Book Review teaser: London Society Fashion

Detail from my ancestor's dress

Detail from my ancestor’s dress

Book Reviews is on break this month, but here is a preview of sorts for next month’s review, London Society Fashion, 1905-1920: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, also mentioned in Michelle’s summer reading post earlier this month.

The introduction to London Society Fashion states one reason why Firbank’s clothing is so noteworthy: “Clothing from this period is often fragile and is as ephemeral as the passing fashions themselves, making this an exceptionally large collection of historic dress to survive from one person’s wardrobe” (p. 7).  Alexandra Palmer has called clothing from this era “lively ticking time bombs of self-destructing materials” (Palmer 2006: 42), and has written on the challenges of displaying and advocating for the retention of these garments in decline. The exceptional fragility and beauty of gowns from this period was highlighted earlier this year through a stunning set of photographs of Hortense Mitchell Acton’s astonishing cache of Callot Soeurs garments recently discovered in Florence.

Whether a woman was purchasing couture across the Channel or the work of a neighborhood seamstress or ready-to-wear shop down the street, the passing of time is harsh on just about all garments from this era.  Fabrics were delicate, and often imbued with “inherent vice” in the form of weighted, now-deteriorating silks or the pull of masses of beads and dense embroideries.

Pictured above and below are a few items not from Firbank’s wardrobe but from a far less well-known early 20th century family–my own.  My aunt sent me this lighter-than-air net, lace, and silk dress, likely worn by my great-great-great aunt or 4th or 5th cousin.  She expressed in an accompanying letter her mixed feelings about sending the dress to me–not for sentimental reasons of a difficult parting, but because of its deterioration and her doubts on whether or not it should be saved at all.

A cotton petticoat has faired a little better, and may see a summer afternoon or two this year.

This hat is not from my family, but is a purchase that has traveled with me for many years. Its wingspan has shortened a bit from several moves, a few brushes with narrow doorways, and the fluctuating Texas weather.


While clothing and accessories can be remarkably resilient and can outlast human bodies for generations, they are also mortal like their makers. Collection managers, curators, conservators, and private collectors can do what they can to help halt the deterioration, or can redo significant portions of garments–a practice that has become less controversial in recent years–or, in certain cases, can come to accept the end of a garment’s life.  Luckily for Ms. Firbank, her wardrobe has a chance at a second life at the V&A.  More on this next month.

Sources cited:

Palmer, Alexandra (2006). ‘A Bomb in the Collection’: Researching and Exhibiting Early 20th-Century Fashion. The Future of the 20th Century: Collecting, Interpreting, and Conserving Modern Materials. (London: Archetype Publications): 41-47.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.