Dressing for England: fashion and nationalism in victorian novels



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Victorian women were not merely the symbols of nation nineteenth-century imagery would suggest in an era marked by the images of Queen Victoria and the symbolic representation of Britannia. They also were producers, maintainers, and even protectors of England at a time when imperial anxiety and xenophobic fears called the definition of Englishness into question. Dress, particularly fashionable dress, often was viewed as a feminine weakness in Victorian England. At the same time women were chastised for their attentions to the details of their clothing, they also were instructed to offer a pretty and neat presentation publicly and privately. Novels by George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Thackeray, and H. G. Wells and manners and conduct texts by such authors as Sarah Stickney Ellis, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Margaret Oliphant demonstrate how Victorian women used fashion and dress to redefine and manipulate the socially accepted understanding of traditional English womanhood and to communicate national ideologies and concerns without violating or transgressing completely the more passive construction of Victorian femininity. By declaring their nationality through the public display that is fashion?dress designated by its appeal to a sophisticated, cultured, and perhaps continental society? these fictional and non-fictional women legitimized the demand for female access to social and cultural spheres as well as to the political sphere. Through an examination of the material culture of Victorian England?personal letters about the role of specific dress in Suffragette demonstrations, or the Indian shawl, for example?alongside an examination of the literary texts of the period, ?Dressing for England? argues that the novels of the nineteenth century and that century?s ephemera reveal its social concerns, its political crises, and the fabric of its everyday domesticity at the same time they reveal the active and intimate participation of Victorian women in the establishment and maintenance of nation.