Victorian Studies review: “The best of the essays are interpretations of paired short stories, like Christine Bayles Kortsch’s ‘Writing Women: Narration and Literary Culture in the Short Fiction,’ which helpfully associate Cholmondeley’s themes and techniques with other writers and works” (Victorian Studies 53.3).
Drawing on novels by Olive Schreiner and Sarah Grand, and less well-known works by Margaret Oliphant (Kirsteen) and Gertrude Dix (The Image-Breakers), among others, Kortsch shows that dress culture can give a sense of female community, and that sewing is often represented as a ‘rich, meaningful activity’ for female characters.
In cutting across traditional period distinctions and situating the New Woman among ‘fictional types’ (18), Kortsch aims to assess simultaneously the divergent engagements with ‘dress culture’ throughout the second half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. What is particularly refreshing is that, despite its interest in material culture, this study does not neglect the significance of intertextual references to texts (and fabrics). On the contrary, it is impressive in its ambitious scope.
Kortsch’s analysis of corset trends and photographs of their wearers reflect her research in costume museum collections. Her histories of corset styles and alternative dress movements effectively synthesize key primary and critical sources. Overall, her use of relevant historical and literary scholarship is exemplary. Kortsch is a skilled, engaging writer. [...] This book will benefit specialists in Victorian gender studies, fashion history, and material culture.
The idea of women’s dual literacy is a productive one, enabling Kortsch to build upon Sharon Marcus’ project in Between Women (2007), casting a fresh light on female relationships and imagined communities by giving attention to hitherto unnoticed details of dress culture.
In this terrific study, Kortsch (English, Eastern U., St. Davids, Penn.) puts an entirely new spin on the rich field of Victorian women’s fiction by treating the worlds of literature and of women’s dress culture as ‘dual literacy’, developing the many stories and references to sewing and clothing to indicate their relation to the ferocious reactions to the changes in clothing styles that accompanied changes in women’s roles in society.
Dress Culture embraces a vast amount of scholarship on nineteenth-century women, from studies of the woman writer in Victorian England, to histories of women’s education, friendships between women, women’s work, the suffragette movement and alternative dress movements. But the most exciting connections made are between dress and needlework. Although there has been substantial work done on fashion history, and while there are numerous studies of Victorian clothing and the culture of sewing, there is no coherent account linking these separate but allied areas. Kortsch’s book situates itself in this lacuna and attempts to present a coherent account of stitching, dressing, and the interrelations between fabrication and literary production in fin-de-siècle literature.
There is a great deal in this book that is valuable, interesting, and enlightening, and it makes a significant contribution to the scholarship in the field of fashion and literature. Kortsch’s command of current work is excellent, and the bibliography that she provides for her reader is in itself an excellent resource.
Bayles Kortsch’s clear, well-informed and very readable examination of Victorian dress culture enhances her readers’ own dual literacy and successfully establishes the importance of the relationship between dress culture and Victorian women’s writing. By examining in detail the import of the signs these writers were offering through dress, Bayles Kortsch significantly opens up their texts and offers an original insight into the modes through which the question of women’s role in Victorian society was being debated.