The Tartan Dress

You may have gathered, Gentle Reader, by the subject matter of these blogs and the archaic manner of my address that I am interested in two subjects: fashion, and Victorian literature.  Interested so much, in fact, that I have written extensively on the subjects, even earned a doctorate in them.  I share this love with my friends, and today, one said to me,
“I absolutely love that tartan dress you posted to Facebook.”

Here is the tartan dress under discussion.  It was posted by the Fashion Museum in Bath, one of the most amazing places in the world (I’ve had the pleasure to visit there twice, and to research in their archives each time!), and is an 1860s day dress:

Tartan Dress

What I love about this dress is the very modernity of it.  The dress’s ability to look remarkably modern, as if it were from Dior’s new look catalog in the 1950s, its chic short sleeves with their sassy bit of ruffle, and the belt that gives the illusion of a single garment (a day dress, Gentle Reader, suggests it is in fact split in two).

We so often think of nineteenth-century fashion as dated, as so marked by its crinolines and its bustles and its dustiness that no contemporary woman, outside of occasional Steampunkers or Historical Reenactors, would want to wear such a garment.  But here today, January 25, 2013, another woman, herself young and chic, sat at Starbucks over her latte and swooned at the thought of wearing such a dress.

Such is the power of fashion, no?

And the colors.  Heaven’s to Betsy, the colors.  They are stunning and bright, extraordinary in pattern and complexity.  This is a dress for the ages.

But what I so often think of when I view dresses from our past is the woman for whom it was the present.  Who wore this dress?  What manner of person was she?  Rich, almost certainly, given the dress’s style and complicated make.  But was she kind to her maid?  Was she married (although this seems to me to be the dress of a young woman, that does not mean she was not married)?  Did her husband or mother or sister love this dress as much as I do?  Did she love this dress?  Where did the dress go, this artifact of history?

Where did the woman go who wore it?

Fashion is as much looking backward as it is fashion forward.  Let us remember the past as we anticipate the future.


Like what you’ve read?  Visit my website: The Life and Times of the Postmodern Bluestocking.


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