Period Drama Wedding Dresses at Biltmore

Wedding costumes from the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

While I was at INCS in Asheville, I spent a morning visiting Biltmore House, part of the Vanderbilt Estate. I wrote about my visit to the house and grounds in my travel blog (here), but I thought the exhibition at the house deserved its own post.

The exhibition was of the wedding dresses (and some other dresses) used in period dramas based on novels. The implications of this seemed to me particularly apt for an audience that was attending an interdisciplinary conference on the nineteenth century, which included plenty of Neo-Victorianists. I certainly had my own views about the exhibition, which I hissed to my husband as we pushed our way through the crowds.

Wedding costume from the 1994 ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

My main gripe was that the wedding costumes were presented out of context. And I mean completely out of any context whatsoever. The effect was impressively postmodern, but I don’t think that’s what the exhibition’s designers were going for…

Historical context

In a way that (again I’m pretty sure unintentionally) mimicked the chaos of architectural style that characterises Biltmore House, the dresses from the various period dramas (therefore representing a variety of historical periods) were placed randomly throughout the house. Very few of them reflected the time periods in which the house would have been occupied, and the effect was to reduce the historical past to ‘once upon a time in period drama land’.

Literary context

Further, as my husband pointed out, the information panels about the dresses often neglected to give any details about the original texts upon which the period dramas were based. In a way this actually shows a concern for accuracy – these are not the dresses of Lizzie Bennet and Elinor Dashwood after all, they are the dresses worn by the actresses portraying those characters. And ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is not in fact Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a very new and different text. However, I don’t think it would have been out of line to at least credit the original authors of the texts which inspired the adaptations…

Wedding costume from the adaptation of Middlemarch

Context of the text itself…

Finally, I was most disturbed by the emphasis on wedding dresses from period dramas based on texts which questioned the state of Victorian marriage. The dresses for George Eliot’s heroines Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch) and Gwendolyn Harleth (Daniel Deronda) were on display in the same spirit as those of Austen’s heroines. Reducing Austen’s complex novels to ‘happy ever after’ plotlines for period dramas is one thing, but George Eliot’s??

I was left wondering what the point of the exhibition really was – it shed no light on the original texts, or even really the new texts of the adaptations. I went back to the information provided by the exhibition designers themselves for answers:

In celebration of Biltmore’s long history as a location for weddings and romantic getaways, the estate is hosting a new costume exhibition highlighting love stories from iconic films. Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film, presented by Belk, showcases wedding dresses and attire from major motion pictures spanning centuries of design.

More than 40 award-winning costumes from 19 classic films will be displayed throughout the grand rooms of Biltmore House. Costumes illustrate changing styles in wedding fashions from the 1700s through the 1940s and the exquisite attention to detail that Cosprop Ltd., London, brings to its film costume projects. Accenting the costume displays will be elaborate floral arrangements complementing each film’s era, created by Biltmore’s Floral design team.

At this point I realised that this exhibition was really advertising masquerading as a historical exhibition. If you count, in this exhibition description there are references to at least four commercial organisations, as well as the motion picture industry arching over the whole thing. Belk is a department store/online retailer, and at least one of the purposes of the exhibition is to advertise Biltmore’s wedding industry. Really only half a sentence of the description provides an indication of the historical value that the exhibition might have (highlighted above) – and that’s probably debatable by historians of fashion.

In the process of becoming veiled with history though, I realised that the exhibition could actually, unintentionally, turn into something that could be read as postmodern art. And this enabled me to enjoy it far more.

What do other people think? Did anyone else from the conference  have thoughts on Biltmore or the exhibition? Let me know by leaving a reply below!



V-21 at INCS

There’s a real buzz surrounding the V21 Collective. I first heard of the movement, and its manifesto, in a bar in New York City, while I was attending the British Women Writers Conference last summer. I read the manifesto and wrote about some of the debate surrounding it here.

I must admit, while I was at INCS in Asheville last month, I got rather caught up in the buzz when I attended the V21 Collective’s Plenary: ‘Towards a Strategic Presentism: A V21 Collective Roundtable on the 21st Century Urgencies of 19th-Century Study’. The room was packed by the time I got there and there was a sense of excitement, encouraged by the quick succession of short contributions from the speakers – who were all confident, engaging and set forth their ideas boldly.

The session began by very briefly outlining the need for a ‘strategic presentism’ as a way of explaining the importance of the 19th-century (and of studying it) for the 21st century, in the face of the current academic climate. There was much talk of defending ourselves to ‘administrators’, and the current situation in Wisconsin was alluded to. But it also seemed to be something to aid the human condition: to enable people to see the roots of what we are dealing with in our Present – such as climate change, imperialism, economic inequality – and suggest ways of dealing with these problems, based on how nineteenth-century thinkers and artists tackled the issues in their infancy.

The first speaker was Tanya Agothocleous. With reference to Antoinette Burton, Agothocleous talked about the nineteenth-century periodical Anti=Caste, its utopianism, and the temporality of its utopianism. She linked this with Black Lives Matter, and suggested that both these movements rejected particular futures.

Many of the speakers dealt with time in their contributions – about the artificiality of labels of past, present, future. Ruskin and Bergson were enlisted for argument about the duration of the Present, or, put in another way, the persistence of the Past. There was a suggestion that thinking in a trans-temporal way requires a new language for describing how cultural objects make meaning.

It was pointed out that the present is not the opposite of the past, but that time is additive, that the past keeps adding to the present: it’s only in the present that the past becomes perceptible as such.

Which led to the suggestion that even historicism is present-oriented…

Though this was more obvious in the field of literary studies, where we have perhaps always been more honest about how our choice of canon reflects our current concerns or how we want to explain ourselves. In both literary studies and history though, in this way, the present produces – and reproduces – the past.

There were some good contributions that focused on how the Victorians were absolutely Presentist, and how this was theorised well by Ruskin, among others. Also a good point was made about Victorian writers’ strategic use of the present-tense to speak generally about an issue, especially to critique urban conditions.

Nathan K. Hensley talked directly to the ‘Strategic’ element of the title, warning against taking a strategy for a theory – a strategy is a temporary, situational tool for achieving some object. He also suggested that while V21 is good at the analysis of the present that makes up part of a strategy, it is as yet still working on the object. However, he was clear about what the strategy needed to work against – the anti-intellectual presentist and economic concerns of the Neoliberal administrators (who are apparently the Lockwoods to our Heathcliffs). Further reading was suggested, which I’ve not got around to yet, but hopefully will at some point: Lukács, Tactics & Ethics, and Althusser, Machiavelli and Us.

So that was the rountable, and I’ve been thinking about Strategic Presentism ever since. I’d been pleased that they mostly avoided the usual attack on historicism:

History dissolved into collection of curiosities+oddities; if historian stops at mere description, remains raconteur of anecdotes. Lukacs

I feel this is a bit of a disingenuous straw man. The historicists I know are largely motivated by present desires to explain social relations and consciousness among groups who still haven’t been explained by the canon or the grand narratives of Marx etc. So the unearthing of more detail in these cases is motivated by a strategic presentism.

I’m also concerned that approaches that focus on the canon and the persistence of the past might end up explaining the persistence of inequality rather than challenging it.

Finally, I have to say that presentism is already being used ‘strategically’, in a rather anti-intellectual way, by administrators, to get students through the door. For example, a number of history departments in the UK have added ‘heritage’ to their titles. Presumably it’s only a matter of time before we see an English and Period Drama department… I have mixed feelings about this – on the one hand, I’m not sure I should be in the business of being snobby about how people in general engage with history and English, especially if it keeps me in business. On the other hand, it surely is my business to encourage students to be reflective about their presentism; to get them to articulate how it might work, and how it might not – and maybe to encourage them to develop their own ‘strategic’ presentism…

But I’ll end with one of V21’s most important messages:

Thanks especially to Devin Griffiths for his tweets – they really helped flesh out my notes from when I couldn’t keep up!

Tips for Tuesday – advice on publishing

These last couple of weeks I found great advice in a couple of blog posts.

Firstly, Charlotte Mathieson’s story of how she went about writing her book and getting published really spurred me on in my efforts to start writing my sample chapters again:

And then Pat Thomson linked to a couple of her blogs on how to put together a ‘publishing agenda’ and a publishing plan for journal articles. I’ve been in a planning mood lately, so this really helped move my plan from ‘publish some stuff from the PhD’ to something a little more detailed and strategic!

March’s favourite blogs

This month I came across Writing Lives for the first time. Many people may already have discovered this, but it’s a fantastic resource for anyone interested in life writing, or working class histories. The site includes blog posts that introduce the autobiographies held in the Burnett Archive of Working-class Autobiographies, held at Brunel University, and is being developed alongside the project to digitize these and other memoirs into an online archive of working-class writing.

The site is also interesting in terms of pedagogy. The blogs introducing the autobiographies are written by third-year undergraduates. Each autobiography is written about with regard to a number of specific themes – for example, ‘Home and Family’, ‘Life and Labour’, ‘War and Memory’, or ‘Education and Schooling’.

Writing lives

That there aren’t more readily-available (read non-manuscript) sources written by working-class individuals seems to be a perennial problem when writing history. I recently encountered this issue when trying to write about women and their subjective experience of education and religion in the nineteenth century. A couple of scholars, such as June Purvis in her A History of Women’s Education in England, and Meg Gomersall, in Working Class Girls in Nineteenth Century England: Life Work and Schooling, provided tantalizing glimpses of the working-class life writing they had accessed in order to write their histories, but as I wasn’t able to access these, I couldn’t ask any further questions of the material or draw any relevant conclusions for my project.

Jean Fernandez’s study, Victorian Servants: Class and the Politics of Literacy further problematized the form for me, pointing out that the autobiography could only be written after literacy had been achieved, and thus no longer authentically reflected the subjectivity of an illiterate working class life. In her particular example, Janet Bathgate, who wrote Aunt Janet’s Legacy to her Nieces: Recollections of Humble Life in Yarrow (1872 and 1894), Fernandez argues that Janet’s narrative became self-consciously about her acquisition of literacy, written in a form that mimicked middle-class autobiographies. However, I think we can fetishize authenticity, and also – in a rather patronising way – the idea of a particularly illiterate, working-class subjectivity. There can be a tendency to want to find the Otherness of an independent, inviolable working class and a corresponding dismissal of working-class subjects who cultivated ‘respectable’ or aspirant subjectivities as being victims of ’embourgeoisement’.

So for me, Writing Lives is a great resource and I’m already combing through to see how many of the women autobiographers wrote about their schooling, and if they linked it with religion. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to follow up by accessing these memoirs myself.


1st Conference of the season: INCS!

This weekend I’m away in Asheville, NC, for INCS, and really looking forward to a few days discussing the nineteenth century.

INCS is a little different from other conferences I’ve been to in terms of its format for sessions. Instead of reading my paper, I uploaded my 8-10 page document for my fellow panel members, and those thinking of attending my panel, to read in advance. Then, at my session on Sunday morning (I do hope some people show up…) I just present a 5-7 minute summary of the paper. This leaves a lot more time in the session for discussion which, if people really have read the papers, should be of a high quality. Or at least I guess that’s the plan. I wonder slightly whether this is a better format for smaller, more focused conferences, but I’ll be interested to see how it works here anyway. So far it feels like it’s been more preparation than I normally end up doing for a conference, but I’ve really enjoyed reading the papers in advance.

The theme this year is ‘natural and unnatural histories’. I’m presenting  on Sunday morning (Panel 10D Re-reading religion) as part of a panel exploring Victorian religious understandings of history; my paper focuses on how women missionaries could understand themselves as significant historical actors – more about this another time.

I’m also looking forward to facilitating a panel on Friday, discussing Victorians’ responses to Darwinism (Panel 3B After/Against Darwin). Should be really great.

I’ll try to live-tweet when I can – follow me on twitter if you don’t already – details on the right.