls, both public and private, have succeeded each other with their usual rapidity…and our élégantes, wearied with the round of pleasures in which they have been engaged since the commencement of the season, will allow themselves breathing time” (De. M, 1846). Here, readers are provided with an explanation of why the clothing pictured is in fashion, and it ties concretely to the seasonal social calendar. The same sentence situates this magazine and its fashions within a certain socioeconomic class by means of the word “élégantes.” The use of French here is meaningful for two reasons. Generally, French phraseology— used throughout this section to describe the women and their clothes—likely invoked “the much-vaunted tastefulness of French fashion,” as Ward notes in her analysis of competitor EDM (Ward, 2008). Indeed, the word is italicized in the text of Belle Assemblée, betraying the publishers’ contrived, self-aware decision to include it, a non-English word whose meaning only the indoctrinated might understand. More specifically, the usage of the term “élégantes” to describe these women is meaningful because it is a false cognate; it does not simply denote a woman who is elegant but one who is “fashionable” (“Élégante,” 2014). Thus, just as one could not fully comprehend the plates without some social fluency, she could not fully comprehend the accompanying text without French fluency, which would have required education and thus wealth (Marmion, 1984). In parsing the language of the plates’ accompanying texts, it is increasingly clear that the subtexts that rendered clothing “fashions” related to social understanding and education associated with a high society.
Likewise, the use of specialized terminology to describe the color, cut, and fabric of the clothing indicates that concepts of what was in vogue were tied to an understanding of Britain’s industrial prowess that certainly could not be communicated by images alone. Readers were informed that the pictured dresses were made of silk, satin, damask and velvet more often than cotton or muslin (“Description of the Plates,” 1846). To appreciate the significance of this, we must turn to The Useful Arts Employed in the Production of Clothing, which analyzes the industrial production of several fabrics at this time. It explains that “raw silk imported into England, chiefly from Piedmont, is supposed to amount in value to four millions sterling annually; and the exported manufactured silk good goods to seven hundred thousand pounds annually” (The Useful Arts, 1851). That England purchased raw silk at a deficit makes silk an expensive commodity that would have been available only to more moneyed classes. In comparison, “the annual value of exported cotton amounts to about eighteen millions sterling; while the quantity retained for home consumption is valued at nearly as much” (The Useful Arts, 1851). One can almost hear the incredulous pride with which the writer reports England’s cotton production, evidenced by his italicized emphasis on the value of the market share of cotton exports. The difference in availability between silk and cotton is significant: England was producing more than four and half times as much cotton as it imported silk by 1851, proof that silk was much rarer a commodity. Beyond the mathematics, silk also seems to have been more sought-after than cotton for its intrinsic qualities. Our writer begins the section on silk with this: “If Cotton be the most generally useful of woven fabrics, Silk is unquestionably the most beautiful” (The Useful Arts, 1851). Thanks to this editorialized introductory sentence to a long section about silk production, he links Britain’s technological ability to fashionableness. Though this is a new reading of Belle Assemblée, the idea that female fashionableness was linked to industrialization is not novel. Ward argues that a “subtly industrialized depiction of women’s domestic experience” in the EDM “reveals much about the ways that post-industrial routine shaped the interaction of taste, class, and sensation in this period” (Ward, 2008). Indeed, the inclusion of these details in Belle Assemblée corroborate this claim; the magazine instructs women to fabricate their clothing out of only the choicest fabrics, setting up a scenario in which approximations of silhouettes are worthless if not built in sumptuous fabrics that allude to the owner’s wealth and the nation’s industrial success.
Not only in the specifically sartorial sections but also in the accompanying literature, Belle Assemblée shows how wealthy women leveraged their knowledge of fashion to make their appearances work in their favor. My decision to seek further evidence of the magazine’s conception of fashion in its other sections is not far fetched. Phegley too posits that, because of magazines’ singular format, which includes myriad types of media bound together under one title, “works included in periodicals are not merely extensions of their author’s intentions or related to the context of the magazine in a secondary way, as is sometimes assumed. Instead, these works gain deeper meaning when examined within the periodical because that context gives them their meaning” (2004). It seems only logical that the relevant poetry, songs, and short stories in Belle Assemblée’s pages should be just as representative as the fashion plates of the Duchess of Kent’s conceptualization of how fashions may be leveraged by her readers.
Unsurprisingly, the magazine features numerous short stories about the types of women who might read Belle Assemblée, and these tales are rife with specific references to clothing. In this literature, upper-class women use their understanding of fashion to lead their desired, often transgressive, lifestyles. In “Passages in the Life of a Coquette,” (Abdy, 1846) female writer Mrs. Abdy creates Aunt Olivia, who completely rebukes society’s expectation that she get married. For no other reason than that she enjoys it, she flirts with whomever she pleases, coaxes men to propose marriage to her, and then turns them down. “There are male as well as female coquettes,” Olivia informs her niece before proceeding to recount her escapades as a young and conniving woman (Abdy, 1846). In this story, women are cast not as the objects of male romantic conquest but as players on equal footing with men in the game of romance. Moreover, Olivia’s ability to woo men is inextricably linked to her knowledge and strategic use of fashion to engineer her appearance. She explains that she “was educated…at a fashionable school, and at the age of seventeen was perfectly well qualified to take [her] degree as a finished flirt” (Abdy, 1846). Her use of the word “fashionable” to describe her school illuminates the term as one that can describe any entity—not just clothes—that reflects or teaches cultural understanding. Then, she recounts a scenario that is particularly rich for analysis in its mention of clothing and fashion:
“I had provided myself with a gala dress…and I wore it on the present occasion, knowing perfectly well that it was a decided mark of bad taste to be finely dressed in a small domestic circle; but aware that none of my companions would find it out, or suspect me of doing anything that in the remotest way could militate against the laws of fashion. I was then just twenty, in the full bloom and pride of youthful beauty, and of that majestic commanding style of person which is enhanced by studied dress, and it was perceptible that my new admirer was as much overcome as I wished him to be by my appearance.” (1846)
There are several important dynamics at play here that elucidate and reinforce the very understanding of fashion that I have argued is implicitly communicated by Belle Assemblée’s fashion-focused content. Fundamentally, this anecdote is meaningful because it exhibits Olivia using a fancy dress to manipulate a man. Further, she alludes to a host of “laws of fashion” that she must selectively choose to follow or subvert to achieve her goal. In so doing, Abdy complicates the understanding that clothes alone wield power; Olivia leverages not just dress but “studied dress,” using clothing, context, and her expected company to mix a lethal cocktail and get what she wants; as a result, the man responds to her just “as [she] wished him to.” Shortly thereafter, he proposes to her, evidence that she wields sartorial power effectively and is thus able to manipulate men how she pleases (Abdy, 1846). That she turns down the offer is largely irrelevant. The financial and social stability that would come with this marriage is hers for the taking; that she chooses to forego it is, if anything, further evidence of her independence as a woman and thus a precursor to empowered women today, who see marriage as more than a potentially lucrative business deal.
Not only does Olivia leverage her understanding of fashion to assert some independence and power, but also her cunning is even framed as a talent and potential asset to her family. Her mother exclaims, “‘You have certainly…the ability, in a superior degree, of making yourself agreeable to those whom you wish to please, by adopting their taste and falling in with their habits; you have hitherto, I am sorry to say, exerted this talent for a wrong purpose. Exert it now for a right one’” (Abdy, 1846). This line is intriguing. Though it criticizes Olivia for giving up marriage proposals and the stability they offer, it nonetheless casts her as a shrewd woman who could use her clothing to connive in a worthwhile way, should she choose to do so.
And yet, this story highlights that the most productive way for Olivia to use her specialized knowledge of fashion would be to channel it towards marrying into the social elite. As Olivia’s mother explains, “for you, Olivia, there is no way of establishment but by marriage” (Abdy, 1846). Thus, the upper class concept of female empowerment is one in which women are ultimately dependent on a man, albeit by choice. Though Abdy writes a female character that asserts a modicum of agency, she simultaneously warns readers against becoming too power-hungry. For example, she writes that Olivia’s “third successful passage of coquetry…was more disastrous in its effects than either of the others: it cost [her] the large fortune which [she] should so shortly have inherited” (Abdy, 1846). This failure to inherit money seems a fulfillment of her foreshadowing comment earlier in the story that coquetry, “if not repressed, may lead to fatal results” (Abdy, 1846). Unfortunately for women seeking independence, foregoing marriage to a man qualified as “fatal.” This espousal of classical gender norms in Belle Assemblée’s literature reflects the growing trend in magazines that became “increasingly preoccupied with women’s home comforts and fireside virtues” (De Ridder and Van Remoortel, 2012). Thus, the identity that these women fashioned through reading magazines—though they did so for themselves—was narrow in its aim to reinvent the pre-existing social order. On one hand, the increased emphasis on literature that taught women about fashion might have encouraged them to “challenge more traditional contemporary constructions of femininity,” as De Ridder and Van Remoortel have argued (2012). Indeed, as literature like Belle Assemblée’s delineated fashion and its subtexts for ever-growing audiences, women at the time became better equipped to pursue unprecedented levels of agency. At the same time, the appearance of agency that these women created for themselves by means of their fashionable clothes was nonetheless underwritten by classic understandings of domestic femininity and capitalist elitism.
Aunt Olivia exemplifies a woman who wishes to maintain her leisured, work-free lifestyle and thus willing to operate within the gender roles and Puritan mores of the Victorian British; ultimately, this limits the amount of autonomy she can claim for herself. Far from a singular case, Abdy’s story is indicative of a larger trend identified by Valverde that English feminists exhibited a “strong puritanism on the question of dress and finery” (1989). Put simply, society taught that frivolity in women was only acceptable to a limited extent. And as Valverde points out, this belief that women had a penchant for falling prey to superficial desires, while tied to femininity, was also a function of social class (1989). That is to say that lower-class women who somehow managed to procure clothing that was fashionable by high-class standards would not have been deemed clever or seen as an asset to their families like Aunt Olivia. In fact, just the opposite was true; the term “finery” would be levied at their clothing choices as a pejorative (Valverde, 1989). Fashionableness in lower-class women, then, was unbecoming and could not reap for its wearer the minimal social benefits that I argue it might have garnered for upper-class women. This belief can be traced back at least to 1830, when a guidebook for English servants declared, “Girls who mimic their ladies’ mode of dress, and flaunt about in their cast-off finery, are seldom found to have nice, dry, smooth hair, and good underclothes” (Valverde, 1989). This insistence on the quality of a woman’s “underclothes”—an aspect of dress invisible to the eye but nonetheless foundational to an outfit— as an indicator of the wearer’s fashionableness mimics Belle Assemblée’s insistence that its readers understand the subtext of its plates through accompanying descriptions. What’s more, it precludes women of lower social classes from dressing in these supposedly empowering fashions, implying that these women poseurs would be unworthy of these costumes and thus immoral in their masquerading. In myriad media channels at this time, women learned that no amount of masquerading could change their true social standing. Just as the right subtext made an outfit fashionable on a wealthy woman, the wrong subtext demolished that outfit’s potential power for its wearer. If Belle Assemblée did not properly alienate readers of lower classes by means of its price, content, and tone, such a distancing of lower class and working women from the idea of being fashionable was likely already deeply rooted in the British mindset by 1846.
For this reason, middle-class women who chose to work waged a different battle against the patriarchy by means of their clothes, one that certainly leveraged clothing but aimed to avoid rather than ascribe to upper- and upper-middle-class conceptions of fashion. These women already asserted more independence than others by pursuing professional careers (Krueger, 2012); thus, the measures of independence they procured by means of dress were more subversive than their leisurely counterparts. Evelyn Sharp, a writer for the proto-feminist periodical The Yellow Book, published stories specifically about these women. Unlike Aunt Olivia, her characters wear clothes that allow them to pass as members of lower social classes than they actually were. In the story “In Dull Brown,” protagonist Jean is able to converse with a man on the bus during her commute in a more casual way than might otherwise be acceptable for a middle class woman, because her dress—a “simple russet gown”—makes her seem like nothing more than “a little shop-girl” (Sharp in Krueger, 2012). By choice, Jean wears clothing that should belong of someone less wealthy than she. And, to her own enjoyment, Jean converses with this stranger outside of the expectations of conservative decorum that would set the tone for her interaction in a more private and exclusive setting. As Krueger points out, Jean derives personal fulfillment from this “deliberate manipulation of appearance in order to have a different kind of adventure not generally permitted by her middle-class feminine identity” (2012). In this way, as working women vied for autonomy and independence by means of clothing-based identity engineering, they did so more ambitiously, dressing outside of their socioeconomic uniform to reinvent their class-based norms of inter-gender interaction rather than benefit from old ones.
This is not to say that the identity manipulation in Belle Assemblée was any less noble an endeavor for its readership. As Valverde points out, “if questions about the relation between feminism and style or fashion are controversial now, neither was there unanimity among feminists in the period under discussion” (1989). Indeed, differences in women’s priorities, conceptions of gender equality, and tactics for claiming agency stemmed from their different lifestyles and quotidian experiences (Krueger, 2012; De Ridder and Van Remoortel, 2012). And, as Krueger puts it, “adopting a career did not simply change what a woman did with her time; it altered her identity” (2012). That is to say, that a middle-class woman’s decision to develop a professional career at this time affected her entire conception of her place in society. Using this understanding of inter-class distinctions, it is likely that the advice proffered by Belle Assemblée was inapplicable to middle-class women who chose to work. For this reason, it makes practical sense that these women would have dressed in different ways than their non-working counterparts to reach the similar goal of asserting independence. Thus, I highlight the truth in the argument that “notions of gender difference and models of femininity in women’s magazines are often fragmentary and multiple [at this time], but also help us to understand more generally how constructions of femininity are defined, contested and transformed in the nineteenth century” (De Ridder and Van Remoortel, 2012). Truly, in studying how women of varied social statuses navigated their wardrobes to fight for gender equality, I hope not to place value judgments on any individual tactic but merely to better understand each by understanding their differences.
It appears that a wide variety of movements to empower women operated in British society in the mid nineteenth century, each with different ambitions, priorities, and tactics. Whether these movements to claim female agency—“feminisms,” if we can generally call them such—espoused or subverted an understanding of the fashions of the day depended on its members’ social status. Upper-class women with no desire to work dressed fashionably to please men and secure their desired lifestyle by marriage. However, the same tactics were unavailable to lower-class women and incompatible with the lifestyle of middle-class career women. Not only does this historical reading of magazines from 1846 provide riveting insight into the ways that women’s fashion operated alongside the move to empower women with more agency in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, but it also provokes a reconsideration of how women may assert their rights in different ways even today. In understanding the history of women’s rights, it is critical to note that less ambitious fights may only be available to or comfortable for the elite, while middling classes may prefer more subversive tactics and lower classes may find themselves faced with more barriers to fighting at all. Though I note in scholars of the past and present a desire to label some women more progressive or committed to procuring agency for themselves than others were, I think it best to develop more nuanced understandings of how women throughout history have asserted their femininity and the power that comes with it by means of clothes as best they could.
Fig. 1 – 1846. “Fashions for March 1846.” New Monthly Belle Assemblée: A Magazine of Literature and Fashion. March 1846.
Fig. 2 – 1846. Detail, “Fashions for March 1846.” New Monthly Belle Assemblée: A Magazine of Literature and Fashion. March 1846.
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