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Victorian Fashion Tells a Story


The Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection is filled with beautifully preserved examples of our fashion history going back to the Victorian era, each one more than just a pretty outfit.

 The Victorian era is referred to as such, due to Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901 and is used primarily to describe western fashion during this time. Fashion during the Queen’s over sixty year reign went through many changes.

 Huge bell skirts to form-fitting dresses; huge shoulders then large bustles, Victorian fashion changed women’s silhouettes at the time to something women these days might find hilarious.

 During the final year of my Master’s Degree at Eastern Institute of Technology, I was able to work with the collections team at MTG Hawke’s Bay, documenting and collating their Victorian textile collection, of which there are well over a hundred pieces.

 Focusing on what was common for women to wear during this period, I was awed at the detail and construction which had occurred before the domestic sewing machine had made it to our shores.

Each piece was ultimately made by hand and they each tell a story - mixed with repairs or new pieces sewn onto old, show that each piece was well-worn throughout its lifetime.

Much of the time garments would be handed down between the women of the household and there are many pieces in the collection that show how things were altered to fit its new owner.

Author of Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand 1840 to 1910, Claire Regnault writes that immigrating women from the Northern Hemisphere were told that ‘expensive or rich clothing’ was not required due to the harsh weather and environment awaiting them in Aotearoa at the time.

Taking up to a hundred and twenty days to reach New Zealand by ship, orders for clothes could take up to a whole year to arrive, leaving New Zealand women of the Victorian era relying on their own skills to make and mend their clothes.

Bright and near-clashing colours were popular at the beginning of this era, and despite a liking for the color black (notably following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when Queen Victoria wore nothing but black for the remainder of her life), many garments in the collection illustrate this, for example two almost lime green dresses from the 1850s/1860s.

When the industrial revolution began, fabrics, dyes and processing became more outlandish especially with what we now call, arsenic green. As its name suggests the dye was made using a treatment made with arsenic. This gave a beautiful but deadly, bright green colour to not only fabrics but furniture, parasols, handbags, wallpaper and sometimes carpets.

Other pieces in the collection are brightly coloured as well; bright pink ball gown bodices; sunflower yellow dresses covered in frills and a rainbow pinstriped dress that would have been fabulously bright in 19th Century Aotearoa sunlight. Pictured, is a favourite of mine, a dark forest green wool bodice and skirt with a built in bustle and velvet trim down the front and on the cuffs. It has a matching velvet bonnet with dyed ostrich feather. Embellishments were a must have for the middle and upper classes. Jet glass beading appears frequently in the collection. An embellishment that rose to fame after mining of the gemstone began in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast and Queen Victoria was seen wearing a piece made from jet.

 Due to the newfound popularity, the French decided to create an imitation glass; a more affordable and available piece for the working classes giving the same look as jet stone. While it is tough to tell the difference, I found many pieces that had jet glass embellishments hand-embroidered on.

 The time I spent with the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust’s collection gave me a snapshot of where Aotearoa fashion evolved from. Our little region of New Zealand holds many stories and as they say: Fashion tells stories; stories inspire Fashion.

Published in the Hawke's Bay Today newspaper on 8 October 2022 and written by Jackie Chapman, Customer Services at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

14 November 2022

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