Writing Fashion (Part 2)

A 2017 Costume Society conference review on the theme of writing fashion celebrating 50 years of the Costume journal.

Shelley Tobin, Victoria Haddock, Hannah Vickers and Lottie Moss




The final day of the conference began with the Costume Society Annual General Meeting.

Our first speaker of the day was Dr. Alison Matthews David with her talk; 'Does the Shoe Fit? Crime Writing and the Footprint as Forensic Evidence', discussing the decisive importance of footprints for the authorities as a tool to identify and convict criminals. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, before DNA testing, crime writers used the close personal and physical relationships that the wearer has with their shoes in the plots of novels, such as 'The Man with the Nailed Shoes' (1909) by R. Austin Freeman and Georges Simeon's 'The Head of a Man' (1931). David described how the use of an item of clothing as a disguise to provide a false impression and fiction of oneself (such as Dutch smugglers’ clogs with backwards footprints) created a power of dress for writers of fiction that both Freeman and Simeon used to great effect. It was interesting to hear how, even in contemporary forensics (in an age of mass production), the soles of shoes can still be used to link a print, shoe and suspect together with the creation of computer databases, for example: SoleMate.


Footwear also featured briefly in the second talk of the day, a paper by Dr. Claire Nicholson, a member of the Executive Council of the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain and lecturer at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education . Dr. Nicholson’s paper described how she interpreted the twentieth century writer’s fiction ‘in Woolf’s clothing’ and introduced us to Virginia Woolf’s fabulous phrase ‘frock consciousness’. ‘From Empty Shoes to Dishcloth Turbans: the evolution of clothing imagery in Virginia Woolf’s fiction’ explored Woolf’s approach to dress, her perceived ‘clothes complex’ and her ‘fear’ of fashion. She also discussed Woolf’s use of clothing imagery in her novels. A particularly poignant note was the reference to clothing and absence. Exploring ‘Jacob’s Room’ (1922), Woolf describes the clothing of a lost son, loaded with emotion, and a mother’s plaintive enquiry, ‘What am I to do with these?’ indicating his old shoes.


Dr. Nicholson began her talk with a reference to the scholar Clair Hughes (Dressed in Fiction, 2005) quoting: ‘Novelists do not send their characters naked into the world, although critics have often acted as though they do.’ Nicholson showed that Woolf was deeply interested in clothes and textiles and wrote about them frequently, in her diaries, in her fiction, and even in the pages of Vogue.  


The Keynote Speaker on Sunday was the historical novelist Lindsey Davis, famous for her Falco series set in ancient Rome. Her humorous talk, titled 'Gay Attire or Sombre Garments' discussed how she uses costume in her writing. Davis began by stating that bad historical novelists use costume description as a crude way to set the period of a novel, however stereotypes of dress do have roots and can help to set a scene. As there are very few literary references available for Davis, she researched Roman garments for her characters and discovered that, as Roman clothes were woven on looms, the styles did not change for hundreds of years. Davis explained how descriptions of clothes are important in crime - either the description of clothes worn by missing people or the description of a criminal's clothes on wanted posters (as the poor usually only had one change of clothes). In her novels Davis makes use of the many colours and contrasting bands of fabrics that the Romans wore on tunics or the more expensive toga. Davis was another speaker who highlighted the role clothes can have as clues in a crime, especially shoes. The taking away of shoes of dead/dying soldiers and prisoners, as a tool used to show power over others, was a recurring theme throughout the conference.


Liz Booty introduced the Patterns of Fashion Award, judged by John Bright.   There were three finalists and each garment showed merit in its own way, as John clearly explained. The entries were a smart dark red gown based on an 1880s day dress in the V&A collections. The dress had a plastron front, asymmetric skirt drapery and a kilted hem. Then there was a beautiful whole-cloth quilted satin bodice, based on an example in the National Trust’s Snowshill collection. The maker had never attempted this quilting technique before and the garment took an incredible two hundred hours to produce. John explained that the quilting had to look good from both sides, the layers of batting created the ‘loft’ between stitches. The third finalist had created a version of an early 1920s Vionnet gown. John remarked that the pieced chiffon and braid was extremely difficult to handle, and the gradation of colours was most effective. Liz will be stepping down as co-ordinator of the Patterns of Fashion Award and was warmly thanked by Deirdre for her long service, hard work and contribution to the Society.


Rebecca Shawcross, Senior Shoe Curator at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, entertained us with a survey of ‘Shoes in Literature’ from Dickens to Hardy to Sherlock Holmes. Rebecca is responsible for the Designated Shoe Collection which she has worked with since 1998 and has written various papers on aspects of footwear.   Her book ‘Shoes: An Illustrated History’ was published by Bloomsbury in 2014.


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