Lady Lever Art Gallery hosts The Finishing Touch: Women's Accessories 1830-1940

By Culture24 Staff | 25 May 2011 | Updated: 24 May 2011
A photo of a floppy green fashion hat
© National Museums Liverpool
Exhibition: The Finishing Touch: Women's Accessories 1830-1940, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Wirral, May 27 – December 11 2011

Middle and upper-class women of the 1830s wore gloves and shoes so narrow they caused foot deformities, older ladies were mocked by magazines in the 1850s for wearing floppy-brimmed hats, and the Victorian genteel hierarchy had to sweat in hats and gloves no matter what the weather.

People have spent nearly 200 years suffering in the name of fashion, so the Lever has decided to honour the brave by bringing out accessories rarely seen from the National Museums Liverpool collections. In the end, it turns out it wasn’t all sores and chafing.

An image of an illustration of three Victorian women in elegant long dresses and hats
An Edwardian fashion advert advises on the way forward in style
© National Museums Liverpool
“Many women enjoy the thrill of a new bag or the excitement of wearing a pair of shoes for the first time,” suggests curator Alyson Pollard.

“In the past, just as today, they can make a plain garment seem special, make a cheap dress look expensive or give new life to an old outfit. They say something about our personality and the way we feel.

“We’re looking at changing social customs and how these influenced accessories women wore. The changing role of women – from largely passive to more active – is shown through the display.”

Sixty bags, shoes, hats, fans, jewelled gems and royalty-soiled gloves pave the way, including shoes worn by Queen Victoria, slippers pottered around in by Alexandra Princess of Wales, a veiled 1840s wedding bonnet and platforms from the 1930s.
The fans seem to have served as wand-like conduits for a social morse code – holding them incorrectly was seen as vulgar behaviour by young girls, who were taught to use them to show emotions and flirt (pressing a half-opened one to their lips apparently signalled a desire for a snog).

An image of an illustration of a bygone fashion magazine showing two women in long dresses and hats
Patterns for outsize fashions (circa 1930)
© National Museums Liverpool
Tanning fans will be aghast at their use in the 19th century, when they cooled and shielded the face from heat and sunshine in an era when the pale and interesting look was in.

Handbags were seen as a symbol of independence as women travelled more, with hats and gloves only used for practical purposes after the Second World War.

Cruelly for Victorian fashionistas, shoes weren’t shaped for left or right feet until the mid-19th century, and high heels worn with a large bustle in the late 1860s forced wearers into a much-lampooned forward lean known as the Grecian Bend.

  • Open 10am-5pm. Admission free.
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