Monday, 22 November 2010

Suffragette connections Part 4 - The Corset

Yes there's some more.

Ethel Blount is reported to have been a prominent member of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, along with C.R. Ashbee's wife Janet (Cumming and Kaplan, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Thames and Hudson, 1991).
Mrs G.F. Watts (Mary Seton Fraser Tytler) by George Frederick Watts, 1887

 In the source documentation so far viewed, I cannot find a reference to the Blounts or Ashbee within the Union, but then not many documents are widely available.  I have not been able to locate any copies of Aglaia, the journal produced by the movement.  It is interesting to note that Henry Holiday, the President of the union and editor of this journal, who also organized promotions for the Union, was an illustrator, his most notable illustrations being in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark in 1876 (Carroll being acquainted with Greville MacDonald as discussed in an earlier post).   What appears to have been the Union's subsequent journal, The Dress Review, is held at the Women's Library, London for the dates 1903-1906.

The Healthy and Artistic Union pamphlet below clearly demonstrates that Mrs G.F.Watts of nearby Watts Chapel in Compton, near Godalming, was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Union.  If the link of Ethel to the Union were further confirmed, then this would provide evidence that the artistic community in Compton had links with Haslemere, and there are certainly similarities between the two artistic communities.  At Compton Mrs Watts (otherwise known as Mary Fraser-Tytler) was encouraging the teaching of handicrafts to the lower classes, by designing a chapel that she trained locals to help build and decorate.  The chapel was built between 1896-1898 with reportedly all of the 74 members of the village taking part (wikipedia).  G.F.Watts, her husband was one of the most notable Victorian painters of the time.

Pamphlet written by E.M.D.Wheeler, illustrated by Walter Crane.  Note: last Vice President in the list is Mrs G.F.Watts
For more on Walter Crane and the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, read my later post.  The members of the Healthy and Artistic Union appeared to be active in the suffrage movement.  For example Laura Elizabeth Morgan-Browne was a member of the committee in 1892 and in 1896 was an  executive in the Central National Society for Women's Suffrage (Crawford, Women's Suffrage Movement, UCL Press, 1999).  The above pamphlet sets to persuade ladies 'to dress without the corset', and wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.  The New York Times reported on the 13th May 1894 of the movement "the members of the union will have to do battle with the great Juggernaut fashion, and if they can escape being crushed out of sight...they may hope eventually to educate their sisters up to a right appreciation of what is best for them to wear - but I do not envy their task".
Interior of Watts Chapel, Compton, Surrey by Mrs G.F.Watts 

The Sanitary Record reported in 1890 of a conference taking place in July with the intention of reforming female dress (i.e. to establish the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union) as to "make it thoroughly healthy, comfortable, and graceful".  The conference set out that "1. the compression of the waist...effected by the use of corsets is inconsistent with the maximum health and strength.  The use of the corset, therefore, should be regarded as strictly exceptional, and for growing girls more especially should be altogether discontinued...2. limbs, both arms should have the freest play...by securing well-cut sleeves for the arms and not encumbering the legs with multiplicity of skirts.  3. Clothing should, by it's lightness, and convenient mode of support, make the smallest possible demand on the muscular strength, and thus leave the individual free to employ her physical forces in work more interesting and useful than in simply carrying her clothes".  These three issues were further summarised as 'stiffness, tightness and weight'.  It was reported that many of the attendees spoke out against the wearing of the corset, The Sanitary Record  commented that "it will, however, be a very long time before this article of apparel disappears from human sight".

In an article that may have been written by Ethel Blount, entitled 'To Dress Well - An Apology for the Dress-making Branch of the Peasant Arts Society' it is stated that to dress well "it is essential that the shape be simple, the stuff good, and the maker happy....A fashionable gown is generally complex, and absolutely lawless, and it vulgarises the poor girl who stitches it, the rich one who wears, and the poorer one who longs for it".  They set out that the dress should leave "full play to each limb, throwing all weight on the shoulders, and none on the waist.  The construction should be obvious, and we should do no more try and hide buttons and laces than we do our front-doors and chimney-stacks.  The shape should be achieved with the minimum of shaping..." Whilst the Peasant Arts clothes may have embraced this vision, it was not in line with the current mode of dress, and it is interesting to read a memory of a local girl at the time that she "and her sisters had hand woven frocks and skirts which were hard wearing and pretty but they hated having to wear them as they were different from the other childrens clothes." (Pooley, The Changing Face of Shottermill, Acorn Press, 1987).

Further information on the Watts Gallery and Chapel

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