Neo-Victorian Fashion Revivals and Subcultures

Christine Feldman-Barrett
Christine Feldman-Barrett

Reading through fashion historiography, it becomes clear that the key tension inherent in this area of culture and identity is the one between past and future played out in the present (Simmel 303). Sociologists who study fashion do so because it is linked to “the history and sociology of cultural production in which new interpretation of symbolic values are created and attributed to material culture” (Crane and Bovone 320). In this regard, clothing, as a material artefact, creates impressions that suggest the varieties of cultural life from past to present. Fashion can also anticipate or look to an ideal future for inspiration.

When examining clothing trends, there is a strong connection to the temporal, as particular styles tend to go in and out of fashion over time. Since the rise of couture houses and, much later, the department store, the cyclical and commercial nature of fashion within modernity has created a cultural norm that both anticipates the future and celebrates the past (Corrigan 47-71). In this sense, the metaphor of the “time machine” also works well to explain this aspect of clothing history. To quote Heike Jenss, wearing fashions of the past “opens up an imaginary time travel, technically realized through the interconnection of dress and space” (390-91). There have been several periods in fashion history where designers and other visionaries tried to predict future styles. Interestingly, both the Victorian period and the Mod period of the mid-1960s exhibited such trends. Designers were keen to envision the years to come as de-facto “futuristic” in ways that were influenced by science fiction novels and, later, films (Feldman 29-34).

The fact remains that while some subcultures around the world have taken to wearing forms of neo-Victorian clothing, it is definitely far from a mainstream habit. As previously mentioned, it is, in fact, yet another way to differentiate oneself from the conventionality of mainstream fashion choices. Thus, these styles are revived among the interested few. In thinking about such phenomena, it is helpful to know that there is a precedent for reaching back in time for sartorial inspiration.

The fact that neo-Victorian fashions have been adopted by at least three of today’s subcultures points to the notion that past styles can be integrated into contemporary repertoires of identity construction. Moreover, there is also a history of fashion revivals in general that can be traced to the Victorian period itself. In several cases, young people were at the heart of these movements. During the mid- to late-1800s there were some youths who longed for — or were inspired by — images and ideas from the pre-industrial era, which they perceived as better times. Since the Victorian period was the first modern era to be wedded to urbanisation, industrial might, and, in countries like Britain and Germany, expanding “Empire”, the wearing of “historic” garb was attractive to those who associated the present day with grime, crime, crowded cities, and the cultural shift from handmade to mass-produced goods. In Wilhelmine Germany, which ran parallel to the Victorian period, boys and girls who belonged to the nature-oriented Wandervogel youth movement shunned city life and associated all its ills with the older generation. They romanticised provincial, medieval Germanic culture and, as part of their imaginings, hiked through the countryside and wore what they believed was the dress of the “wandering scholars” of the Middle Ages. Sometimes they would even carry old-fashioned string instruments with them, such as lutes (Savage 101-112). Meanwhile, in Britain, a group comprised primarily of young artists and writers, known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, similarly rejected the trappings of modernity and turned to what they imagined as the softer and more sensual styles of both the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. This often manifested in the artists’ models and wives dressing in loose, flowing gowns that were meant to emulate these earlier times (Wilson 230). This choice was significantly countercultural at the time, as it was “a significant break from the conventional French fashion commonly associated with Victorian culture” (Blanchard 25). As a result, some of these women took to wearing this style of dress every day. This is known today as the Victorian period’s “aesthetic dress movement” (Steele 152- 156).

While some Victorian-era youths adopted motifs of a pre-modern society, groups of post-World War II teenagers looked back to both the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century for their subcultural fashion choices. In 1950s Britain, young males began wearing long- drape jackets of the Edwardian cut, hence becoming known as “Teddy Boys” (Grieves; Guffey 102). To some extent, this fascination with nineteenth-century style continued during the height of the 1960s “Swinging London”. The trendy Carnaby Street boutique I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet featured recycled colonial uniforms, while another popular shop, Biba, also offered “retro-escapism” through both conceptualised art nouveau decor and Victorian and Edwardian fashions (Sarah Elsie Baker 623; Phil Baker 55; Hoare 278).

A newfound appreciation for Victoriana was not just a British phenomenon. Starting in 1965, and on the other side of the Atlantic, a San Francisco-based rock band called The Charlatans played a long-term engagement at Nevada’s historic Red Dog Saloon, where Victorian Americana was being celebrated as well. Because the venue was located in the nineteenth-century mining town of Virginia City, both The Charlatans and Red Dog Saloon employees would wear dandified “Wild West” outfits (Lau). There is some speculation that this choice was a sartorial response by the band to the so-called British Invasion music acts like The Kinks, whose onstage look included nods to Victorian-style attire (Feldman 28). Additionally, in her book ‘Retro: The Culture of Revival’, Elizabeth Guffey links psychedelic rock posters of the mid-1960s, including those advertising The Charlatans’ Red Dog Saloon tenure, to a revived interest at the time in art nouveau images and fonts. She attributes this, in part, to the Aubrey Vincent Beardsley exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum during the summer of 1966 (Guffey 8, 58). By the late-1960s, designer Laura Ashley was creating a mainstream clothing line that presented a less radical form of neo-Victorian fashion. According to one scholar, “[Laura] Ashley’s style possessed old world charm with individual rustic freshness, reflected in traditional beliefs of bygone days […] Victorian nightshirts, Edwardian-style dresses [and] the introduction of the long smock in 1968” (Brown and Rhodes 31). Laura Ashley’s designs were much more subdued than the dandified manifestations of Swinging London or San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The designer’s interpretation was wed to “romanticism, conservation […] an alternative to modern living, pop culture, mass-produced clothing” and her “convincing beliefs in past values, quality, and the revival of romantic simplicity” (Brown and Rhodes 31).

As seen here, the overwhelming pattern for subsequent generation’s engagement with Victoriana is connected to the notion of stepping outside the confines of mainstream, contemporary society. Those in the 1950s and 1960s who tried to incorporate the fashions and motifs of this earlier modern period adopted clothing that would have been nondescript or ordinary in the late nineteenth-century and, yet, by pulling it into the present, they made it extraordinary. This is unsurprising in the sense that youth subcultures since the postwar period have often emphasised the “spectacular” as a way for young people to differentiate themselves from what they see as the mundane scope of everyday, adult life (Hebdige 73). In this sense, subculturists today who don capes, top hats, corsets, or frilly finery are just as confrontational in their sartorial non-conformity as the safety-pin-and-leather-jacket-wearing punks would have been in the late 1970s. Clearly, these “groups actively seek to attribute new symbolic values to clothing by altering them or by combining specific items in new ways” (Crane and Bovone 323). However, today’s neo-Victorian subculturists not only confront the present’s supposed uninspiring mediocrity. They also question and subvert our understanding of the Victorian past itself. In their use of nineteenth-century motifs, they also rebel against aspects of the period that are found distasteful in today’s world. In this sense, these subcultures literally embody the project of neo-Victorianism, which “looks into the processes and politics of adaptation [and that] shape our contemporary perspectives of the past” (Boehm-Schnitker and Gruss 2). Furthermore, in their intellectual and sartorial journeys into history, these groups prove that utilising “the past” does not relegate “the Victorian” to something long ago. Instead, as David L. Pike insists, these contemporary reinterpretations belong more so “to the world of the present, even as they propose an entirely different relationship to the present, its spaces and its objects” (266). Given this framework, the next three sections of this article look at how goths, Lolitas, and steampunks each utilise Victorian fashion and motifs differently to “travel back in time” and re-interpret history in order to invigorate their contemporary everyday lives.

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