A sartorial history of women’s emancipation

Elise Taylor, Curator of Applied Art for National Museums Northern Ireland, is pictured in the Ulster Museum's latest exhibition
Elise Taylor, Curator of Applied Art for National Museums Northern Ireland, is pictured in the Ulster Museum's latest exhibition

An exquisite new dual exhibition at the Ulster Museum shows the evolution of women’s clothing and the casting off of restrictive corsets as the suffragettes and female emancipation gained ground in the early 1900s.

The Age of Liberty collection features a selection of 18th century corsets – symbolic of women’s subjection in so many ways – set against then gorgeous gowns in ruched silks and satins of the early 1900s, evening dresses with dropped waits that foretell the flapper era, trouser suits as women became more active outside the home, and even a motoring jacket, plus a fabulous art-deco style jacket, beaded and sequined, that I was sorely tempted to steal (moral duty happily prevented me).

Curator of the collection, Elise Taylor, said: “The exhibition really features the era from about 1905 to 1915 when fashion design changed dramatically.

“What we see here are those costumes from that era but punctuated by 18th century gowns and corsets, which remind us of how drastically women’s sartorial choices liberated them from restricted movement.

“We see the corset and under strapping and girding that was required to create the silhouette favoured during the 18th century, against the evening gowns of the early 1900s that are beautiful and freer in line and shape.

“Women began to dress with ease as their roles in society changed with the rise of the suffragette movement, women’s fight to get the vote and also the First World War, which brought many women out of the home and into working lives.

“Today we take it for granted that we don’t need to wear corsets, but 300 years ago these contraptions were obligatory.

“As attitudes changed and women were no longer satisfied to be seen as simply one half of a marriage, as they became self-determining, so they wanted to dress for comfort and free movement.”

Elise explained that one of her favourite pieces in the collection is a beaded evening jacket on an evening gown in mushroom and burgundy silk: “A little old lady turned up with this in a Tesco bag, terribly apologetic, and asked if we would be interested in this for our collection. I couldn’t believe how stunning it was.”

The Costumes Parisiens exhibition (on loan from the Chester Beatty Library) features a variety of pre-Vogue-era French fashion ‘ponchoir’ or stencil prints by illustrator and designer George Barbier, who scandalously eliminated the corset to show women in louche and decadent poses, with evening gowns of long, flowing lines and divine headwear.

l The Costumes Parisiens exhibition runs until November 30, and the Age of Liberty exhibition runs until April 19, 2015.