The colour revolution that made vamps of the Victorians
The Victorians were VAMPS all along! Forget those gloomy photographs – Britain was awash with synthetic dye. And even the sovereign was once a Queen of Colour who dressed up like a ‘Christmas tree’
- A new exhibition shows how a colour revolution swept through 1850s England
- Queen Victoria wore nothing but black from 1861 – but previously loved colour
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Think of Victorian Britain and what comes to mind? ‘Dark satanic mills’, smog choked cities and the gloomy ‘Widow of Windsor’ dressed head to foot in black.
A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum dispels this myth and presents us with a dazzling version of the Victorian world. Forget the black and white image, Britain in the mid 19th century was, it appears, a riot of colour.
Nearly 150 objects from racy dyed underwear to jewellery made from birds heads document this ‘colour revolution.’
The exhibition opens with one of Queen Victoria’s drabbest mourning dresses dating from about 1898 and proving the elderly monarch was not only diminutive but was as wide as she was tall.
A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum dispels the myth that Queen Victoria only ever wore black, and presents us with a dazzling version of the Victorian world
Queen Victoria’s mourning dress, which she wore for forty years from Prince Albert’s death in 1861 to her own in 1901 she wore only deepest mourning
Victoria is often remembered for her gloomy attired. Yet, for the marriage of her daughter, marriage of Victoria, Princess Royal, Queen Victoria, centre right, wore mauve moire silk trimmed with Honiton lace
It was Queen Victoria who helped popularise the new wave of synthetic coloured clothes, such as this day dress from late-1860s, made of aniline-dyed silk and glass beads
For the forty years from Prince Albert’s death in 1861 to her own in 1901 she wore only deepest mourning.
As exhibition curator Matthew Winterbottom explains: Our image of the widowed queen in black is only half of the picture and has distorted our view of her and the period named after her. Before she was plunged into mourning she loved colourful clothing’
In a watercolour of her dressed for an 1845 palace Fancy Ball, she resembles a Christmas Tree.
A decade later she helped popularise the new wave of synthetic dyes.
In 1856, 18 year-old William Perkin had used alchohol to remove some coal-tar from a beaker. The chemical reaction resulted in a purple substance that became the first man-made dye known as Mauvine, Perkin’s Mauve or analine purple.
This was the foundation of a new range of synthetic colours, which would transform clothing manufacture.
Thanks to the development of aniline dyes, the 1860s saw an explosion of colour in everything from day dresses to stockings. Pictured: A pair of women’s boots, England, 1870s
Empress Eugenie with a bright blue toe peeping out from under her dress, presented with bouquet by peasant girl.
Victoria loved the colour and two years later wore it at the wedding of her eldest daughter, Victoria, writing in her journal: ‘My dress was of mauve moire antique & silver, trimmed with Honiton lace’.
Charles Dicken’s mocked the ‘fashionable insanity for Perkins’s Purple’ and in 1859 Punch magazine lampooned ‘Mauve measles.’
Thanks to the development of such dyes, the 1860s saw an explosion of colour in everything from day dresses to stockings.
As it turned out, the aniline created by Sir William Perkin was significant well beyond the garment industry and today remains one of the most important chemical compounds ever derived. Aniline is still the base for medicines, dyes, rubber and explosives.
It makes perfect sense for Victoria to have embraced these colours, and not just on aesthetic grounds.
In common with other leading Germans, Prince Albert, was fascinated by scientific advance. The giant BASF, the Baden Aniline and Soda Factory, was established in Prince Albert’s home state of Bavaria not long afterwards and has powered German industry ever since.
Across the channel, the French Empress Eugenie played a part by popularising the slightly shorter crinoline dresses. As a result, a flash of coloured ankle was everywhere to be seen, apart from Windsor Castle.
There were other influences working upon Victoria, who became Empress of India in 1877. She was enthralled by the sub-continent.
On display is an elaborately patterned woven goats wool shawl, which was a gift to the Queen but which she never wore as she would only support British manufactured materials.
In the 1850s the Queen was caught up in the craze for anything to do with hummingbirds.
At the 1851 Great Exhibition she spent some time admiring a display of 3,800 mounted hummingbirds and noted: ‘It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little hummingbirds, their variety and the extraordinary brilliance of their colours.’
In the display is an horrific reminder of the lengths Victorian women went to celebrate this poor creature – a necklace made up of decapitated hummingbird heads.
The opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria at the Industrial Palace in Hyde Park in May 1851
Lady Granville’s beetle parure and case which displays their vivid green shells, a clear statement to the vanquished Russians of the skill of British craftsmanship
Also of its time is a tiara made for Lady Granville out of South American weevils displaying their vivid green shells. Lady Granville later became mother in law of Elizabeth II’s aunt, Rose Bowes-Lyon.
An earlier Lady Granville represented Victoria at the 1856 coronation of Tsar Alexander II who was responsible for taking Russia out of the Crimean War against Britain and France.
The parure of seven pieces was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire for Countess Granville, the wife of his nephew. Set with priceless gems form the Devonshire family’s collection the parure dazzled Moscow society and were a clear statement to the vanquished Russians of the skill of British craftsmanship.
The Victorian obsession with colour continued through to the end of the century. In 1897 the Duchess of Devonshire hosted the Devonshire House Ball, a lavish fancy dress party to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
In 1897 the Duchess of Devonshire hosted the Devonshire House Ball, a lavish fancy dress party to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee
The hostess appeared as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. The exquisitely designed dress was made by the Parisian house of Worth. It consists of a skirt of gold gauze with an emerald green velvet train studded with jewels.
This final image makes it clear the Victorian era was going out in a blaze of colourful glory.
- Colour Revolution: Victorian Art, Fashion & Design. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until 18 February 2024
- Ian Lloyd, author of: ‘An Audience With Queen Victoria,’ The History Press
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