Scholarly and sartorial threads

Madeleine C. Seys reflects on the publication of her recent book and her lifelong love of fashion and Victorian literature.

Paisley style shawl handloom woven in Norwich, c. 1815. Private collection of Madeleine C. Seys.

Dress and storytelling are intimately intertwined. Threads connect them: the literal and metonymic threads of our clothes as well as the figurative threads of our narratives. My recent book, Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature: Double Threads (2018), testifies to and explores these connections, both through its analysis of Victorian literature and culture and my own process of research, writing and editing.

Since childhood, dress has been the way I understand the world and tell stories about it. More than simply a layer to cover and warm the body, dress can express our personalities, political views, interests, sexuality, religious beliefs, economic status, social affiliations, mood, and purpose. The colour, style, fabric and embellishments of clothing all tell our story.

Dress functions similarly in literature. It is a mode of characterisation and storytelling. Details of the character’s dress operate within the genre and structure of a text: as realist detail, social signifier, fashion-plate jargon, symbolism, metaphor, and disguise. In life and in literature, we fashion ourselves through our choice of dress, whether we intend it or not. Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature interweaves my dual interests in fashion and literature by exploring the use of dress in telling the stories of Victorian heroines who negotiate late-nineteenth-century notions of femininity, sexuality and literary conventions.

Aesthetic movement dress, c. 1885 in tamboured duchesse satin. Private collection of Madeleine C. Seys.

My book therefore examines the narrative and sartorial threads of Victorian popular literature. The mid-to-late Victorian period witnessed the emergence of modern fashion and literary cultures. The latest fashions in dress and literature dominated in the periodical press, becoming subjects of vehement debate. The heroines in Victorian popular literature are infamously badly behaved, transgressing the ideal of the innocent, passive and virginal “Angel in the House.” They are also exceptional in their dress, not merely because they are fashionably and beautifully attired, but in the detailed description of their clothing and its significance in telling the stories of their transgression.

These are ethereal heroines in white muslin, as is Wilkie Collins’s Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White (1861). They are passionate femmes fatales or aesthetes wearing rich silks and velvets, as in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), and mysterious women in red Paisley shawls, such as Lydia Gwilt in Collins’s Armadale (1865). But they are also “[New] Women in Grey,” or rational-dressing or cross-dressing writers and politicians, such as the heroine of Lady Florence Dixie’s utopian novel Gloriana; or, the Revolution of 1900 (1890). In Victorian popular literature, heroines’ dress functions as a technique of characterisation and narration. Dress identifies the heroine and sets her on a narrative trajectory. It also provides the means for her to refashion herself and her story. Changes in the colour, texture and style of dress represent her narrative development; dress tells the heroine’s story.

Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature traces changing fashions in women’s dress and the genres of British popular literature between 1860 and 1900. Its chapters represent dominant women’s fashions through their cloths: white muslin, silk and velvet, paisley shawls, and tweed and wool. Through the analysis of popular novels, each chapter explores the symbolic, material and narrative use of fashion in telling the heroines’ stories.

Detail of day gown in striped violet silk with velvet ribbon embellishment, c. 1860. Private collection of Madeleine C. Seys.

The histories, styles, colours, textures and symbolic meanings of these cloths establish them as repositories of complex and contested meanings. While novelists drew on contemporary readers’ knowledge of the coding of women’s dress, the periodical press argued for the significance of dress as an expression of individuality, character and mood. In popular literature, dress identified the heroine in the context of ideas about femininity and female sexuality. I argue, therefore, that character and narrative are fashioned through the metaphor of dress. My book presents new readings of novels in a range of popular genres from the period. Considered together, the chronologies of fashion and fiction reveal changes in the heroines’ dress as they develop from the innocent or daring heroine of 1860s’ sensation fiction, to the bold New Woman of the fin de siècle.

This book demonstrates that examining changes in the heroines’ dress within and between popular novels provides insight into how popular literature explores and narrates changing ideas about femininity and sexuality. As one reviewer, design historian Peter McNeil, stated: “by narrating a new story inter-weaving literature, dress culture and women’s voices, Madeleine Seys turns what is for many readers the ‘black and white’ Victorian world into colour.”

Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature developed from my doctoral thesis, undertaken in the Department of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide. I conceptualised it as a book from the genesis of this project. The structure is informed by this transformation. Each chapter examines a pair of fashionable and fictional threads, whilst building the argument for changes in the fashions, poetic and political function of dress in popular literature throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

From thesis to book: Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature: Double Threads (2018), by Madelene C. Seys.

As for many early career researchers, the process of editing my book for publication with Routledge was a shift of address: from thesis examiners to a broad and general public audience, spanning the fields of dress and material cultural studies, feminist literary criticism, and gender and sexuality studies. Much like dressmaking, this was a creative process of refashioning; I took it in here, and let it out there, in response to the insightful comments of my peer reviewers and editors. This brought me to a greater love for my topic – its double threads of fashion and fiction – as well as an appreciation for the potential of interdisciplinary projects to bring new understandings to both topics. I look forward to seeing how this work is received and influences fashion and literary studies and the broader field of Victorian studies.

This project speaks to two of my greatest passions: Victorian literature and fashion history. I will continue to examine these topics and their intersections in my new projects, exploring how dress is used to tell our stories, and in doing so, fashioning my own story as a young female academic, curator and writer.


Madeleine C. Seys is a Visiting Research Fellow and academic in the Department of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide where she teaches pre-twentieth-century literature, popular culture, and fashion. Her book Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature: Double Threads (2018) is available in Routledge’s Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature series. Madeleine completed a Ph.D. at The University of Adelaide in 2015, for which she was awarded a Dean’s Commendation for Doctoral Thesis Excellence and the title of John Howard Clark Scholar.

Her research interests include Victorian literature and popular culture, fashion and textile history, gender and sexuality, Pacific studies, art history, and museology and museum curatorship. Her publications reflect these interests and their intersections through the media of scholarly prose, academic journalism, and fiction. Madeleine also works as a consulting museum curator, conservator, and fashion historian. She blogs on fashion and culture at The Double Thread. Madeleine is also social media coordinator for the Australasian Victorian Studies Association and Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association.

Follow Madeleine on Twitter @MadeleineSeys.

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