Fashion Statements

Summer dress, 1846 - 1849

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

The way we dress communicates so much. On a day-to-day basis, our clothing choices reveal clues about our personalities and the way we wish to interact with the world around us. At the same time, the clothing we wear has the power to influence our state of mind; either enhancing or changing it for better or worse. We derive confidence from our dress. It helps us to face the world and to define our public and private selves.

Aside from the purely personal, dress also has broader messages to relate. It reveals the nature of changing fashion trends, which can be directly linked to wider social, cultural and political developments. During the course of momentous events in history, fashions have famously changed, and often in radical ways. For example, as the old aristocratic hierarchy was swept away in the French Revolution of the late 18th century, the typical and long-fashionable female garb of richly decorated silks, cut into tightly waisted gowns with wide flowing skirts, was completely outmoded. In its place came a narrow columnar silhouette of plain white cotton muslin with a high waist – clothing that was consciously modelled on ideas of ‘democratic’ clothing worn by the ancient Greeks; a direct reflection of the political situation of the times.

Clothes are also indicators of where we are in the course of life’s journey. We graduate from infant garments, usually selected by our parents, into occasionally radical youthful styles and then on to the choices we make as we grow older, and sometimes wiser. Wealth, or lack of it, is also an important factor. We require a certain amount of income, and leisure time, in order to select the garments that we really want to wear. The expense associated with the production of dress has long affected the choices made by those who wish to demonstrate to the world that they can afford the best. Before the advent of aniline or man-made dyes during the mid-19th century, brightly coloured clothing was very expensive, making colour the preserve of the well-off. Before the development of machine-made lace, the time and skill required to make it made it extraordinarily costly. During the 1600s it was usual for wealthy men and women to have their portraits painted wearing lace, often set off on a background of black. It signalled to anyone who saw such images that the sitters were of high taste and status and could afford such luxuries. However, such recognised dress codes could be circumvented or even subverted. A lively second-hand trade or other methods of garment procurement made it possible for anyone who was so inclined to assume the garb of their betters and with it their outward appearance of status, thus making use of clothing to transcend class barriers. All these and many more factors are at work when we select a garment to put on each morning.

This exhibition explores a tiny area of an enormous subject. It identifies just three important fashionable themes using pieces selected from the Olive Matthews Collection of costume, housed here at Chertsey Museum. These themes are Romantic, Outrageous and Classic dress. They have appeared again and again over the centuries and to a greater or lesser extent they are constantly present within the landscape of fashion, though the reason for their popularity has varied over the centuries. The choices of the specific garments shown here are subjective, and designed to challenge audience perceptions. 

A Fine Romance

Evening gown, 1949 - 1952, bearing the label ‘An Acquer Model’

The word ‘romantic’ inspires many different interpretations. Romanticism, as an artistic, literary and intellectual movement, was at its peak from the late 18th century to around 1850. It emphasised the imaginative, the visionary, the fantastical and the picturesque; influencing many areas of social, political and cultural life, including fashion.  

Romance as we understand it today is only loosely connected to the Romantic Movement. In modern parlance it is most often linked to love. Romantic love is commonly associated with early courtship. It is synonymous with intense emotions and a sense of being lifted out of the ordinary. Though men are essential participants, femininity and long held notions of female sexual attractiveness are strongly connected to this concept. Such sexuality is subtle rather than overt, often veiled in softness but never merely pretty.

Fantasy and escapism are important components to add to this heady romantic mix and these are also strongly linked to historicism. To be romantic can suggest a wistful and sometimes playful tendency to hark back to a perceived and imagined idea of the past, or even a simpler, more attractive present. An individual might exhibit slight romantic tendencies, perhaps donning clothing of a romantic nature to enhance a mood. Alternatively one might attempt wholeheartedly to retreat into a romantic ideal, following activities, decorating surroundings and of course dressing in ways that signal a willingness to escape from normality into a world governed by the nostalgic and the picturesque. In her rustic retreat le Hameau de la Reine, Marie Antoinette was doing just this as she dressed as a shepherdess and acted out the tasks associated with country life – though in keeping with the concepts of romantic escapism, hard work and discomfort were never involved. 

Extremely Stylish

Three-piece silk satin Court suit, lavishly embroidered with a floral design using silks, glass beads, glass pastes, seed pearls and metalwork; 1780 - 1785

Though it can hold negative associations, the word outrageous is also filled with a sense of daring and fun, especially when it comes to dress.  Outrageous fashion is clothing taken to extremes. These may be bright or startling colour combinations, exaggerated and impractical silhouettes, or garments that deliberately aim to shock.

People often express surprise at the garments they or others have chosen to wear in the past, stating that it felt perfectly normal to wear items that, with hindsight, appear to be outrageous in style. Sometimes startling fashion trends can be embraced by the majority of a population, becoming so all-pervasive that they are normalised for a time, leaving only social commentators and satirists to draw attention to their extreme nature. Examples of outrageous fashions are exhibited here; a widespread fashion for extremely large sleeves took hold from the late 1820s to the mid-1830s, as seen in the white cotton dress displayed. During the 1970s voluminous flared trousers were almost universally worn, while the 1960s saw the mini-skirt shock the establishment.

The vagaries of personal taste, wishing to carve out an identity, or belong to a particular ‘tribe’ are also important factors. An exuberant or rebellious personality might lead one to dress in bright colour combinations, bold decoration or use devices that employ the language of sex or violence to shock. Such clothing deliberately breaks boundaries; transcending accepted ideas of taste and provoking strong reactions. Punk is an extreme example, but Gaultier’s overtly sexual corset dress is also designed to elicit a response. Unusual personal taste is not confined to the modern era. Vibrant colours were fashionable at various points during the 18th century, but the surprising combination of rose pink and acid yellow in the man’s suit displayed here may reveal the boldness, or even eccentricity, of its original owner. 

Classic Style

Simple white cotton Indian muslin dress, c.1803

Designers have long used the concept of the classic to lend solidity and timelessness to their work. In its purest sense, classical design relates to the decorative styles of Ancient Greek and Roman cultures as found in surviving and recorded art, architecture and sculpture. These artefacts have been interpreted and reinterpreted over time; their essential elements drawn out in order to produce a neo classical code that, when applied, is understood to lend an air of imperviousness and immutability to whatever it touches. When applied to women’s clothing, classic style incorporates a narrow, columnar silhouette, often without shaping at the waist. Pleats are frequently used, as well as draping and simple, plain colours. Two of the pieces displayed may be said to be directly inspired by classical design, these are the high-waisted white muslin dress from the Regency era and the pleated ‘Delphos’ gown by Mariano Fortuny.        

However, the term ‘classic’ is also used in a much broader sense. It relates to a group of garments that transcend fashion. Simplicity in cut and decoration, without any extreme elements, tends to be a hallmark of classic style in dress. There is also an emphasis on quality. To be a true classic, a piece should be beautifully made in terms of material, cut, stitching and finish. If not directly referencing ancient Hellenic design, there is still a sense that classic garments incorporate and repeat elements of long-standing clothing styles which are often rooted in something solid and functional. For example, late 18th century men’s fashionable clothing, as seen in the coat and buckskin breeches displayed, became very plain and unadorned. This style was based on the riding dress of the country squire and thus connected it to the simple, unchanging nature of the rural landscape. These associations provide authenticity and elevate such garments to the realms of classic dress.

The Little Black Dress

Agnès-Drecoll, ‘Little Black Dress’

The term ‘Little Black Dress’ or ‘LBD’ for short, is now part of the fashion lexicon. For most people it represents a garment that is simple, understated and flattering – a classic piece that can be worn many times and will be appropriate for most smart occasions.

The 1920s saw the birth of the ‘Little Black Dress’. In 1922 the Paris fashion house of Premet produced a simple black satin dress with a white collar and cuffs which was named ‘Le Garçonne’ after a novel of the same name. Both licenced and illegal copies sold in large numbers. Despite this, Gabrielle Chanel is now credited with the invention of the ‘Little Black Dress’. She launched her version onto the fashion stage in 1926 and Vogue described it as ‘a fashion Ford’; a design classic just like the Ford Model T car which according to Henry Ford’s 1923 autobiography, could be ordered ‘in any colour so long as it is black’. Chanel’s dress was a long-sleeved, low-waisted one-piece dress with simple, black chevron decoration. In contrast to later versions which were usually intended for eveningwear, it was designed as late afternoon or cocktail attire, just like the Agnès-Drecoll ‘Little Black Dress’ displayed here.   

Images by John Chase Photography