Table of Contents
The story of the evolution of dress is not as readily accessible as might first be imagined. Books and articles often choose to focus on narrower areas of interest such as a particular era or style, and some function as a wider sociopolitical analysis of how dress adapted and molded to fit contemporary demands. Extraordinary museum collections worldwide are a first and highly precious resource for many researchers and enthusiasts, but most face various inevitable limitations. Chief of these are space, resources, funding, and, more specifically, the necessity (because of loans or conservation requirements) to have a significant number of garments out of the display cases at any one time. Because of this, it can be impossible for visitors to witness a continuous, chronological flow of styles, changing before their eyes in fundamental shape and small details, to produce a comprehensive vision of—quite literally—the evolution of clothes. That is the express intention of this work, which aims to take the reader on a sartorial journey through women’s fashion in the Western world, explored in blocks of a few years each and spanning the years 1550 to 1970. The scarce availability of extant (surviving) garments prior to 1550 means that this date has been chosen as a starting point, but there are many publications that consider dress in detail before this point. Books such as Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies’s The Tudor Tailor offer expert reconstructions of earlier garments and a strong background to Tudor dress leading up to the era covered in the first chapter of this book. Janet Arnold’s acclaimed Patterns of Fashion series starts with a look at The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c.1560–1620, providing coverage of the sixteenth century through an exploration of extant garments; it is a highly recommended source of further reading.
Examples from works of art and, primarily, extant collections from some of the best (and lesser-known) museums across the world teach the reader how to anticipate and “read” the details of dress, thereby developing a trained eye and enhancing their enjoyment. In a few instances, painted representations have been included, but this only occurs where it has been impossible to find full examples, a particular struggle for sixteenth- and early-seventeenthcentury garments because only small fragments often remain. Paintings can also cause some confusion when it comes to using them as reliable historical indicators, and readers should be aware of their limitations as well as great benefits. One of the reasons why portraits can be unreliable evidence is seen in the following examples. First, consider Peter Lely’s Portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth from c.1671 to 1674. The Duchess is wearing what came to be known as “fashionable undress”: light, flimsy garments for “at home” wear that, due to their suggestion of leisure, were a popular portrait costume of choice for the upper echelons of society. This fabric was pinned into shape and, while hairstyle and other accessories can be helpful confirmation of a broad time period, the actual “undress” itself remained similar right into the eighteenth century. Mrs. John Pigott’s dress in the neighboring image is more shaped to the body in the manner of a usual gown but its wide, low décolletage and unstructured sleeves set it apart as a piece of “undress.”
The ability to recognize the adaptation of fashionable details into lower-middle and sometimes even working-class dress across the centuries will be a skill the reader can take from this book and apply to their own exploration of fashion history. The garments in the following chapters come from museums in Australia, Britain, Canada, the United States, Italy and Czechoslovakia. They have been chosen for their ability to illustrate fashions from a broad Western geographical base, with European, American, and Australasian fashion being the prime focus in order to maintain a clear and concentrated overview. Some of the dresses, suits, and ensembles seen here have never been published before: those from small Australian collections such as Swan Guildford Historical Society (Western Australia) and Manning Valley Historical Society in New South Wales. These are important examples because they demonstrate the fluidity with which European fashions were taken up, and often modified, in colonial societies. More generally, it is important not to view the development of fashion through purely European lenses but to bear in mind other Western countries that had a significant impact. Wherever possible, original sources have been consulted to highlight the prevalence of certain trends and the uniqueness of others. These range from contemporary newspapers and books to theatrical reviews.
Trends in accessories—shoes, hats, purses, fans and so on—are discussed in the dress analyses themselves (particularly where it is felt that accessories are a vital part of the overall style ensemble). However, the title of this book being How to Read a Dress, the focus is very much on the dress as garment: the body covering worn by women in various phases through history. The aim is to recognize key changes in the cut of bodice and skirt, of overall aesthetics, embellishment, and innovation. This approach is not a universal one and, whilst staying general within its theme, is intended to emphasize the structural and decorative shifts in this very particular item of clothing. As fashion became more diverse, dresses were no longer the only option nor, recently, even the most representative. Therefore, on occasion, a single coat or suit will be shown when deemed representative of the general line of dress at that point in history. As designer Elsa Schiaparelli put it in 1936: “I wear suits nearly all of the time. I like them; they are practical in every way, and my advice to a business girl who wishes to dress smartly at all times and whose income is very limited is this: buy a good suit and live in it.”1
This quote also exemplifies another aim of the later chapters of this book, which is not to showcase exclusively upper-class clothing. Despite a lack of extant examples, we know from pictorial and written accounts that working clothes did attempt to follow the fashionable line to however small an extent, and that those who could afford it would have had a single dress “for best” made, as far as possible, to copy the styles seen in fashion plates and on the bodies of the wealthy. It is inevitably the garments of the rich that have for the most part survived; since these clothes are most representative of the fashionable ideal, we draw the majority of our knowledge and enjoyment from them. Therefore, until the twentieth-century examples, it will be these (with some exceptions) that make up the majority of the images in this book.
An end date of 1970 has been given because, it can be argued, women’s fashion after this point saw “the dress” less as their main choice of clothing, and more as just one among many. The ability to “choose” is key here: as historian Betty Luther Hillman put it, “‘Liberation’ came not from the actual clothes a woman decided to wear, but from the knowledge that the choice was hers to make.” 2 Although dresses and skirts were still a norm for women in the 1970s, the knowledge that trousers and shorts were accepted and, indeed, fashionable alternatives, made their relationship with the dress somewhat more fluid. Added to this, the 1960s and 1970s saw a significant move forward in the production of clothes that could be worn by both sexes. Zsa Zsa Gabor wrote in 1970 that “Today is the best time in the world for women to dress like their own personalities . . . A lot of adults get what the young people call ‘uptight’ about unisex clothes . . . they say, ‘It’s terrible! You can’t tell the difference between them.’ I say, don’t worry, they can tell the difference.” 3
It is, of course, impossible to cover every element of such a complex and diverse topic as fashion evolution in just one volume. The aim here is to provide coverage of some of the most important and easily recognizable styles worn by women from 1550 to 1970, and to offer the reader a means by which to identify them. Such knowledge will aid visits to costume exhibitions and allow a greater enjoyment and understanding of historically themed films, TV, and stage adaptations. It is also hoped that the student of art and fashion history or fashion and theatre design will find in these pages a handy reference guide, and a gateway to understanding dating and analytical techniques to aid the increasingly interdisciplinary arts and humanities researcher.