Sunday 12 October 2014

The University of Chester’s 175th Anniversary Quilt Unveiled!

The Quilt Unveiling

On 12 September 2014 the unveiling of the quilt took place at the University of Chester to inaugurate the celebration of its 175-year history. The quilters were at last able to see the culmination of a year’s work. The months of planning, designing, discussing, stitching, and putting together the finished work have resulted in a beautiful community quilt.

Here is the finished quilt:

It consists of a colourful and diverse group of images and stories, each relating to aspects of life at the University of Chester, today and over the course of its history.


The quilt was unveiled by Councillor Bob Rudd, Mayor of Chester and Mrs Susan Sellers, the High Sheriff of Cheshire, with the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster announcing the inauguration of the University's 175th Anniversary celebrations.

Photo by Mark English, University of Chester

And here are the quilters, pleased that their hard work and creative energies have resulted in a fine and enduring symbol of the University of Chester. Everyone hopes that it will be enjoyed by students, staff and the people of Cheshire for many years to come.

Of course, an event like this one could not pass without tea and cake! The University of Chester's Catering department created a beautiful cake in the shape of a sewing box, complete with edible cotton reels, scissors and buttons!

Fiona Roberts and some of her fellow quilters will be talking about the making of the quilt at the next Textile Stories Study Day on 25th April 2015. (See the blog posts below for details of this event, dedicated to quilts and their stories.)

Sunday 13 July 2014

Reading Jane Eyre

The Jane Eyre Reading Day, 5th July 2014

The third ‘Drama of Costume’ reading group discussion was held on 5th July. We talked about Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre (1847), and most participants welcomed the opportunity to read the novel (or reread it) and watch some of the many screen adaptations.  

We focused on the ways in which Charlotte Brontë depicts Jane’s clothing when she is a pupil at Lowood School, ‘uniformly dressed in brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion’ (Chapter 5), and Jane’s wedding clothes when she looks at herself in the mirror and sees ‘a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed the image of a stranger’ (Chapter 26). Of course, we also mentioned Bertha, Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife, who tears Jane’s expensive veil, leaving Jane to wear ‘a plain square of blond’ (Chapter 26).

We considered three well-known screen adaptations of Jane Eyre. Firstly, the 1943 film, Jane Eyre directed by Robert Stevenson, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.
We agreed that the costuming of this film reflected the 1940s much more than the nineteenth-century context of the novel. 

Quite a few participants appreciated the 2006 BBC series directed by Susannah White, particularly the way in which the costume designers dressed Jane in the unglamorous clothing of a governess:

The third adaptation we considered was the 2011 film directed by Cary Fukunaga:

While some participants did not enjoy this film as much as many other adaptations, most people felt that the costumes were very effective.

The camera often focused on close-ups of Jane’s clothes. Particularly memorable is the moment when Jane attempts to take off her wedding gown and we see her fumbling with the complicated lacing at the back of the dress.

The costume designer, Michael O’Connor, has helped to convey the distress of Jane’s position and her feeling that in her wedding dress she is ‘so unlike my usual self that it seemed the image of a stranger’ (Chapter 26). Without a lady’s maid to help her undress, Jane’s solitary condition is emphasised here very dramatically.

I asked participants what they would say to an 18-year-old student who asked ‘Why should I bother to read Jane Eyre?’ and there were many interesting comments offered such as:
  • ·       The novel has a powerful feminist message, for Jane is independent and determined to remain so, even after marriage;
  • ·       Jane Eyre has hauntingly gothic elements, from eerie landscapes to strange mad laughter in an apparently ‘haunted’ old mansion;
  • ·       The novel is a classic love story, where the hero and heroine are not presented as glamorous and beautiful, but as plain (even ‘odd’); yet they are presented as intellectual equals and well-matched;
  • ·       Jane Eyre depicts Jane’s childhood in a memorable way, for Jane suffers abuse and humiliation, yet manages to overcome this. She undergoes an interesting moral development during her years at school;
  • ·       Jane Eyre can be read over and over again, and readers can find something new in the novel every time.

We ended with a quiz and the prize was won by Lynne Hampson.

The next Reading Group meeting will be held on 21st February 2015 and our set text is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

Monday 14 April 2014

The Textile Stories Study Day, 5th April 2014: The Drama of Costume

The second textiles study day took place on Saturday 5th April at the University of Chester. Shortly after the event was advertised it was fully booked, and a lively audience attended, consisting of sewing enthusiasts (both professional and amateur), people working in the cultural industries, and those interested in textiles, costume, and costume dramas more generally. Dr Amber Regis from the University of Sheffield also kindly contributed to the day.

This event was generously supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through Professor Deborah Wynne's Fellowship [Grant no: AH/K00803X/1].  

The following reports on the event were kindly written by Lucy Johnson and Katie Baker, both of whom are graduate students in the English Department, University of Chester.

Lucy's report on the morning's activities:

The uninvited drizzle did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for the University of Chester’s Textiles Stories Study Day: the Drama of Costume. Dr Sallie McNamara from Southampton Solent University kicked off the event in style with her presentation ‘”We’re All in it Together”: Downton Abbey, Benevolence and Austerity Chic’. Looking at the first three series of the ITV costume drama, she examined the fascinating concept of ‘costume narrative’ and how clothing is used to represent different aspects of the programme both in and outside the series.


Sallie argued that costume specifically within the series is used in order to reinforce today's ideology of austerity, the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’, and anyone who dissents against the status quo is ‘reincorporated’ back into the programme by way of their dress. She pointed out the comparative absence of detail on servants’ clothes, and how the servant’s body (particularly in the case of lady’s maid Anna) had to become a signifier for cleanliness and the physical intimacy she shared with her mistress.

            Next, Sallie showed us how the famous scene of Sybil Crawley’s ‘new and exciting’ dress posed a direct challenge to gender roles and actively transgressed the established costume narrative of the show. Here, Sybil’s beautiful, turquoise, ‘harem’-style trousers are visually striking amidst the neutral tones worn by the other women in the scene, and during a time when trousers were a garment worn almost exclusively by men, both the style of her outfit coupled with its bold colours represent Sybil’s rebellion against the norms of her time and an intriguing subversion of Downton’s own established costume code.

           Sallie’s examination of how Downton Abbey and its costuming are perceived by the press was perhaps the most fascinating part of her talk. What she termed the ‘lyrical’ nature of Grazia Daily’s description of Mary’s wedding dress (costing £4,000 to make, the most expensive costume ever made on the show) demonstrated how our external knowledge about the evocatively opulent detail of the dress itself adds to our appreciation of it visually. She then showed us a number of images from the Love Magazine fashion shoot with Downton actresses Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Brown-Findlay, which the magazine itself sub-titled ‘Fashion’s infatuation with the ladies of Downton Abbey’. Sallie speculated that the magazine was perhaps trying to depict the ‘private’ side of the show’s characters, styling Laura Carmichael in particular vividly against type as the subdued Lady Edith with lush red velvet and artful cigarette.

            Next up was Jacqui Hyman from the Textile Restoration Studio, with her talk ‘Buried Textile Treasures: Discoveries of Children's Costume from Medieval Egypt’. She described the remarkably fortuitous discovery of a box of Mamluk children’s burial garments in the International Textiles Archive at Leeds University, which had been waiting to be properly catalogued. Many items such as these were sold to museums following excavations in the 1800s. The fad for archaeology during the century, coupled with an absence of clearly defined rules for the comparatively new practise, led to anyone being able to excavate fragile and incredibly historically valuable sites, and to take things as personal relics.


The Mamluks preferred to bury their dead in their best garments so that they would be appropriately fitted out to meet their maker in the afterlife. The first amazingly preserved item that Jacqui showed us was a linen tunic, made for a small child; clothing and the minutiae of detail was very important to the Mamluks, and so the creator of the tunic had counted the weave of the fabric exactly for the embroidery around the bottom edge of the garment, with a perfectly repeated design. Jacqui described how the embroidery had been worked before it was applied to the tunic.

            Jacqui then showed us several silk embroidered samplers, or strips of linen used to try out embroidery patterns. The linen fabric on one item had been patched prior to the construction of the final garment; the large sleeves indicated that it belonged to the child of a wealthy family who did not need to work. Again, she pointed out the astonishing attention to detail, with no raw edges to the fabric.


Jacqui then explained the process of caring for these incredibly fragile garments, moving them only with support and putting pieces with damaged threadwork into a humidity chamber in order to relax the fibres. She showed us a waistcoat that is very similar to a piece currently in the V&A, made up of eleven different sections of striped silk. A supplementary weave had been added to the garment, a practise that only took place in China at the time.

            The last tunic Jacqui showed us was, she explained, almost a combination of the previous garments. It was wadded like a quilt, with stripes on the pocket made to match the stripes on the tunic itself. A gruesome coda to the presentation came when Jacqui described the painstaking process of cleaning the garments, gently flicking off centuries-old ingrained dirt whilst trying not to damage the fabric: under the gaze of the microscope, the detritus of history was laid bare in the remnants of long-dead moths, human skin, and even hair follicles.

The International Textiles Archive is located in St. Wilfred's Chapel on the edge of the Leeds University campus. Its opening times are Tuesday to Friday, but a special appointment is needed to view items.

Katie's report on the afternoon's activities:

 After an informative and extremely enjoyable morning, the afternoon session was opened by Costume Historian, Gillian Stapleton who gave a talk and demonstration called ‘Jane Eyre – The Well Dressed Governess’. Gillian enjoys a wide, varied and respected career as a Costume Historian, a career which has seen her offer guidance to the BBC on shows such as Queen Victoria’s Wardrobe and Royal Upstairs Downstairs. In addition to this, Gillian designs and makes historically accurate costume from scratch, examples of which the audience was fortunate enough to be given, in a garment by garment demonstration.
       Gillian’s talk centred on the parallels between the lives of author Charlotte Brontë and her literary heroine, Jane Eyre. She began by providing examples of Jane’s charity school uniform, made from authentic patterns from the 1838 Workwoman’s Guide. Gillian explained how Jane’s plain brown woollen dress was purposefully created to mark out its wearer as humble and nun-like – something shared by Charlotte, who attended a charity school from the age of eight. Gillian then moved on to show the audience examples of ‘Adult Jane’, in particular that of her governess’s uniform. As Gillian described each item of the typical governess’s wardrobe, she dressed herself, providing a wonderful visual representation of nineteenth century clothing.

       Gillian ended her talk with a section on the similarities between Jane and Charlotte’s wedding dresses, pointing out their simple choice of fabrics and economy of material, yet also suggesting that both women enjoyed an intrinsic appreciation for textiles.

     The second talk of the afternoon was given by Veronica Isaac from the Department of Theatre and Performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Entitled, ‘Ellen Terry (1847-1928): Highlights from the Wardrobe of the Painter’s Actress’, Veronica’s talk focused on the vast array of clothing and costume worn throughout the fascinating life of Victorian actress, Ellen Terry. The talk was borne out of Veronica’s current PhD research, which will see her cataloguing the museum’s collection of the actress’s pieces.

       Born in 1847 to travelling player parents, Terry’s first stage role was in A Winter’s Tale alongside stage actor, Charles Kean. Kean’s somewhat controversial idea of creating costumes according to the historical setting totally contradicted the Victorian norm and as a result, Terry was frequently seen wearing historically accurate and carefully researched stage attire. By the age of sixteen, she was married to forty-five year old artist, George Frederic Watts, who used her as a muse in many of his works, including Choosing (1864). As a result of their marriage, Terry was introduced to many influential figures of the age, but her youth meant she struggled to fit in and within a year the marriage was dissolved. Shortly after, Terry began a relationship with architect, Edward William Godwin with whom she had two children. Retiring from the stage for a time, she moved to the country and began favouring a new style of Japanese dress which removed the need for corsets and instead focused on kimonos and loose-fitting robes.

       Terry’s interest in exotic clothing and the avant-garde made her a key figure in the Aesthetic Movement - a movement which favoured ‘free art’, unfettered by the restraints of the Royal Academy. By the 1880s, Liberty’s of London became the main retailer of Aesthetic textiles, with Godwin opening the Liberty’s Fashion Department in 1884. By 1874, Terry had moved away entirely from traditional nineteenth century dress instead favouring a short hairstyle, no corset and even jumpers.

      Though Terry was known for her original and sometimes controversial mode of dress, it was through her stage costumes that she could really display her love for dramatic textiles. During her performance as Portia in the Gaiety Theatre, Terry wore the Black Robes of Justice – a costume so powerful it was said to result in silence from the audience! It certainly caught the eye of Henry Irving who, on opening The Lyceum Theatre in 1878, swiftly cast Terry as Ophelia. Terry’s breathtaking costumes, some of which were designed by major figures, such as Burne-Jones, quickly became as famous as her roles. One of the most extravagant, a beautiful green beetle-wing dress worn when Terry played Lady Macbeth, is on display at Smallhythe Place, Terry's former home in Kent. 
Smallhythe Place:

The third and final talk of the afternoon was delivered by event’s organisers, Professor Deborah Wynne and Dr Sarah Heaton of the University of Chester. Entitled, ‘Costume on Film: The Piano (1993) and The Great Gatsby (2013)’, the talk looked at the ways in which costume is used as both representative of historical period and as symbolic in each of the respective works.

       Professor Wynne’s piece focused on 1993 film, The Piano and how director Jane Campion uses the crinoline, particularly its cage-like form, as a direct metaphor for the confinement and personal imprisonment of the film’s heroine, Ada McGrath. Campion uses costume to portray Ada’s suffering while trapped in an abusive marriage yet also, conversely, her freedom once she is free of her husband. Throughout the film, differing forms of costume are used to represent imprisonment, freedom and, importantly, the differences between Ada’s public and private experiences – her crinoline is used to encompass her lover during their first sexual encounter.   

    Textiles, and the spaces they encompass, play an important role in Campion’s representation of Ada’s exploration of her own freedoms as the film progresses, notably when Ada must practise her own voice once her symbolic one, the piano, is lost. Interestingly, Campion shows Ada covering her face with a cloth before she reveals her new identity.

       Dr Sarah Heaton’s section of the talk looked at the ways in which costumes, particularly wedding dresses, are used in the 2013 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. Central to the symbolism of the film are Daisy’s dresses, she frequently wears ‘wedding dresses’, or at least wedding-style dresses which appear to centre her in a Miss Havisham-style crisis of identity. Like Miss Havisham, Daisy remains trapped and suspended in time, located in events that didn’t take place, but still may occur leaving her with a skewed sense of reality and sexuality.

       Dr Heaton looked at how the 2013 film edition of the novel took a nuanced approach to the past, particularly in its costume design. Daisy’s costume, for example, is given a much more traditional approach to its design with her barely there, naturally coloured tights. Myrtle, on the other hand is portrayed much more sexually with fairly unconventional roll-down tights.

     Interestingly, as the film progresses, the wedding dresses worn by Daisy alter, with less elaborate fabrics and lace adornments.  By the end of the film, Daisy leaves wearing no wedding dress at all and a full fur. 

Members of the audience were invited to comment on their experience of the event:


‘Totally brilliant from start to finish. […] Excellent speakers and variety. Congratulations to the organisers.’

‘All speakers – very enjoyable. I loved seeing “tried on” costumes and weaving of the Egyptian children’s clothes. Good variety of visuals and lecture styles. Will look at film and TV dramas in a different light!’

‘This was a very enjoyable day with high calibre speakers inspiring further exploration of all aspects covered. Thank you very much.’

‘I have really enjoyed today with the variety of speakers. It’s been a great experience, very well timetabled. Great to be able to chat to speakers and other members of the audience. Great use of artefacts, media and film, as well as reproductions of costume.’

‘Presentation for a Costume Day was excellent for Gillian Stapleton as ‘Jane Eyre’. Thank you for the whole day and its organisation.’

‘Really interesting day […] I enjoyed Gillian Stapleton, the enthusiasm of Veronica Isaac and the historical fascination of Jacqui Hyman. I’ve never seen “The Piano” but I will now!’

‘Absolutely great! Information and accessible and of very great interest. Speakers were all engaging in their very different ways. Loved it.’

‘Enjoyed the day very much, particularly the talks on the meaning and imagery of costume in literature and film. Lots to talk about. Nice lunch as well!’

‘This has been a superb event. The speakers were wonderful, extremely interesting, and their knowledge is fantastic. It was extremely well organised.’

‘Very enjoyable. Loved the variety of the topics. Could we have 3 lectures on the morning and two in the afternoon and start at 10am?’

‘Absolutely superb! A huge breadth of experiences and great interest. The topics were so interesting and engaging – thoroughly enjoyable. A great idea to have a costume historian wear costume as she describes it piece by piece. The presentations were full of interesting detail, quality information and clear good quality speakers. A fascinating journey on textiles. Please put more events on.’

‘I particularly enjoyed the diversity of the topics covered. Hope that the success of today will encourage the department to continue to do more of these days.’

‘Interesting and varied. Very enjoyable.’

‘Excellent venue and hospitality. Very well organised – excellent and varied speakers. Tremendous depth of knowledge and range of talks that link together well.’

‘Absolutely fascinating day with an excellent variety of speakers. If possible for the next one, it might be an idea to start a little earlier, as it’s a shame to overrun.’

‘Superb day. Even better than last year. All the sessions were fascinating and professionally delivered.’

‘It was very interesting hearing about the Medieval Egyptian clothing. […] Gillian Stapleton, very engaging speaker and loved the fact that she had examples. Overall an excellent day, very enjoyable and very thought provoking.’

‘Jacqui Hyman and Gillian Stapleton were interesting speakers. Please keep to time – shorter lunch!’

‘I found the Ellen Terry talk very worthwhile.’

‘A good variety of topics but with a thread running through it. Lovely lunch and interesting people to talk to, too!’

‘Excellent day with great variety and talent from the speakers.’

‘Wonderful day. Interesting, committed speakers. Varied deliveries. Very friendly atmosphere. Made to feel welcome from stepping through the door.’

‘Great day, very interesting, enjoyed all the speakers – loved the variety. Can’t wait for the next one.’

‘I have thoroughly enjoyed today’s programme and found the variety of speakers most stimulating.’

Tuesday 18 March 2014

175th Anniversary Quilt: March 2014 Update

Fiona Roberts reports:

At last, all 25 blocks have been stitched together!  Six members of the group met up at the Quilter’s Trading Post on 1st March, armed with pins, tape measures and sewing machines, ready to put the blocks together.

The Quilter’s Trading Post is an Aladdin’s cave of quilting fabrics, notions and pure inspiration for the creative quilter!  
Inside the Quilter’s Trading Post

Formerly a primary school, it has been successfully converted into retail and workshop space, as well as the machine room, where two long arm quilting machines are permanently busy with a substantial waiting list.  This is where patchwork is quilted using computerised patterns co-ordinated by the experts!

Proprietor of the Quilter’s Trading Post, Emma Ablett, kindly provided a room for us to sew, as well as a very welcome cuppa.  We browsed the extensive shelves of fabrics, looking for a suitable colour for the sashing. (What a treat!)  Once we had made our selection, Felicity sliced this up into the requisite strips and added all the horizontal pieces.  Other members of the group double checked the blocks and added a few stitches here and there to secure them. 

Jenny, Helen, Kath and Felicity hard at work!

The day raced by and we left, with Helen and I each taking half of the quilt home with them, to add the vertical sashing.  This sounds simple, but every block and sashing strip needs to be re-measured to be certain that it is exactly the right size; otherwise the lines won’t be level.  I then put the two pieces together and added the border.  This was a contrasting colour, which I am not divulging, so that you have a surprise when the quilt is unveiled!  I returned to the Quilter’s Trading Post on 8th March and left our pieced quilt top in Pam’s capable hands to be quilted professionally.  I can’t wait for the phone to ring to tell me it is ready to collect!!

Friday 28 February 2014

The Anniversary Quilt: An Update on Progress

Fiona Roberts Writes:

'All 25 blocks have been completed – how exciting!  Every member of staff and alumna has stitched their block with care, and showed such imagination and skill in how they have articulated their themes.  We have such a kaleidoscope of colour, and a fascinating range of interpretations from the group.  At the February meeting, those present laid out all the blocks and decided on what position would be best for he blocks in the final layout.  We photographed this (how could we hope to recall all these without a photo!)

We found that having taken a photo, we decided on a slightly different layout, to make it more balanced with predominant colours not being placed next to each other.

Our Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Adrian Lee was passing and popped in to see what we were up to!'

'A smaller group will be meeting up at the Quilter’s Trading Post in Buerton to stitch the blocks together and add the sashing.  We have decided to see what colour sashing looks best when we are in the shop!

Once the blocks are all stitched together to form one piece of cloth, we will leave this in the capable hands of Pam, who will be putting this on the gammill long arm quilting machine, and quilting the top, wadding and backing fabric together, and enhancing the designs on each individual block.  We can’t wait to see how it looks!

Next on the agenda is compiling the information needed for our book.  Everyone is writing 250 words outlining how they chose the design they created, supplying a photo of themselves and a description of how they are connected to / what they do at the University of Chester. 

Anne, Shirley, Louise, Kath and Pat have a look at Shirley’s draft pages for the book.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Wearing Rags in Victorian Britain

The circulation of clothing across class barriers created uncanny effects for social observers in the Victorian period. At the Derby races at Epsom in 1861 the French writer Hippolyte Taine noted the confused jumble of garments worn by ‘low’ characters in the crowd, discerning there the ghostly traces of fashionable West End clothes. The vision of unwashed and unkempt people wearing ‘gentlemen’s cast-off clothing’ and the once ‘stylish dresses’ of ladies prompted Taine to reflect:

This tatterdemalion attire, which has clad four or five bodies in succession, I always find painful to see. It is degrading: by wearing it a person admits or declares himself to be one of the off-scourings of society. In France a peasant, artisan or labourer is a man who is different, but not inferior. His working blouse or overall is his own; it has been worn by nobody but himself. This readiness to wear rags is more than a mere singularity; it denotes a want of proper pride; the poor, in this country, resign themselves to being other people’s door-mats. (Notes on England, 1861)

W. P. Frith, Derby Day (1858)

Taine’s belief that hand-me-downs were inadequate clothing because they did not properly fit the wearer, having been made for someone else, suggests that he sees clothing in a modern sense as an expression of identity. He also believes that the poor in France did not wear second-hand clothes but made their own homespun garments. I wonder if this was true?

The multitude of poor people in cities like London and Manchester were forced to wear the clothes rejected by the wealthy, clothes which had filtered down from owner to owner, via pawnbrokers' stores and secondhand clothes shops. The fact that earlier owners' lives could be read in the dilapidated garments worn by the poor suggested to writers like Taine that they had descended to being ‘ragged’, losing their social identities. Yet this sublimation of an individual’s identity into a collective state of raggedness meant that poverty was difficult to ignore. It was always visible on the city streets, particularly in London where beggars shared the West End pavements with wealthy shoppers; the well-off had an ever-present warning of what happened to a person when poverty struck. People in rags also indicated the presence of an underclass, discontented people who had the potential to rebel. Rags thus had a potential to act as political statements, to ‘speak’ of social inequality, to express discontent on behalf of the wearer who had no effective public voice. Visible raggedness inevitably made a statement.

Image: Children Rescued by Dr Barnardo's_year.htm

Tuesday 4 February 2014

The Anniversary Quilt: An Update

Kath Roberts reports that her cross-stitch block representing the University of Chester crest is now finished. She adds, ‘I have decided to outline some of the main shapes to give definition.’

The mission statement square is also just about completed, with just some outlining in backstitch to do.

Kath writes: ‘The next square I have taken on is one to represent the celebrations for the inauguration of the University in September 2005.  As part of the Balls held for the celebrations fireworks displays were held and I have decided to represent these on black velvet, using fabric paint and metallic threads, with beads and sequins to be added on following the completion of the quilt by the Quilters Trading Post.’ 

'I have approximately 4 weeks to do this square before our Saturday session at the Quilters Trading Post on the 1st of March. Then we will choose the sashing, before cutting and sewing the squares and sashing together, this has by necessity to be a quick square to complete!  So I am intending to use mainly fabric paint and pens in silver and gold to produce the bulk of this work.  The stitching in metallic threads will be mostly stem stitch, chain stitch and bullion knots.'

Amy Jones has now completed her block, the Amber ‘Peace’ cross designed by Frederick Starkey in the garden outside the Cloisters:

We are all awaiting the moment when the quilt will be assembled after the 1st March meeting.

Monday 13 January 2014

Dickens in the Burial Place of the Fashions

Second-hand clothes shops are as much a feature of our era as of the Victorian age. Now, primarily labelled as charity shops, they regularly pop into existence to fill the retail voids in all our towns and cities, many of them settling into those voids as comfortably and tenaciously as any hermit crab. In Charles Dickens’s time of course ‘charity’ was funded by direct philanthropic donations, or by the circuitously indirect route whereby worthy ladies sewed or tatted items of dubious utility which they then sold to each other in order to raise funds for their less fortunate neighbours.

In contrast, Victorian second-hand clothes shops had nothing to do with any charity other than that which began at home. Their owners survived by selling such items as ‘a deceased coat … a dead pair of trousers … the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat’ to the poor who gave the clothing a second lease of life. In his early collection of essays, Sketches by Boz (1836) Dickens uses graveyard imagery in ‘Mediations in Monmouth Street’, not only to indicate the usual source of such clothing but to highlight the fact that Monmouth Street had for generations been the home of second-hand clothes dealers who, having eventually grown singularly unimpressed by changing tastes, preferred to ‘immure themselves’ in ‘the burial place of the fashions’; a place for which Dickens declared a ‘particular attachment’.



It was the ideal place for his hyperbolic imagination to take flight: ‘We love to walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise … and endeavouring, from the shape and fashion of the garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind’s eye’. Such speculation leads him to see, in a collection of suits displayed outside a shop window, one individual’s ‘whole life written as legibly on those clothes as if we had his autobiography engrossed on parchment before us’. The chapters of this autobiography are composed around the following outfits:  
  • Firstly, the ‘much soiled skeleton suit’ of a small boy, with knees rubbed white through playing on the floor, and the sticky smears of sweets around the pockets and under the chin providing evidence of the kindly nature of the child’s ‘indulgent mother’. Then the schoolboy’s ‘corduroys with the round jacket’ splashed with ink as he learnt to write.
  • The ‘diminutive coat’ he wore as an office ‘message-lad’ is mentioned next; this position had been secured for him by his selfless widowed mother who, in Dickens’s imagination, cheerfully sacrificed her own food to nourish her growing boy. But Dickens implies that base nature cannot be improved by loving nurture.
  • The next outfit allocated to his subject is a ‘smart but slovenly’ suit, ‘redolent of the idle lounger’ and his ‘blackguard companions’. The companion image of the anxious mother is evoked, feverishly waiting for the wastrel in her ‘solitary and wretched apartment’, then stoically bearing the ‘brutish threat’ or ‘drunken blow’ on his return.
  • Next, a ‘broad-skirted green coat with large metal buttons’ conjures the form of a repulsive ruffian with ‘a dog at his heels’ (the ghostly herald of Bill Sykes perhaps) whose wife and child starve while he staggers, once again, to the tap-room. For Dickens the ‘vices of the boy had grown with the man’, or with the clothes.  Pathos (or bathos) cloaks the narrative as the mother dies, abandoned in the workhouse, still ‘imploring pardon for her son’.
  • A ‘coarse round frock, with a worn cotton neckerchief’ completes the history, as the sins of its wearer carry him inexorably to transportation, or to the gallows.

 Dickens restores what he claims is his ‘naturally cheerful’ disposition by fitting imaginary feet into a ‘corps de ballet’ of boots and shoes, and setting them off on a riotous dance which closes the piece, and which  I strongly recommend as an antidote to the dire tale of the suits.

However, I blame Dickens for the fact that I now have to fight the temptation to ‘see’ the past wearers of clothes displayed in the windows of second-hand clothes shops – even if few of those outfits will have clothed such a grim or grisly individual as the one whose ‘ghastly form … lay rotting in the pauper’s grave’ while his garments haunted ‘the burial place of the fashions’!           

Sue Elsey, University of Chester.