Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era
The research relates to a dress (above) that has been viewable in the online collection for some time (its condition is too fragile for sustained display). It was one of the first dresses I identified to study, and has been referenced in other literature in this area. Another wonderful white gown, it is one of those specimens often identified as Aesthetic Dress, and it does somewhat walk in that rather murky area. When I first researched this dress, and at the time of my PhD completion (early 2012), the V&A catalogue said very little about it, but credited it as being a Liberty gown, designed by Hamo Thornycroft. Now, the object information has been updated with information I discovered in the Thornycroft archive at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, which I happily passed on to the curators. I did this because they allowed me to come and examine the dress when it was still being mounted for display in the Cult of Beauty exhibit, and after a chat with the Senior Textile Conservator Frances Hartog, I realised that they were not aware of the relevant letters. Interestingly, Hartog’s own observations on the gown were in line with the story I learned from the Thornycroft letters (more below). The marriage of research and technical study is a wonderful thing! As is academic generosity.
I shall cease being vague, and excerpt the relevant material from my thesis, as it was one of my favourite stories to write. Probably because it is a wee bit of a romance! Read on…
The Thornycroft Gown:
a Liberty Dress?
In 1884, the same year [that E.W.] Godwin began the ‘Art Dress’ department at Liberty, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft and his wife Agatha created what is for me the quintessential example of an Artistic Dress. According to their daughter (Mrs W.O. Manning), who donated the dress to the V&A in 1973, this was Agatha’s wedding gown.
Both Hamo and Agatha had a well-established interest in both historic costume as well as dress reform, judging from photographs. One photo shows a young Hamo dressed as Proteus from Two Gentleman of Verona (perhaps for a fancy dress party or a tableau vivant); and another photo shows an even younger Agatha as the Queen of Hearts. But costume balls were a popular pastime for many Victorians; more interesting is a photo of the couple taken in 1884, probably shortly after their marriage [below]. Hamo wears the sort of comfortable outdoors attire that Godwin and [Walter] Hamilton spoke of… checked breeches tucked in woollen socks, a loose comfortable coat, and a short-brimmed cap. Agatha wears what was certainly a ‘rational’ ensemble: a loosely-fitted walking dress (comfortable but not straying too far for the fashionable silhouette), and a long mantle-like overdress topped with a shorter cape that ties artistically at her throat. From her posture and the fit of the outfit it is plain to see she wears neither corset nor bustle or crinoline; one imagines she has chosen the woollen combinations promoted by dress reform societies. It is a comfortable and candid portrait of the young couple.
The Thornycrofts’ affection is plain in a series of letters written by Agatha that relate to the Artistic Dress she wore for her wedding. [At the time of writing this thesis], the gown… was labelled by the V&A as a Liberty dress, designed by Hamo Thornycroft. Specifically, the object file list[ed] ‘Liberty & Co. Ltd’ as the maker, then in the summary states:
The dress was made and worn by the wife of Sir Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1926). He was a sculptor and designed it for her. They were both interested in the dress reform movement and conceived the dress in accordance with the movement’s principles so it did not restrict the waist and arms…
The sewing is not professional and the dress has been altered. The Liberty material is a thin, probably Indian, washing silk of a type that seldom survives.
The information in the entry is conflicting: the maker is listed as Liberty, yet the discussion states it was made by Agatha, and designed by Hamo. It also states the sewing is not professional, which would also negate authorship of Liberty & Co. as maker. This conflictive listing is possibly due to cataloguing necessities mixed with information given to the museum by Mrs Manning. However, new evidence gives us a clearer picture of how the gown came to be: there is reference to it in three letters written by Agatha, which were not accessible until their daughter left Hamo’s personal papers to the Henry Moore Institute in the 1980s.
In a letter dated Jan 1st 1884, just after their engagement, Agatha wrote to Hamo while she was staying outside of London:
Dearest. The box from Liberty caused me a great deal of surprise and delight at your kindness in sending me such a lovely present. The stuff is beautiful and it has often been my ambition to have a dress of it but I cannot help reproaching you at the same time for indulging me to such an extent… The question that arises is, how can I get it made into a wearable form? I am afraid the genius of the Tonbridge dressmakers is not sufficiently great to induce me to let them try their hands on it. But I cannot yet make up my mind on such a weighty and important subject. You see women are all alike; just as vain as one another! I have been considering already the design of the dress but I think you must help me with that. It requires great consideration…
A week later, she wrote:
I am going to get my dress made by a dress maker here, the only one I think who can carry out instructions at all near the mark. I shall keep her well under my eye which will be possible if she comes here to work. I think the conclusions we came to very satisfactory with regard to the dress the other night. I have a good idea of what it should be like. It was sweet of you to make so much trouble about it.
Then finally, on the 21st, she wrote to thank Hamo for lace and mittens he sent, and observed ‘The lace is lovely and will suit the Liberty gown.’ Thus these letters offer us rare insight into one way these clothes were made. It is also interesting to note that she refers to this as a ‘Liberty gown’, although it was not made by Liberty & Co., merely the fabric came from there.
The final design encompasses all the aspects of a proper Artistic Dress. It is made of fine, lightweight silk, dyed in natural colours – an off-white, with a turquoise blue stripe (now badly faded so the dress appears ivory, see detail images). One can imagine it being worn with the turquoise jewellery that was very popular with the artistic set at this time. The dress design the Thornycrofts concocted was modest yet graceful, and in fact, according to V&A Senior Textile Conservator Frances Hartog, the stitching itself is rather basic, hinting perhaps at the uncertain skill of that Tonbridge dressmaker.
The bodice has a low square neckline and is decorated only with flattering smocking that gives it a rustic charm. Wilson tells us that smocking was revived in the 1870s ‘to give movement to the sleeves and yoke, and by the 1880s it was fashionable for conventional dress.’ I would add to this that smocking also had a specific social significance related to both a more picturesque, romantic (and historicised) attitude; and the joy and usefulness of handicraft promoted through the Arts and Crafts movement. Smocking is beautiful and useful, a kind of ornamentation of which Godwin and his followers approved; that it becomes a popular feature of Artistic Dress (and subsequently fashionable dress) is unsurprising.
The back is adorned simply with pleating and a row of functional buttons. The sleeves are fitted above and below the elbow, allowing the coveted freedom of movement. The skirt is beautifully draped in the front in a Greek style that hints at coming Edwardian fashion, while the back is gathered up to create an illusion of a soft bustle, without the added weight of a crinoline. The overall effect is an elegant gown which in its healthful and aesthetic qualities embodies all the tenets of Artistic Dress, without straying too far from the fashionable Victorian silhouette.
Thus it stands that this dress, although made from Liberty silk, is not actually a ‘Liberty & Co.’ brand or make of dress, as we might understand it today. It is an excellent example, however, of the way in which Liberty supported the home arts industry through providing materials for Artistic Dress. They were proactive and even didactic in this respect, as the next chapter’s investigation of their catalogues, reveals.
And so, the object file has been updated to reflect that the maker is actually unknown, although it does still list Liberty as a ‘maker’. I can only imagine this is for search purposes, as I doubt they are trying to credit Liberty’s, but rather flag it up for researchers due to the fabric. It might easily cause confusion, however, another reason I’m glad the notes have been updated with the letter excerpts I provided.
The V&A was incredibly generous in allowing me access to this dress – and incidentally, I always find them wonderfully helpful and open to researchers. So I can’t really be upset that the they didn’t credit me with discovering this material (and the online catalogue isn’t an appropriate space for that anyway) – because the goal of research, at least for me, isn’t glory, but furthering knowledge. (Well, maybe just a little glory. Or a steady paycheck at least.) And now, the V&A know a bit more about this wonderful specimen, and future researchers can use this material to develop their own work. And I feel pretty good about that.
 From the online catalogue for: Liberty & Co. Ltd. (maker), Dress (Thornycroft/Liberty), Striped washing silk, with hand-smocked and gathered sleeves, lined with cotton, ca 1885, T.171-1973, Victoria & Albert Museum, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13850/dress/.
 For more on amateur and professional sewing and dressmaking at this time, see: Burman, The Culture of Sewing.
 Liberty & Co. Ltd. (maker), Dress (Thornycroft/Liberty).
 Frances Hartog, related to the author in a conversation at the Victoria & Albert Museum, March 2010.
 Wilson, “Away with the Corsets, On with the Shifts,” 21.
 For more on this, see: Parker, The Subversive Stitch; and: Janice Helland, British and Irish Home Arts and Industries, 1880-1914: Marketing Craft, Making Fashion (Irish Academic Press, 2007).