The way we dress communicates so much. On a day-to-day basis, our clothing choices reveal clues about our personalities and the way we wish to interact with the world around us. At the same time, the clothing we wear has the power to influence our state of mind; either enhancing or changing it for better or worse. We derive confidence from our dress. It helps us to face the world and to define our public and private selves.
Aside from the purely personal, dress also has broader messages to relate. It reveals the nature of changing fashion trends, which can be directly linked to wider social, cultural and political developments. During the course of momentous events in history, fashions have famously changed, and often in radical ways. For example, as the old aristocratic hierarchy was swept away in the French Revolution of the late 18th century, the typical and long-fashionable female garb of richly decorated silks, cut into tightly waisted gowns with wide flowing skirts, was completely outmoded. In its place came a narrow columnar silhouette of plain white cotton muslin with a high waist – clothing that was consciously modelled on ideas of ‘democratic’ clothing worn by the ancient Greeks; a direct reflection of the political situation of the times.
Clothes are also indicators of where we are in the course of life’s journey. We graduate from infant garments, usually selected by our parents, into occasionally radical youthful styles and then on to the choices we make as we grow older, and sometimes wiser. Wealth, or lack of it, is also an important factor. We require a certain amount of income, and leisure time, in order to select the garments that we really want to wear. The expense associated with the production of dress has long affected the choices made by those who wish to demonstrate to the world that they can afford the best. Before the advent of aniline or man-made dyes during the mid-19th century, brightly coloured clothing was very expensive, making colour the preserve of the well-off. Before the development of machine-made lace, the time and skill required to make it made it extraordinarily costly. During the 1600s it was usual for wealthy men and women to have their portraits painted wearing lace, often set off on a background of black. It signalled to anyone who saw such images that the sitters were of high taste and status and could afford such luxuries. However, such recognised dress codes could be circumvented or even subverted. A lively second-hand trade or other methods of garment procurement made it possible for anyone who was so inclined to assume the garb of their betters and with it their outward appearance of status, thus making use of clothing to transcend class barriers. All these and many more factors are at work when we select a garment to put on each morning.
This exhibition explores a tiny area of an enormous subject. It identifies just three important fashionable themes using pieces selected from the Olive Matthews Collection of costume, housed here at Chertsey Museum. These themes are Romantic, Outrageous and Classic dress. They have appeared again and again over the centuries and to a greater or lesser extent they are constantly present within the landscape of fashion, though the reason for their popularity has varied over the centuries. The choices of the specific garments shown here are subjective, and designed to challenge audience perceptions.