Within Their Own Seams: 19th Century Fashion and the Management of the Body in Women’s Literature and Letters

Within Their Own Seams: 19th Century Fashion and the Management of the Body in Women’s Literature and Letters

Kristiana Willsey
Indiana University


Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, North and South, demonstrates the significant position women’s fashion played in the construction and maintenance of identity and self-expression.  Drawing on Gaskell’s novel as well as excerpts from other 19th century women’s letters, travelogues, and memoirs, we see how through imported fashions, English women participated in Empire making and confronted the problems of establishing English identity abroad. Women simultaneously occupied particular local identities and transcended them, articulating the tensions of maintaining both national and international identities through the feminine medium of fashion. At the same time, the tightly managed, corseted body represented a complex response to the advent of modernism.

Margaret went down laden with shawls, and snuffing up their spicy Eastern smell. … she touched the shawls gently as they hung around her, and took pleasure in their soft feel and their brilliant colours. (Gaskell 1995[1855], 7)

Though the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South never travels out of England, she does have access to the distant and exotic via the sensory immediacy of material culture. Reveling in the inanimate embrace of the Indian shawls, “snuffing up their spicy Eastern smell,” Margaret Hale feels the foreign as close to her as her own skin.  Gaskell’s protagonist represents a literary example of the transportive, political, personal, and expressive power of clothing for 19th century women. Through imported fashions, English women participated in Empire making and confronted the problems of establishing English identity abroad. They simultaneously occupied particular local identities and transcended them, articulating the tensions of maintaining both national and international identities through the feminine medium of fashion. At the same time, the tightly managed, corseted body represented a complex response to the advent of modernism.

For Margaret, clothing is not only a vicarious entry point into distant destinations, but into something closer to home: the language of fashion and the trivialized, discounted stuff of gender politics. Consider the following, rather condescending conversation Margaret has with Henry Lennox,  a lawyer and  (unsuccessful) suitor of Margaret. Seeing her on her way to the parlor with her aunt’s shawls, Mr. Lennox says:

I suppose you are all in the depths of business—ladies’ business, I mean. Very different to my business, which is the real true law business. Playing with shawls is very different work to drawing up settlements. (Gaskell 1995[1855], 12).

Margaret doesn’t respond. The shawls, in fact, are being brought down as part of her cousin Edith’s trousseau, and Lennox’s statements comes across rather as rather humorously when we think of how different marriage arrangements really are from “the real true law business” of drawing up settlements. Lennox isn’t interested in how the shawls function symbolically and aesthetically, and Margaret doesn’t challenge Lennox’s condescending attitudes toward the work being accomplished in women’s spheres, on women’s terms. But we don’t get the impression that she thinks it is unimportant. Margaret’s response is neither challenge nor submission, but silence; she maintains the appearance of strategic docility with quiet self-possession. This exchange is a tidy encapsulation of Gaskell’s position on gender politics: a contemporary and friend of Charlotte Brontë, the two women had very different attitudes on the public presentation of their gender. If Brontë took the name Currer Bell to escape being read as feminine, Mrs. Gaskell, as she preferred to be called, would not have liked being thought a feminist.

What Gaskell does demonstrate throughout the book, however, is an acute sensitivity to the power of feminine codes, partly because they are trivialized.  As Shukla says, “though men perceive it to be unimportant and non-threatening, [dress and adornment] is an activity filled with potential for creative satisfaction and social consequence” (2008, 13). The language of fashion is a tacit, nuanced means of expression that has historically been particularly available to women. Margaret Beetham points out in her study of Victorian women’s magazines, “Dress … [was] a complex language in which class, wealth, age, marital position, season and time of day were all significant” (104 in Dorre 2002, 167). In one instance of clothing mediating social boundaries and acting as a vehicle for communication between classes, Margaret Hale describes her encounters with the factory girls in Milton:

The girls, with their rough, but not unfriendly freedom, would comment on her dress, even touch her shawl or gown to ascertain the exact material [….] There was such a simple reliance on her womanly sympathy with their love of dress, and on her kindliness, that she gladly replied to these inquiries […] but she alternately dreaded and fired up against the workmen, who commented not on her dress, but on her looks. (Gaskell 1995[1855], 71)

Interestingly, clothing acts here as both a symbol of intimacy, shared femininity, and a symbol of remove. Clothing is symbolic communication; it preserves the illusion that there is nothing more to an exchange than aesthetics. Commenting on her clothing, the factory girls admire Margaret’s taste, her aesthetic choices, and indirectly the respectable middle-class identity that her clothing conveys. Through clothing, they admire her body—which is itself a clean, well fed, and well cared for articulation of her socioeconomic identity. The men, on the other hand, admire her body directly, treating the communicative power of her clothing as invisible and eliding the symbolic distance that clothing provides.

This also speaks to the issue question of whether clothing is intended to disguise the body, or to reveal it. The workmen are also reacting to that middle-class identity: Margaret receives cat-calls because she is discernibly a clergyman’s daughter in a rough neighborhood. Her clothing, though probably more modest than the other girls’, only makes her body more exposed since it sets her apart from the lower-class factory girls and their more ostentatious attire. The women find common ground in clothing, and the men find irresistibly uncommon ground (class), which they exploit to draw attention to another difference (sex).

Margaret and the factory girls have semiotically dense conversations through fashion and fabric, though they speak in different social registers and find communication in words difficult. Through dress, multiple complex ideologies and identities can be bundled into a single, economical statement. I don’t mean to imply that men’s clothing was not equally communicative. But at a time and in a place in society when plain-speaking in women was not encouraged, we can see the power of clothing to speak for a woman who might not otherwise discuss the things she can communicate with eloquence and efficiency through clothing.

This silent communication was especially advantageous when there was a literal language barrier: travel accounts in which women describe their encounters with other cultures and ethnicities are enriched by what we could call a feminine sensitivity to clothing as a semiotic system. Alice Blanche Balfour writes from Africa in her 1894 letter,

There are also many shops filled with pieces of printed cotton, which form the ordinary costume of the Swahili woman. This consists of two pieces each of about two and a half yards long, and of the most startling patterns. They are all made in England and Germany. … Fashion seems as all-powerful here as in Europe. Just now gigantic patterns in black on a white ground are almost de rigueur.

Balfour, entering a new and foreign place, looked around her to read the identities being communicated on the body. It is also significant that the fashionable dress of Swahili women was “all made in England and Germany”: part of what defines local identity is its access to international resources; the appeal to the exotic works both ways.

This remaking of the exotic into the very definition of the local is exemplified by the Indian shawls discussed earlier. Though they represent the distant and unknown, they also represent the distant conquered and controlled; in 1877 Queen Victoria formally declared herself Empress of India. Indian shawls were not simply a symbol of the foreign, but of the foreign absorbed and remade into a symbol of Great Britain’s imperial success—like tea, or the Indian patterns that have come to be known as “paisley” for the Scottish manufacturing town that learned to reproduce them. In North and South, Margaret’s cousin Edith writes from her honeymoon in Corfu of the difficulties in maintaining an English identity abroad. She tells Margaret,

But you have no idea of the heat here! I tried to wear my great beauty Indian shawl at a pic-nic. I kept myself up with proverbs as long as I could; ‘pride must abide,’ and such wholesome pieces of pith; but it was no use. [ … ] smothered, hidden, killed with my finery; so I made it into a capital carpet for us all to sit down upon. (Gaskel 1995[1855], 235)

Edith feels compelled to wear her unseasonable shawl because it is fashionably English. Despite its Indian origins, it functions as a marker of British identity, since it is through British imperial command of India that she has obtained it. But ultimately the burden of keeping up a cultural standard becomes impossible, and she turns her expensive, luxurious shawl to a more plebian purpose.  Wearing the shawl, however inappropriate for the climate, is framed as something Edith has a moral obligation to—a point of “pride.” Practicality or suitability for the weather was quite secondary to the importance of visibly representing her national affiliation.  In this she is self-consciously adhering to the rules set out for the English abroad in their Empire.

The struggle to keep up appearances overseas is widely documented; handbooks were published especially for men on how to dress to articulate a visibly English identity in contrast to the ‘natives.’ As Kearns writes, “The identity of the British imperial subject was male, English, white, heterosexual, middle class and at home in England. This identity was avowed against its others: females, foreigners, blacks, heathens, homosexuals, and those at home abroad” (1997, 451). This makes the position of women’s fashion within British imperialism more complicated: how does a woman with a cultural obligation to make a home wherever she goes embody an English citizen who must not appear “at home” abroad? How can a woman act as both the necessary, defining inverse of male identity and simultaneously the representative of British identity, when British identity is so pointedly male? Victorian women abroad struggled to situate themselves as simultaneously English imperialists and appropriately domestic females within this ambivalent space. As Morin says in an essay on Englishwomen traveling in the American West, “these are strong women, yet women who apply their ‘feminine’ knowledge and skills to their activities, such as their knowledge about proper attire […] These women’s adventure tales, then, can be read as confirming hegemonic ideologies of gender roles relations but also challenging and transgressing them” (Morin 1999, 504).  Morin goes on to discuss the way women were expected to embody the imperialist position by their relationship to the landscape, specifically the mountains.  Since “seeing” can be equated to “conquering;” the male traveler surveying the land from mountain peaks,

women do not spend a lot of time on promontories because ‘they are not entitled to’ (Pratt 1992: 82) because the masculine heroic discourse of discovery is not readily available to women. […] Similar to Pratt’s contention that Mary Kingsley more comfortably inhabited swamps than mountain peaks during her exploration of West Africa (1992: 213-214), [Lady] Howard         remains below, viewing the beauty and glory of Yosemite ‘from within’ in contrast to the summits above. (Morin 1999, 508)

“Within” the landscape rather than above it, women are entrusted with the ‘civilizing’ rather than the ‘conquering’ role in imperial discourse.  This perspective permits them to participate in British Imperialism, while retaining the intimacy that their gender requires of them.  It is, appropriately, an intimacy that has a natural parallel in clothing: within their own seams, women assimilate and redefine the fabric, from Indian shawls to symbols of British identity.

Yet as we saw in Edith’s example, abandoning fashion and turning her shawl into a picnic blanket, the way clothing—and identity—was transformed did not always meet the expectations of mainstream British society.  Morin describes the rigors of travel in the American West and the way it offered opportunities of meeting social expectations for bodily control in new ways, as mountaineers and horsewomen: “this type of willed control of the body to perform exceptional deeds contrasts with the more traditionally feminine way of controlling the body, through sickness, anorexia, neurasthenia, or even wearing corsets” (508).  Morin’s example of “mental” control of the body anticipates Valerie Steele’s work in The Corset: A Cultural History, in which the demand for control becomes internalized as the modern fitness obsession for the “hard body.”

In a true-life parallel to Edith’s letter to Margaret, Emily Eden writes from India to her sister in England in 1838, begging,

We rather want more letters about the fashions. I am quite certain from the unmitigated hatred I feel to the tight bit at the top of my sleeves, that you have all got rid of it, and are swaggering about in the fullest of sleeves again. Indeed, if you are not, it would be only benevolent to say you are!

Eden’s humorous comment is representative of the kind of relaxed rules that living abroad permitted.  Dependent on correspondence for fashion trends, there is always the possibility of a little creative interpretation, to the wearer’s benefit—who would know?  Fashion isn’t being actively flouted; Eden still requests her sister sends her updates, but she jokingly asks to be lied to, so she can live up to expectations and slip them simultaneously.

In addition to communicating attachment to homeland or awareness of trends, clothing marks the wearer’s age and status within a family.  For instance, the reason Edith is being given the Indian shawls from her mother is that she is taking her mother’s place as bride; her mother says with mixed exultation and regret, “She has all the beautiful Indian shawls and scarfs the General gave to me, but which I shall never wear again” (Gaskell 1995 [1855], 9).  As a marrying women, Edith’s clothing reflects not only her new status in society, but within her own family and in relation to her mother.  Clothing placed a woman in her class, her age bracket, her station in the family, while at the same time allowing her to transcend those confining positions and openly express her participation in the global scene. In Elizabeth Smith Miller’s 1892 Reflections on Woman’s Dress, and the Record of a Personal Experience, she writes: “Women say: ‘We might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion.’” Conversely, then, to be in fashion was to be in the world, the whole world, not simply the parlor. To be in fashion is by definition to participate in a conversation that breaks down distance; it is a demonstration of women’s ability to articulate the cultural, economic, and political ideologies of the moment through clothing.

The moment, the Victorian era, was a time of great expansion and technological innovation. The increased construction of railroads and their availability to all classes (albeit with very different standards of luxury), the advancements of steamship travel, and even colonialism all contributed to breaking down the borders between countries. The increased movement of bodies in space, however, translated into more constricted movement of the body in clothing: “By 1878 the cuirasse bodices had reached the thighs. The cuirasse bodice was corset-like and dipped even deeper both front and back, extending well down the hips, creating the look of a body encased in armour.” Pauline Weston Thomas goes on, “This later [1884] bustle fashion was very moulded to the body and the heavy corsetry gave an armour like rigidity to the silhouette.” There was an overwhelming sense of possibility that had as its reverse side an anxiety about the rapidly changing society; “the perpetual movement of modernity both thrilled and terrified the new citizens of the great industrial centres. It was– and is– experienced both as an explosive kind of liberation and as an annihilating state of disintegration and disorientation” (Wilson in Dorre 2002, 167).

It is hardly coincidental either, that in this turbulent time of technological advancement, the major architectural trends were backward looking: Neo-Grecian, Gothic Revival, Renaissance Revival— the styles of building reflect a concern with roots and history as a response to this sudden, even frightening, transformation of the landscape and the culture. In this light, the emphasis on structure and control, both in garments and in behavior, makes perfect sense; of course, at a time when travel to India or Egypt could be arranged at a moment’s notice, when (as we see in Gaskell’s novel) a new social class of wealthy manufacturers was challenging the stability of the aristocracy—of course in times of such a frightening break-down of geographic and social borders, the tightly-corseted, rigidly managed body would be popular. These cultural tensions are frequently played out on the body, because it remains the one thing that an individual can control.

As Dorre argues cogently, the social anxieties of modernity were projected on the female body, reflecting “a larger anxiety surrounding the formation of identity amid the perplexing ephemera of the modern world, where fashion marks the precarious territories between the self and the non-self. Thus the late-Victorian fascination with fashion … upon which these anxieties are displaced, creating bodies who perform work in the culture specifically when bound”  (Dorre 2002, 158).

In reaction to a society that was changing beyond their ability to control, and as part of an ongoing process of realizing immaterial conflicts on a material body, Victorian women took control of what was closest to them. This raises the significant question of who is exerting control, and in whose interests? While the common perception of corsetry, and of uncomfortable or unusual fashion trends generally, is that they are a burden and an imposition required by male society, the women restraining their bodies do so for complex reasons of their own: “women follow societal norms not out of a mindless assent to convention, but as a willful, traditional act that benefits them as individuals on many levels” (Shukla 2008, 326). The act of managing the body can be empowering and personally communicative; even when this management is dangerous, unhealthy, or reinscribes patriarchal society.  Dorre points out that the tightly corseted body was simultaneously safely domesticated and threateningly eroticized; “non-feminists often interpreted the emphasis on full hips and bosoms as scandalous, and the ‘wasp-waist’ as a threat to reproductive potential, producing what they saw as a deviant, pathological figure who moved outside the traditional realms of motherhood and domesticity” (2002, 165).

A contemporary equivalent of this might be the power dressing of the 1980s, which explicitly acknowledged power as masculine and suggested that women disguise or deny their gender to obtain it. In the later years of the Victorian era, the 1880s and 90s, the small but growing class of working women (typists, telephone operators, etc) adopted the tailor-made suit as both a mark of professionalism, and to downplay their gender, restraining themselves in order to become more economically mobile. Fashion writer Pauline Thomas compares dress in the 1880s to the 1980s, and comments on how “late Victorian women embraced the sharper tailored jacket fashion, which gave them a different posture, with a more confident air, reflecting the ideals of early female emancipation.” Control is still very much in effect, but it is self-control; the oppressive nature of tight clothing is redefined if a working woman can say that in controlling her body, she is controlling her future. The body is restrained, not by a wasp-waisted corset imposed by tyrannical fashion, but instead by stiff business attire chosen by the wearer specifically to communicate a level of confidence and self-mastery that suits her for corporate advancement. This outspoken, openly challenging feminist attire is arguably more compromised, emulating masculine images of power rather than finding power in traditional femininity. It stands in dramatic opposition to the invisible, deceptively compliant feminine power defended by Mrs. Gaskell. But whatever generation of women we’re discussing, whether the aim is to access the exotic, communicate between genders across cultural and linguistic boundaries, or to transform political and economic possibilities, conducting this conversation through clothing has always been in fashion.

Balfour, Alice Blanche. 1895. Letter from Alice Blanche Balfour, October 16, 1894 in Twelve Hundred Miles in a Wagon. London, England: Edward Arnold.

Dorre, Gina Marlene. 2002. “Horses and Corsets: Black Beauty, Dress Reform, and the Fashioning of the Victorian Woman.” Victorian Literature and Culture 30: 157-178.

Eden, Emily. 1866.  Letter from Emily Eden, August 20, 1838 in Up the Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India, vol. 1. London, England: Richard Bentley.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. 1995 [1855]. North and South. London: Penguin.

Kearns, Gary, Mary Kingsley and Halford Mackinder. 1997.  “The Imperial Subject: Geography and Travel in the Work of Mary Kingsley and Halford Mackinder.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 22:4.  pp. 450-472.

Miller, Elizabeth Smith. 1892.  “Reflections on Woman’s Dress, and the Record of a Personal Experience.” Arena. pp. 491-95.

Morin, Karen M. 1999.  “Peak Practices: Englishwomen’s “Heroic” Adventures in the Nineteenth-Century American West.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89:3, pp. 489-514.

Shukla, Pravina. 2008. The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Steele, Valerie. 2001. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thomas, Pauline Weston. “Victorian Fashion History for Women from 1860 to 1900.” Fashion-Era.com. 2008. Accessed 1 April 2008, <http://www.fashion-era.com/mid-late_victorian_fashion.htm>

Kristiana Willsey is a graduate student at Indiana University’s Folklore department, and has a Bachelor’s in Linguistic Anthropology from Scripps College. Her research interests include narrative and oral performance, embodiment and the senses, fairy tales and feminism, children’s folklore, intertextuality, and theories of collection and consumption. She also acts as the Book Reviews Editor for the Folklore Forum.



  1. Surely the most enthralling extant treatment of Victorian women’s fashion. Most illuminating.

    However, I do wonder if everything before is merely provided to set up the ultimate line. Worthwhile, nonetheless.

  2. Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was super
    long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say,
    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog
    blogger but I’m still new to everything.
    Do you have any points for newbie blog writers?
    I’d really appreciate it.

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