Women, Fashion and Frivolity

If, as we saw in an earlier post, evolutionary theory could account for the peculiarities and embellishments of men’s dress, what about women’s fashion? In “Development in Dress,” George Darwin argued that the apparent fancy points of men’s coats, hats, and cloaks ultimately derived from manly pursuits like horseback riding and sword fighting.


Given this emphasis on mobility and utility in men’s fashion, what perspective did he take on women’s dress? The answer is: apparently none. While “many things apparently meaningless [could] be shown to be full of meaning” in men’s fashion, when it came to the women’s raiment, George Darwin had only this to say:


Women’s dress retains a great similarity from age to age, together with a great instability in details, and therefore does not afford so much subject for remark as does men’s dress. [1]


A 1903 plate of an Ulster coat

In fact, George’s explicit comments about men’s dress implicitly reveal almost as much about women’s dress as they do about trousers and top boots. Where men’s dress was useful – shaped by the need to move freely and wield weapons – women’s dress was, by contrast, static in its fundaments.


If, as George argued, the Ulster coat was borne out of the rise of rail travel (the larger size of railway carriages, he said, allowed for bulkier garments than had horse-drawn conveyances), then the supposedly unchanging nature of women’s dress suggests the nineteenth-century transportation revolution simply passed women by. This, of course, is absurd. But George Darwin’s remarks reflect a middle-class ideal prevalent at the time which envisaged women as “angels of the house” – private, domestic creatures rather than active participants in the manly public world.


At the same time, in pointing to the “great instability in details” of women’s dress, George’s language suggests that women’s fashion was somehow frivolous and thus not an appropriate subject for serious research. He was certainly not alone in this view.


During the nineteenth century women’s dress was stereotypically ridiculous: large skirts, high bustles and plumed headgear alike were grist for the satirical mill. Mockery of women’s dress was so widespread that reference to its ridiculousness cropped up in the most unexpected of contexts.


In 1875, for example, a writer in the Live Stock Journal  - the premier agricultural journal of the nineteenth century - likened the restrictive cattle stalls of railway cars to ladies’ crinolines, concluding that he “should certainly not like to see any animals relapse into that narrowly got mannerism of dress in which women now embarass [sic] themselves.” [2]


But these extremes of women’s fashion were, of course, hardly the norm. Indeed, evidence suggests that the examples of women’s dress which George would have seen in his parents’ home gave lie to the images put forward in the press.



Emma Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

Emma Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

For Emma Darwin and her daughters, Henrietta and Bessy, evidence suggests that personal adornment took up little time and generated little interest interest. While Emma made pressing references to the pleasure of a pretty gown, and to the value of observing propriety in dress, she also spoke of the limits of fashion and – crucially – the importance of practical concerns.


Although she was rarely critical without reason, Emma did not hesitate to point to a fashion faux-pas when an unfortunate dinner guest “came in a low dress[,] and as every body els[e] had a high dress she must have felt rather uncomfortable I think.” [3] But it was her friend and neighbour, Lady John Lubbock, who most often drew Emma’s fire on matters of dress and adornment.

According to Emma, Lady Lubbock frequently dressed unseasonably (“She was so oddly dressed for the season in a white muslin de laine & a thin scarlet shawl”) [4] or inappropriately (“Lady L. in a purple velvet gown which is an absurd dress for a quiet m[eetin]g in the country[.]“) [5] Worst of all, though, Emma suspected Lady Lubbock was a follower of fashion: in the spring of 1868, she found Lady L. “at home in a white gown & enormous eggs hanging about her like Lizzy’s bracelet.” [6] This “extravagant” clothing, Emma concluded,  must “be in the fashion.” [7]

Woman "Bird of prey", from Punch, 14 May 1893

Even if Emma herself privileged utility in dress, her disapproving attitude toward embellishment and impracticality supports the negative views on the frivolity of women’s fashion put forward by men like George. But where did Charles stand on all of this? For him, the frivolity of women’s dress was the product not just of fashion but also evolution.

Men, Darwin said, were – like other creatures – innately drawn to beauty, as demonstrated “by our women, both civilised and savage, decking their heads with borrowed plumes, and using gems which are hardly more brilliantly coloured than the naked skin and wattles of certain birds.” [8] How Emma felt about her husband’s views on the frivolous aspects of women’s dress and how Charles felt about his wife’s understated attire is, unfortunately, something we we will never know for sure.

[1] G. Darwin, Development in Dress, (London, 1872), p. 411.

[2] “The Future of Live Stock.” The Live Stock Journal and Fancier’s Gazette, (vol. 2 : 64) (25 June 1875), p. 230.

[3] DAR 219.8: 9

[4] DAR 219.9: 51

[5] DAR 219.9: 39

[6] DAR 219.9: 57

[7] Ibid.

[8] C. Darwin, The Descent of Man, Vol. II, (London, 1871), p. 49.

For more information see also, J. Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Posted by Philippa Hardman. This post was researched and written in collaboration with Rebecca Woods, PhD student in History and Anthropology of Science and Technology at  MIT, and a member of the Darwin Correspondence Project Harvard office.

One Response to Women, Fashion and Frivolity

  1. Pingback: The Penny Post Weekly Review ~ All Things Jane Austen & More! « Jane Austen in Vermont

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