By Hailey Andrews
Before there was the Golden Age of Hollywood or the Roaring 20s, there was the Belle Époque, encapsulating an era with its glamor and optimism. Identifiers of this time period include scientific innovations, general prosperity, and the tail end of the Victorian era and the Edwardian era, characterized by the romance of frothed lace, pearl-buttoned high necklines, exquisite trims, and pleated velvet.
Elements of this era have now assimilated into contemporary fashion trends of today. Alexander McQueen and Fendi both released collections in 2016 that featured lace tiers and billowing sleeves, and Gucci’s past few collections have featured vivid jabots and luscious ruffles that evoke Victorian elements with a 70s twist.
In a far more accessible context, billowing blouses with constricted necklines alongside quilted pinafores and petite bonnets dominate collections of online shops such as Los Angles based vintage seller The Corner Store, and sheer floral dresses deckered with ruffles create a very colonial, Lisbon-evocative ambience for The Select. Etsy’s Sugar Violette shop is stocked with velvet corsets and yellowing embroidered lace, reviving Edwardian decadence. The trend has even translated into fast fashion, with Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, and other popular retailers putting forth a series of mid-19th century inspired pieces.
This is certainly not unprecedented, considering fashion routinely turns to the past to determine future trends. The 2000s elapsed with subtle nods in fashion through the thin brows of the ‘20s and the tiny mini skirts the ‘60s first introduced, and the 1990s popularized halter-tops hailing from the ‘70s. However, an exciting facet of this development is the deconstruction of the attitudes associated with the clothing in its original context.
Although technological advancements expanded preconceived ideas of human capability, the Victorian era saw a sharp contraction of the social freedoms of women. With the Industrial Revolution also underway, familial dynamics were dramatically altered by the increasing necessity for men to leave the home to go to work, such as in factories, cementing the notion of the ‘separate spheres’. While women previously had been integral to business, working alongside their husbands out of their homes, they were now relegated to the ‘domestic sphere’ due to their presumed inherent lesser intellectual capacity and moral superiority that enabled them to raise productive and virtuous citizens. In the United States, this also manifested as ‘Republican motherhood’, the duty of mothers to instill Republican virtues in their offspring.
Not only were women bound to the home, but they were essentially taught to structure their behavior and choices around charming men into marriage, and striving for ‘accomplishments’, or a restricted education that taught them just enough to raise principled children and entertain a husband without daring to achieve to the extent of men, or beyond. Doctors even propounded that immersing oneself in studies could irrevocably damage the ovaries. If a woman was audacious enough to further her education beyond what was standard and become an *gulp* academic, she was shunned as a ‘blue-stocking’. The horror!
In the age of third-wave feminism, the rigidity and stiffness associated with Victorian era clothing is in the process of being eroded. Unlike the wearers of their time, women have the newfound power and potential through Victorian garb to act paradoxically through their modern ambitions. They are able to feel empowered through their clothing in a manner impossible in the social climate of the mid-1800s and early 1900s.
Collectors, sellers, and buyers are using clothing contrarily to their predestined purpose, stretching the limits of the garment (figuratively, of course) and testing the piece’s former stifling notions. Beyond the dreaminess of the pastels and frothy collars, or the stiff linen and embroidery, women are granting themselves permission to act on their world beyond the expectations present at the genesis of such styles while preserving the dreamy and mystical aesthetic. No longer do these textures connote social rigidity, but act as an extension of confidence, grace, and complexity.