Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lytton Strachey and Freddie Mercury Opine on the Victorian Age

The excerpt below is taken from the Introduction, by Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D., for Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail  (Astrida Schaeffer, Great Life Press, forthcoming June 2013)

The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it. --Lytton Strachey

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), a founding member of the Bloomsbury group of writers and intellectuals, and author of Eminent Victorians (1918) and Queen Victoria (1921), was certainly in a position to make this claim.  Strachey’s enigmatic conclusion was not off the mark, and the Victorian influence that came to define the late nineteenth century remains an epoch that confounds historians and scholars. For the modern audience, the term “Victorian” is one which implies much and reveals little simultaneously.  It conjures up an image of “being surrounded by exquisite clutter,” as Freddie Mercury of Queen memorably described in 1977.  

The nineteenth century certainly was a period of cultural clutter, as the three sisters of modern life--industrialization, immigration, and urbanization--excited and disturbed the rhythms of society and family.  But, it was fashion that most powerfully organized the clutter, both triggering and mirroring the “tyranny of change,” as one historian has described this maelstrom of unsettling forces.  Singer’s sewing machines enabled women to experiment with trends inside the home.   The Delineator and other design journals excited their hopes and guided their hands by introducing Chicago and Omaha to current patterns from Paris and London.  Godey’s Ladies Book and other magazines that catered expressly to woman and inspired them to develop themselves as domestic paragons.
Catalogues like those of Sears, Roebuck allowed them to make purchases from virtually anywhere in the United States.

It is no small irony, then, that the figure whose name represents this period of exquisite clutter presented herself as an adamantine force of tradition and decorum.  Queen Victoria would be Britain’s longest ruling monarch, ascending the throne in 1837 and holding court until 1901.  But, it was marriage in 1840 to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha that marked a dramatic shift in the idea of fashion.  Not unlike the royal weddings of today, her dress was watched carefully--on both sides of the Atlantic.  Designed by William Dyce and stitched by Mary Bettans, the gown was a simple dress, of Honiton lace and silk satin, and, notably, white, inspiring a tradition in wedding fashion that persists to this day.  Godey’s editor Sarah Hale saw an opportunity here, and filled the magazine with Lydia H. Sigourney’s accounts of court life in London that inspired American women to imitate a royalty that their politics denied them.

    The historic garments captured here, many published for the first time, date from the late Victorian period, roughly 1875 until 1909.  As such, they reveal complications of nationalism and homage to European trends in fashion, like warp and weft, that Americans found displayed in the great exhibitions of their day.  The fashion of the Gilded Age, on the eve of the 1876 American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, are not as distant from the direct influence of Queen Victoria’s court and Parisian haute couture as one might expect........&.

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
University of New Hampshire
Durham, USA

Cover design: Great Life Press
Images: Brian Smestad, Astrida Schaeffer
Courtesy, University of New Hampshire, Irma Bowen Collection

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