Molly Gibson’s Dress

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It has taken me quite some time to find my sea legs as a dress historian. I have recounted how a single passage in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South led me to discovering the field of dress history, but my initial focus was the clothing and textiles of Jane Austen’s novels for the very simple reason that I thought they were prettiest. My inclusion of the end of the Romantic era in my dissertation was rather begrudging because the clothes was just so funny looking! Nothing like the elegance of the eighteenth century or the Regency/Empire period!

Since graduation, I have struggled to decide who I am as a dress historian, as much because once out of school the sheer breadth of my field was overwhelming as because of the economy. There were my own conflicting interests — eighteenth-century saree adapted into gowns by returning nabobinas, meisen kimono, the entirety of the 1920s and 30s, appropriation versus appreciation — which then conflicted with advice I received from established dress historians. There were too many eighteenth-century dress historians already, that did or didn’t matter, there weren’t enough folks looking at Japanese dress, there were too many, etc.

Enter Molly Gibson.

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I was re-watching the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters a little over a year ago and the scene in which Molly goes down to dinner in her plaid silk gown (screencap above) caught my attention in a way it never had done before. I’ve transcribed the exchange between Molly and Mrs Hamley about her gown below.

Mrs Hamley: That’s an unusual dress, Molly. Is it the tartan of your father’s clan perhaps?

Molly: No. Papa said it was not like any proper tartan he’d seen. He said it was quite outlandish.

When reading the book, I’d never noticed the bit about Molly’s plaid gown all that much except to giggle — ‘Anything but that horrid plaid silk,’ Mrs Hamley thinks later in the book — but this time it struck me. Not surprisingly, being the only dress historian in my programme in Edinburgh, I wrote quite a lot about tartan. I even created a “virtual exhibition” on tartan and its history as an assignment in my ‘Culture of Display’ class. Quite a great deal of what I learned I used in a post over at Worn Through, so I won’t reiterate it here, but I have carried on my studies of Scottish culture and material culture over the last four years. It was a private indulgence I always thought of as nostalgic for my time in Edinburgh, not necessarily publishable or reasonable for a dress history career.

But Molly Gibson reminded me of something that does make it academic and publishable — especially as my rewatching came on the heels of Karl Lagerfeld’s Edimbourg collection for Chanel: Scottish dress as the exotic other. What most people don’t realise is that while Molly’s dress was considered in poor taste by the more gentile residents of Hollingford (who as a teenager hasn’t worn something all the rage and then looked back and cringed, after all?), it was part of a general trend for all things Scottish that was spurred on by three things: the lift of a parliamentary ban on highland dress (including tartan) in 1782, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and Royal endorsement.

George IV visited Scotland in 1822 — in the words of the Keeper of Scottish History at the National Museum of Scotland, because he was looking for somebody to love him and he wasn’t going to find them in his wife or in England. Under the tutelage and management of Sir Walter, it became a mythical “gathering of the clans” and the king himself wore full highland dress that cost the modern day equivalent of £100,000 ($167,700). The problem was, this vision of pre-Culloden Scotland was the work of Sir Walter Scott’s romantic imagination, not history. The Highlands had been nothing like what he described, and tartan was only seen in the south when trouble was afoot. In the words of Neil Oliver, host of BBC Scotland’s A History of Scotland, ‘… [Scott] painted with bright colours, and a broad brush. He turned Scotland tartan. We were all highlanders, now’.

A generation later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert created their highland retreat of Balmoral — for which Albert designed the tartan. At this point the myth of “clan tartan” — most of which were arbitrarily decided upon when requested — was well-established.

Tartan, strangely for us, was considered as exotic as any Asian or Middle Eastern fabric at the time. It also had an element of danger due to the false idea that it was worn by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supporters (they actually wore a white cockade). A perfect example of this can be seen in this turban in the Victoria and Albert collection. Yes, a tartan turban. Très exotique. And if you read the descriptions on fashion plates for the period between 1780 and 1840 you will find phrases such as “plaid” and “hat a la Marie Stuart” increase around 1820. Scotland seemed as remote to many people in England as India. Even today many people in England talk about how they’ve never been to Scotland because it’s such a long ways away; four hours by train! So this attitude that Scotland is remote is still very much a part of the British mindset.

In the world mindset, the idea that will not die is that of the Romantic highlander. With its origins in Scott’s first novel — and the first ever popular historical novel — Waverly, we see it today in the Outlander series — both the books and the new Starz series (look for a future post dissecting what is wrong with the costumes) — and in an entire genre of romance novels that I just discovered: “Scotland and Highlands” historical romance. I’ve read rather a lot about Highlanders. They really, really weren’t sexy, or particularly kind. Trust me. Barbaric, torturous punishments for crofters who failed to pay rent; families so poor they had to survive the winter by bleeding their cattle for protein; men leaving their wives and children to do all the farming and house work and building because to do it would mean he was “no longer a man”. The men fought, and if there was no fighting on, they sat around and watched their wives and children worked. See what I mean? Not sexy.

It’s not just books and television. We see this romantic Scotland on the runways of today as much as it was found in the women’s magazines of Molly Gibson’s time. I mentioned Karl Lagerfeld, but Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren, and Alexander McQueen have all done “Scottish” collections, with only the latter trying to rip the romantic ideal apart.

After the exasperating struggle trying to find any program where I might do a phd on kimono even if I didn’t like the program, I am awash in choice, advice about proposals and people to contact regarding Scottish dress and material culture as the exotic and romantic “other”. It’s also a profound relief to have finally found my way as a dress historian. Not what I’m “supposed” to be, not what others have told me to be, but what I have chosen to do.

Blame Mrs Gaskell. Again.

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