Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism
Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. 206 p. ISBN 978-0-7546-6510-6.
1In a bold claim Christine Bayles Kortsch says that “in the Victorian and early Edwardian periods, the primary erogenous zone of the female torso was the waist” (61). For this reason the thesis of her book revolves around the changing shape of women in the period, the items of clothing that created that shape and the dresses that covered that same shape. Her view is that dressmaking and sewing was a special non-verbal discourse between women—one that provided a peculiarly female vocabulary of communication and that offered modes of expression exclusively female. The examination of this discourse, she claims, has hitherto been largely overlooked and its analysis can throw light on areas previously uncovered by historians of the nineteenth century.
2Kortsch’s great strength is her ability to assemble and synthesise previous work in this field and offer it to her reader in a clear and accessible manner. Her central section on the corset, for example, is an invaluable guide to a strangely obscure feature of nineteenth century cultural history. The origins of corsetry are, of course, very ancient, but the style moved into great prominence at about the time that Victoria came to the throne. It was at the point when the crinoline took over that the waist adopted its erogenous role. In her third chapter, “Fashioning Women”, Kortsch traces the bizarre debate that followed the growing trend in tight lacing. For some people, including doctors and dress reformers, vilified it for deforming the inner organs and leading to unpleasant female maladies. For others, it remained an essential item of respectable dress and kept this position for all classes for about seventy years. With great skill Kortsch shows how the radical views of the so-called “New Women” did not always include dress reform. Many advanced women felt that to adopt both radical dress and radical politics made them look like cranks, so that they continued to wear corsets in order to gain and secure a sense of respectability. Further paradoxes ensued. Tight lacing was associated with sexual allure. But while prostitutes made themselves more tempting by shaping themselves into hour-glass figures, women who refused the corset and gave their bodies more freedom of movement could also be associated with those whose morals were suspiciously free and undisciplined. “For many women,” Kortsch tells us, “not wearing a corset was a sign of sexual promiscuity or at the very least immodesty” (92). The muddled controversy around the status of tight-lacing and corsetry in the nineteenth century was brought to the fore by one-hundred-and-fifty letters on the subject printed in Samuel Beeton’s the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine between 1867 and 1874. This collection has always formed a basis for historical interpretation on these issues but they are problematical, because there is no clear distinction in them between fact and fiction and between truth and myth. Kortsch elegantly sums up the often contradictory findings of scholars like Hélène Roberts, David Kunzle, Valerie Steele, Leigh Summers, Anne Hollander, and Patricia Cunningham. In an attempt to pin down the statistical evidence provided by this material Kortsch turned to the Museum of Costume at Bath and the Chertsey Costume Museum in Runnymede. Here she finds evidence that the average size of the extremely large numbers of dresses in these collections is some ten inches larger that claimed by many of the writers to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine!
3This is excellent and precise information upon which scholars of the future can build, but unfortunately Kortsch does not always maintain such a high level of scholarly accuracy. This is particularly evident in her account of the role of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the development of Aesthetic dress and later dress reform. Kortsch mentions Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris and their adoption of “artistic costume” (81). But her work here is entirely descriptive. She makes no attempt to explain why Siddal and after her Jane Morris adopted this strange way of dressing, nor is there any attempt to place their style in the context of other artistic dressers. Barbara Leigh-Smith was a major influence on Elizabeth Siddal, and the Patel sisters played a central part in moulding the working-class Jane Morris at one end of the social scale and in offering sartorial inspiration to the aristocratic Rosalind Howard of Castle Howard at the other end. Too often in this book, areas of considerable significance and complexity, such as Pre-Raphaelitism, neo-classicism, the Aesthetic movement are skated over or treated too simplistically. But where, one might ask, is the “Late Victorian Women’s Fiction” in all this? The book opens with an extended analysis of Olive Schreiner’s 1926 text From Man to Man. Some fifty pages later Kortsch returns to imaginative literature in the work of Margaret Oliphant’s 1888 novel Kirsteen then Ellen Hepworth Dixon’s The Story of a Modern Woman (1894). Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book (1897), follows, together with Gertrude Dix’s The Image-Breakers (1900). But the problem is that the cross-references to previous discussions in the text, the movement between the discourse of novels and the discourse of textiles, together with the general organization of the book as a whole creates in the reader a sense of confusion. The full title of this book provides a clue to the problem: Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction, Literary, Textiles, and Activism to which might be added, costume, fashion, and style. There is simply too much here. To attempt to squeeze into 183 pages so many aspects of nineteenth-century and Edwardian culture leads to too much précis, cutting of corners, summary and abbreviation. It would appear that Kortsch wanted most of all to write about some of these little known novels written by women in the latter part of the period, but in taking an extremely oblique (although valid) approach to them, by setting out to examine them through the lens of dress culture, created huge organizational problems for her. Because the novels are relatively little known they have to be summarized before they can be interpreted. Then the interpretative issues have to be placed in the complex issues of dress and appearance, which in their turn, have to be analysed and theorized. Finally all the issues have to be referred back to the special female discourses of sewing, needlework, and dressmaking described by Kortsch in her early chapters.
4There is a great deal in this book that is valuable, interesting, and enlightening, and it makes a significant contribution to the scholarship in the field of fashion and literature. Kortsch’s command of current work is excellent, and the bibliography that she provides for her reader is in itself an excellent resource. But ultimately the parts do not really make a whole. Kortsch like one of her dressmakers has tried to get a very large woman into a very small corset. There is really too much bodily material here to cram into this space, and no amount of tight-lacing will reduce it to elegant proportions.
Pour citer cet article
J.-B. Bullen, « Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 203-205.
J.-B. Bullen, « Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 73 Printemps | 2011, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2220Haut de page
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