[Note from Frolic: We are so excited to welcome author Mimi Matthews to the site today! She’s talking all things Victorian fashion. Take it away, Mimi!]
When it comes to writing Victorian romances, fashion can be as integral to the plot as the romance itself. Not only does it help to firmly set the scene, it also helps to create the mood — to develop a simmering heat even in the most restrained of circumstances. With every brush of a lady’s skirts against a gentleman’s trouser leg, with every deliberate removal of a custom-made kid glove or loosening of a lightly-starched cravat, the tension builds. Who knew that all those layers of fabric separating a heroine from her hero could be so stimulating?
I research and write about fashion a lot, both for my nonfiction work and for my Victorian novels; however, fashion has never played so much of a role in my romances as it does in my new novella, Fair as a Star. The heroine, Beryl Burnham, has just returned home after a mysterious sojourn in Paris. While there, her wealthy aunt purchased an entire wardrobe of Parisian gowns for her. She also arranged for Beryl to have her wedding dress designed by none other than Charles Frederick Worth himself.
“Aunt Hortensia had spent a small fortune on the wedding dress from Worth and Bobergh. It was a creamy white satin, stitched with tulle and swansdown, and trimmed in glass pearls and crystal beading. A dress that made Beryl look as regal as the European royalty who patronized Mr. Worth’s shop.”
An Englishman by birth, Worth moved to France in the 1840s where he found work as a cutter at Gagelin’s accessories shop in Paris. In 1858, he opened his own dress salon in the Rue de la Paix, in partnership with Otto Bobergh. There, Worth’s elegant hand-sewn creations, made with lavish fabrics and trimmings to create an idealized female figure, soon caught the eye of Empress Eugénie of France. Wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie was the ultimate arbiter of fashion in the mid-nineteenth century. Once she extended her patronage to Worth, his status as the most fashionable dress designer in Europe was secured.
Worth revolutionized dressmaking. He was the first to use live models to showcase his work, the first to offer new collections each year, and the first to sign his work with a label. Today he is recognized as the Father of Haute Couture. In the nineteenth century, however, he was known simply for the stunning beauty of his designs. As an 1889 article in the Wells Journal so aptly puts it:
“If ladies think of him, it is but as the embodiment of a power from which comes conquests in the ball-room and glory at every fashionable gathering; to prosaic men his is a hated name suggestive of long bills and financial ruin.”
Worth’s reputation stretched all the way to England, and even to America. He was mentioned in lady’s journals and fashion magazines. In Fair as a Star, even the women in the small Somerset village of Shepton Worthy have heard his name. When Beryl’s Worth wedding dress arrives from Paris, it causes a minor furor. The town draper is especially eager to have a look at it — to examine the cut and the stitching in hopes that he might replicate some of the design.
Yes, in the Victorian era, a Worth gown was an exceedingly valuable thing. But to a heroine like Beryl, there are some things that turn out to be even more valuable.
Matthews, Mimi. A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Barnsley: Pen and Sword History, 2018.
Wells Journal (Somerset, England), April 25, 1889. © British Library Board.
About the Author:
USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.
Connect with Mimi:
Fair as a Star by Mimi Matthews, out now!
This is first book of the Victorian Romantics series. After a mysterious sojourn in Paris, Beryl Burnham has returned home to the village of Shepton Worthy ready to resume the life she left behind. Betrothed to the wealthy Sir Henry Rivenhall, she has no reason to be unhappy — or so people keep reminding her. But Beryl’s life isn’t as perfect as everyone believes. As village curate, Mark Rivenhall is known for his compassionate understanding. When his older brother’s intended needs a shoulder to lean on, Mark’s more than willing to provide one. There’s no danger of losing his heart. He already lost that to Beryl a long time ago. During an idyllic Victorian summer, friends and family gather in anticipation of Beryl and Sir Henry’s wedding. But in her darkest moment, it’s Mark who comes to Beryl’s aid. Can he help her without revealing his feelings — or betraying his brother?