Book Review: Silhouettes, Fashion and Image: Profiles of the Past 1760-1960.

Silhouettes, Fashion and Image: Profiles of the Past 1760-1960.
Edited by Lou Taylor, Annebella Pollen and Charlotte Nickas. (University of Brighton, UK, 2013). 112 pp., 68 b&w illus. No ISBN.
Paper version £5 (plus £2 p&p for UK delivery) from The Regency Town House, Hove. Available for download as a pdf file at www.profilesofthepast.org.uk 

This A4 format publication has been printed by the University of Brighton but is also, very usefully, directly available to download as a pdf file online. A series of nine illustrated papers on various aspects of the silhouette is the result of a joint research project carried out by the University of Brighton (Faculty of Arts) and The Regency Town House in Hove.
The University of Brighton’s Silhouettes, Fashion and Image 1760-1960 project has been funded by the university’s Springboard Grants Programme while Hove’s Regency Town House project, Profiles of the Past, is an initiative supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Together they examine the history of silhouettes – a fashionable and affordable form of portraiture before photography – and particularly what this art form might reveal about the history of dress and popular visual culture across a range of periods. The essays are the work of both lecturers and students, following the presentation of their research at a study day at the Regency Town House in June 2013.
After a useful Introduction to silhouettes by Annebella Pollen (they were known in their own time as ‘shades’, ‘profile miniatures’ or ‘likenesses’), the next seven chapters look at various aspects of the subject: hair and headdresses in late eighteenth-century women’s silhouettes; the male silhouette c. 1790-1820; the impact of neoclassicism on silhouette art in the late eighteenth century; fashion, ageing and identity in Regency silhouettes; the silhouette as portrait and conversation piece in the late 1830s and 1840s; the ‘feminisation’ of female dress 1890-1914; and Hubert Leslie, Baron Scotford and twentieth-century silhouette portraiture. The Conclusion, again by Annebella Pollen, brings the silhouette into the twenty-first century.
How far the silhouette can be reliably used for the study of dress history is uncertain but there is no doubt that some of these portraits can reveal interesting and sometimes unexpected insights. The tall hair arrangements of the late eighteenth century were a gift to an art form which relied on a distinctive profile. As Bridget Millmore writes: ‘“To turn sideways” was an eighteenth century phrase which no longer resonates today unless you are familiar with the practice of having one’s ‘shade’ or silhouette painted.’ And the stark simplicity of a black profile was perhaps the perfect expression of identity for the neoclassical taste – in itself a revival of ancient Greek art on friezes and vases. In turn, the framed silhouette portraits commissioned by affluent families ‘would have suited the neoclassical interior decoration of their homes’ as E-J Scott and Lou Taylor note in their paper. Suzanne Rowland’s chapter on Regency silhouettes is good on making comparisons with actual garments and accessories of the period as well as exploring how age is represented in women’s dress.
It is admirable that readers can download a digital version of this book and I would recommend this over the paper copy – although it has a very attractively designed cover it is off-putting to find an Errata slip inside listing nine corrections (rectified in the digital version). The text would have benefited from more careful editing to iron out a number of typos and it would also be more comfortable have captions printed alongside the images rather than as a separate list at the end of each essay. In fact, the quality and arrangement of illustrations and general layout suggest a basic printing job rather than a professionally designed publication, but it is quite understandable that funds might not have run that far. In this case, what matters is that some valuable and enlightening work is made available to a wide audience. It has been made easily accessible and this useful research should appeal to anyone interested in the history of dress and how it has been portrayed in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
PENELOPE BYRDE

  • Silhouettes, Fashion and Image: Profiles of the Past 1760-1960. Edited by Lou Taylor, Annebella Pollen and Charlotte Nickas. (University of

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