Sunday, 8 May 2016

Victorian Fashion - by Jayne Shrimpton

Long-time readers will recall that I once had a career as a historical novelist. One of the great problems was how to accurately incorporate Victorian fashion into the story. Did ladies wear 'mantles' in 1854? Were there 'pagoda sleeves' on dresses in 1863? Did readers want a description of particular items? I think I broadly came to the conclusion that my readers would appreciate a degree of accuracy, but it was impossible to get everything right. Part of the problem was sources. Books and websites were full of year-by-year fashion plates (gorgeous contemporary artistic sketches of fashionable clothing, which appeared in women's magazines &c), but how accurately did they represent every-day clothing?

If I had possessed Jayne Shrimpton's new book, Victorian Fashion, I could have saved myself hours of research, and done a much better job. I should reveal that I am acquainted with Jayne from twitter (we have exchanged tweets, if not cartes de visite). I can tell you, from experience, that she is an absolute expert on establishing the date of photographs  based solely on the subject's clothing. This book gathers her considerable knowledge into a compact, densely informative review. 

There are, of course, websites and other books on Victorian fashion. Nonetheless, I think this has three main advantages over its rivals. Firstly,  the language never ventures beyond the level of the average reader (my level!). Secondly, given its small size  this is a Shire pocket book, approximately a hundred pages   Victorian Fashion is amazingly comprehensive. Chapters include not only the more familiar women's clothing, but menswear, children's clothes, sportswear, evening dress, bridal outfits and more. Finally, the numerous pictures are fabulous, ranging from visiting cards and family photos, through fashion plates to cartoons and high Victorian art. 

The book touches lightly on fashion-related social history (e.g. the 'breeching' of boys; or the rise of cycling); but I would suggest this is, essentially, a beautifully illustrated work of reference. Anyone writing Victorian fiction will appreciate a copy. Anyone interested in day-to-day Victorian life will thoroughly enjoy dipping in and out. 

I don't normally review books on this blog, but I welcomed a review copy of Victorian Fashion and it lived up to my high expectations.


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