Secrets of the Museum

19th Century Fashion in Detail, by Lucy Johnston; First published by the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2005. Revised and expanded edition by Thames & Hudson, 2016

I have recently been watching the British TV series "Secrets of the Museum", set behind the scenes with the curators and conservators at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I found the series fascinating and am picking up tips on restoring garments from the conservators. But all this is beside the point. It's not what I'm writing about today.

The V&A have published a wonderful series of books called Fashion in Detail, with a new edition published by (Thames & Hudson). I tried and failed to get my hands on the Lingerie title earlier this year. It does not appear to be available in Australia, although other titles in the series are available here. I ordered it via Amazon back in May just as all the international post went haywire and crashed due to COVID and it never arrived. Finally, I got a refund, so I bought another title in the series which I was able to get locally. 

I have read "19th Century Fashion in Detail" by Lucy Johnston literally from cover to cover. For anyone with any interest in historical costume, this is a must read. I just wish I could remember everything I read. The book takes items from the V&A collection and shows a full page photo concentrating on a key aspect of the garment. It may be a half rear view, a sleeve, a shoulder trim, a fastening, the boning inside a Worth gown. On the page opposite is a line drawing of the entire item, sometimes a full length photo, (although many of the items are too fragile to mount and a full shot is not always available) and a description of the garment explaining the significance of the focus, with historical context. The donor and date of donation is also given, with the name of the original owner if known. 

Passementerie trim on a silk jacquard gown - 1845-50

You need to use your imagination at times when the photo is a detail. But what a detail! 

I was engrossed in this book and various visitors to the house have also picked it up and disappeared inside. Here are some of my favorite items.

The 19th century is not just Victorian fashion as the period from 1800-1836 is also included. The dainty Napoleonic and Georgian fashions are fascinating to see close up and to see the secrets of how they were made and put together to form an outfit. All stitched completely by hand of course.

Muslin dress with puff trim and reed-smocking, 1816-21

A significant amount of menswear is also included and is equally fascinating. I find myself discovering a new appreciation of the tailor's skills. And check out the fastening on this dressing gown:

The gown is wool flannel, embroidered to look like ermine

 A dressing gown would have been worn over pants and shirt instead of a jacket while relaxing in the home, not just over sleepwear.


 Gown - 1885. Look at the way the seamstress has matched the fabric in the pleats so the design is barely interrupted. Apparently, the invention of the sewing machine made it easier to achieve this effect.

Mantle of white down, stitched into bobbles - 1860s

French silk gown, 1869-70

Synthetic dyes invented in the mid 19th century made vibrant colors possible. Purple dyes included traces of arsenic, and slowly poisoned the wearer. Hatter's also used arsenic in the treatment of furs for hats, and unfortunately arsenic poisoning and the ensuing madness it caused was an occupational hazard - hence the Mad Hatter.

Detail of a silk velvet opera gown, believed to have been embroidered after purchase, 1900.

Woman's Hat, French, 1884 - with stuffed honeyeater, extra wings and feathers and chenille trim

Man's snakeskin slippers, Scottish,1850s-60s. Made from the golden or olive sea snake, native to Australia.

I am equally fascinated and appalled by the fad for using bits of wild animals in fashion, which was prevalent from the 1870s. Today, it seems grotesque to us to exploit wildlife in this way. One warehouse in London received a shipment of 32,000 stuffed hummingbirds in the 1890s. And that was just one shipment! The fad continued through to the 1940s to a lesser extent.

I have just ordered two more titles in this series - "20th Century Fashion in Detail" and (hopefully, from the UK) "Lingerie - Fashion in Detail". I would also dearly love "18th Century Fashion in Detail" and I want to to visit the V&A in London. But I want to go behind the scenes and look in the vaults.





1 comment

  • Judith Demaestri

    Thank you so much for sharing this precious items.

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