In 1887, the Ancoats Art Museum put a model dress on display to inspire working women to wear more functional and beautiful clothing and to influence their behaviour and moral character. The Museum Committee suggested that ‘simple dresses, very beautiful in form and colour, could easily be obtained by most working women’. They felt ‘it is a great pity that the majority of English women wear dresses which have no beauty of form or colour. It is a great pity because a moderate amount of pride in being well dressed tends to have a good influence on a woman’s habits and character , and because a beautiful dress is a good lesson in design and the use of colour to all who see it’
Displayed with the dress were some examples of beautiful fabrics – including Flower Garden designed by William Morris in 1879 – perfect for making the dress. The Committee promised to sell a paper pattern of the Model Dress for twopence (1p) to any working woman who wanted one.
In 1905, members of the Fawcett Debating Society – of which Julia Gaskell was a member – asked the Museum if they could review at the dress and judge whether it continued to work as a model garment.
Minutes of a meeting held in the Art Museum on 23 February 1905 record their discussions: ‘The model dress had been taken out of the case in order to take patterns (as requested by the Fawcett Debating Soc) & those women who had examined it had found it inconvenient. The ladies present at the Committee meeting were asked to look at the dress & decide whether it should be returned to the case as a model garment.’
While no patterns of the dress have been found, Georgina Housley from the Institute of Fashion at Manchester Metropolitan University has imaginatively recreated the dress using contemporary descriptions of rational dresses and an example of a reform dress which is held at the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall. This reimagining of the dress has been disrupted by creative responses to the story by a group of young women working through The Horsfall @ 42nd Street.
The whole project has been curated by The Horsfall@ 42nd Street and was a real treat – and it was of particular interest to me to catch a glimpse of Julia Gaskell. I’d love to know more about the reasons why the Debating Society considered the Dress inconvenient!
Volunteer – Elizabeth Gaskell’s House