Women’s Clothing, Class Division, British Imperialism in India, and Cotton/Muslin Dresses

Today’s excursions included a visit to the Tate museum and the Victoria Albert Museum. Though I did not find an obvious trend at first, a bit of reflection  resulted in a significant social issue in Voctorian society. Paintings at the Tate Museum of women by artists such as George Clausen, D.G. Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Theodor von Holst pictured women of a middle and upper class status in fine clothing. A trend during out tour at the Victorian Albert Museum was focused on British relations with India for cotton that was spun, woven, and made in to muslin for articles of clothing. The V&A had clothing worn by wealthy individuals from the Victorian period that showcased with fine workmanship, quality of fabrics, and how Indian culture influenced style. The poorer classes depicted in Dickens’ novels would not have worn such expensive garments, often owned second hand clothing, and women patched their dresses when necesarry. In Amy Levy’s Romance of Shop, the narrator often described patches to garments and shoes that belonged to Gertrude. The Lorimer sisters had to make thrifty decisions in orde to keep their business afloat.  One could attempt to picture the difference in women’s clothing in Dickens’ Great Expectations; the class differences between Mrs Joe, Ms Havisham, and Estella would illustrate the inherent disparities between the haves and have nots. One could also further examine the social differences in Levy’s Romance of Shop to show the differences within the Lorimer sisters, their Aunt Caroline, and Constance Devonshire.

Women’s fashion changed in England in the 17th century when the British East India Company traded in Indian cotton, silk fabrics, and muslin. Muslin was a popular choice for clothing due to its light weight and ability to keep one cool in hot, arid climates. The fabric, as noted by our museum guide, was left undyed as well as dyed, embroidered, or painted to match the patterns and motifs of clothing in India. Muslin was often described by Jane Austen in novels such as Mansfield Park when Mrs Rushworth turned away two housemaids for wearing white gowns. White fabric was thought to denote aristocracy and since it was difficult to keep clean. Calico, a cotton fabric equal to muslin, was known for its floral prints in the Victorian period. The word calico comes from Calicut – or as we know it as Calcutta. Though Victorian fashion and its portrayal in literature of the period can be discussed at a greater length, I have posted a few photos from both museums below.


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