Fashion & Freedom
until 1 September 2018
On the 6th February 1918 the Representation of the People Act gained royal assent in the United Kingdom. This permitted a proportion of women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time. Although women did not gain equal voting rights with men until 1928, it was felt that our annual fashion exhibition should mark this important centenary with an exploration of women’s lives and their dress from the Victorian age through to the modern era.
Fashion and Freedom examines female clothing from the 1840s to the 1980s from the standpoint of the progression of female emancipation, with pieces displayed in the context of women’s social, political and cultural experiences. Day wear, sports clothing, underwear and evening wear items are all included. Although discussion is not limited to the realms of the physical, from a purely visual point of view the garments displayed reveal how women’s bodies were initially restricted by their clothing. As the exhibition progresses we can see that, gradually over time, they began to be freed from the fetters of long, cumbersome skirts, tight,restrictive bodices, corsets and headwear; all of which may have hampered their ability to participate fully in society.
The background history explored here includes the reality of the often very limited lives of women of the Victorian era and the gathering forces of the women’s movement alongside calls for dress reform in the later 19th century. The increasing participation of women in sports and other outdoor recreation, and later the greater freedoms afforded to women during the two world wars, are also discussed. The context of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ‘70s is included; an era which also saw sexual liberation and the advent of effective birth control. All this may help us to understand some of the reasons why women’s fashions took particular turns at different periods during our history.
The display also includes a small but important section which briefly explores the history of the women’s suffrage movement. It incorporates artefacts as well as images and looks at the significance of dress within the history of the cause. We also explore the fascinating stories of Elsie Duval and Olive Beamish, militant Suffragettes whose dramatic criminal activity in support of the fight to gain the vote took place in our local area.
Grace Evans, Keeper of Costume, has produced a booklet detailing the story of the Englefield Green attack, including additional information and images, which is available to purchase in the museum shop and online.