The Age of Liberty
Ulster Museum Belfast
Until 19th April 2015
When you walk round the Age of Liberty it soon becomes apparent that the title of this sumptuous exhibition is as clever as it is descriptive.
It succeeds in showcasing the elegance of fashion against the backdrop of the new domestic and leisure freedoms of the age. At last, clothes for women were designed to be more comfortable, and allow women to have a more active life…. not to mention expanding their waists along with their horizons.
One of the joys of looking round an exhibition such as this is the fascinating snippets of information you can pick up. The expression loose women has its origins in those damsels that chose not to wear the full compliment of underpinnings. As a result they were not as corseted and therefore not as upright (literally and figuratively) as their peers. Good lighting can be crucial, if a little cruel, but I did not know that wearing yellow was not advisable under gaslight, as it did not flatter one’s complexion. Electric lighting, introduced in the late 1880s, changed all that, so yellow had the green light so to speak. Right up to the minute is the mention of a certain popular TV Abbey and how a blue satin and chiffon beaded evening dress on display would fit right in.
Corsets have their origins in Italy and were first seen in France in the 16th century. Designed to hold you in, hold you up and trim your waist, once they arrived on the fashion scene they did not leave it in a hurry.Corsets are still with us in 2015. Bustiers and basques appear as part of special occasion gowns, wedding dresses in particular. Should you require one, it is possible to buy a wedding maternity corset (with extra ruffles).For a long time a lady’s maid was the most essential accessory in your wardrobe. Lacing you in to your corset and dressing you in the morning and reversing the process at night. Your maid had to pick things up off the floor for you…as an injudicious movement in a tight corset could result in a swoon, which was all very well in its place, but would not add much to a lunch party. By the early 1900s the gradual loosening of the corsets grip meant all sorts of new experiences opened up for women… like being able to breathe properly.
The 18th century gown displayed at the beginning of the exhibition perfectly demonstrated the tightly constricted silhouette, tiny waist and rigid posture achieved by a corset. To wear a gown like this pink silk confection, women stood like mannequins while their maids pinned, sewed and arranged them into corsets, petticoats and panniers. Many of us would not have the occasion to wear a pink silk panniered dress, which when considering the availability of maids these days is probably just as well.
The 1900s was the beginning of the end of the corset story.It became possible for women to regard garments in terms of comfort and practicality. At last clothes were for living and working in, not perching carefully on a chaise longue. This exhibition has assembled some very fine examples to illustrate this gradual change.
A walking suit from 1905 shows the influence of male clothing in the pin striped grey and green wool material used. The suit was a comfortable, functional outfit, with the added bonus of the wearer not being so dependent on having a maids help to dress. This last was becoming increasingly important as women’s roles began to change and broaden. Although being able to dress yourself was not something that wealthy women would do. Their clothing was extremely elaborate and as they would change as much as seven times a day, having a maid was still vital.
Less restrictive corsetry lead to straighter, simpler, shorter gowns.
In 1912 a columnar silhouette would have been flattering to wear and simple to move in. Care would have been needed not to tear the silk chiffon bodice with its glass beads, but the lead weights sewn in the hem would ensure everything stayed in line.
The Ballets Russes were hugely successful when they toured Europe from 1909 to 1929. The deep rich colours and sumptuous fabrics that they wore provided inspiration for many fashion choices. This evening dress from 1918 marries paprika with turquoise, all made up in chiffonwere still pretty essential to the wealthy and their clothes.
But once fashion dictated the demise of elaborately structured clothing and by default hastened the reduction in underpinnings, women grasped this opportunity with both hands. Finally you could be fashionable and have a range of movement that your mother must have envied. You could even get dressed by yourself. Such freedom was unheard of… demonstrating how times were a-changing …..and would continue to change as the 1920s roared in.
This exhibition beautifully displays a collection of exquisite costume. The staging compliments and enhances the clothes without distracting the eye. The dates and details shown in the cases provided a real bonus, not just a bland description of the clothes, but mentioning key information and interesting tidbits.
My favourite dress has to be the 1909 black sequin evening gown. Although I fear, that for me, a considerable corset would have been crucial.
My grateful thanks to ET, AL, SR and JP
Words and photographs SCR 2014
Words and photographs SCR 2014