Katherine Farebrother (1857-1928)

The Farebrother collection came to the museum in 1976 after a trunk containing many items of dress was found in a clear out of a family home and offered to the museum.

The clothes were worn by Katherine Sophia Farebrother and date from the late-Victorian and Edwardian period. The decision to relegate her fashionable clothes to a trunk, never to be worn again, was taken on the occassion of her second husband’s death, Horace John Lloyd Farebrother in 1913, when she entered a period of mourning that was to last for fifteen years until her death in 1928.


Whilst Horace was alive the family home in Salisbury was a venue for numerous events in the social calendar of the middle class circles, and Katherine was a prominent member of these gatherings. Suitable outfits would have been bought and worn over a number of years for such events and were preserved when stored away in 1913.

Included in the collection are items bought from the London stores Liberty’s and Dickins and Jones, as well as clothing from more homely, such as those made by a local dressmaker. Also included are many beauty and medicinal products used by Katherine Farebrother such as liver pills, compressed lavender blossom by Yardley and a sachet of sweet violet.

Writing in 1976 her grandson, Michael Farebrother, said: ‘She was a loyal and devoted wife and lived quietly in a domesticated, rather than a social context. She was a talented artist and a good plain needlewoman, “creative but not fancy”‘. This confident but unassuming personality is reflected in her choice of dress – always fashionable but never too far in the direction of the outre or avant-garde.

The collection contains over 48 outfits and related ephemera from the life of Katherine Farebrother, with the earliest dating from 1878 and the latest c1915.


Aesthetic dress

Victorian Britain witnessed the first successful revolt against fashion in the western world. This revolt was a reaction to what was seen as the extreme developments in women’s dress. The fashionable woman’s skirt expanded during the 1850s and on into the 1860s, with various voluminous modifications in to the 1880s. These styles came in for criticism from numerous groups in Victorian society, among which were feminists, hygenists, fashion conservatives, the Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetics. These disperate groups all wanted change in dress but also all had different ideas as to the best style reformed dress should take.

The Aesthetic influence on dress

The Aesthetics’ views on dress were influenced by artists such as Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and William Morris and their circle. These artists had began to consider dress and fashion as an important arena for study and design; they preferenced flowing form and fabric over the traditional Victorian corseted silhouette, and drew inspiration from the classical, medieval and Renaissance periods. They began designing dresses which were initially intended to be worn as costumes for the sitters in their paintings, but which gradually filtered through to a wider circle of women. The artist Holman Hunt designed the wedding dress for Ellen Terry for her wedding to the artist GF Watts in 1864, and the architect-designer EW Godwin was to have a huge influence on Oscar Wilde and his theories on dress. Both Ellen Terry and Oscar Wilde were to become central figures in the Aesthetic movement.

Aesthetic style looked to history and other continents for influences, appropriating elements from Greek, Roman, Gothic, Georgian, Far East, Middle East and Japanese styles. The style was often ridiculed – an indication of its influence on popular imagination – such as in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience, which takes a wry look at Aestheticism.

Katherine Farebrother’s Aesthetic-influenced dresses

Katherine Farebrother owned a number of dresses influenced by the Aesthetic movement. One is from Liberty, the store most closely associated with the movement, which opened a department influenced by historical styles – the Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, which was later to be headed by EW Godwin. The Liberty’s outfit in the collection is a dinner dress of deep red velvet dating from the late 1890s. It has large puffed sleeves and a low, squared collar held open by large tassels. The label reads ‘Liberty, and Co Ltd., Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, 218 Regents Street. W’. Whilst this dress adheres to Aesthetic ideals, worn with a contemporary corset it would have very much resembled the fashionable ‘S’ bend silhouette of the late-Victorian and Edwardian period.

Another example alludes more directly to historical fashions: a tea gown dating from around 1895, made of brown ribbed silk with pale yellow silk front panels and sleeves printed with floral sprigs and ribbons. Tea gowns were a popular informal style of dress for women in the late 19th century and were ideal for the Aesthetic dress which eschewed tightly laced corsets creating the ‘fashionable’ tiny waist. This example has traditionaly been catalogued as a maternity dress as it appears loose, however, it does conceals a fitted bodice. It is a curious mixture of historical styles: the puffed sleeves, although fashionable in the late Victorian period, imitating Elizabethan dress, the deep lace collar reminiscent of early to mid-17th century styles, and the unfunctional box-pleated ‘sack back’ harking back to mid-18th century dress.

Dress CT002168
Dress CT002168

Another tea gown, circa 1905-10, differs dramatically in style to the previous example but again takes its influence from history – the Regency period. It is made of white lawn printed with veritcal stripes, with the high waisted empire line fashionable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It also has a falling collar, a design element taken from the early to mid-17th century. The Regency style, with the empire line waist, was to become popular again in more formal wear than this example in the early Edwardian period.


Department stores 

The genesis and growth of the department store

Britain’s Industrial Revolution was fed by the desire to produce consumer goods in mass quantities, most notably in textiles. The success of these aims meant whole industries grew up around the production of certain products – the north of England dominated the production of cottons and wools, with towns such as Manchester and Leeds witnessing an explosion in population growth to cater for the expanding textile industries as the 19th century progressed.

Mass production meant the price of goods decreased, making a myriad of consumer goods available to new and larger audiences. The newly emerging middle classes dominated the higher end of the market. To cater for the increase in both the number of consumers and the variety of consumer goods a new way of shopping evolved: the department store. There are many claims to the first department store but it is generally held to be Bon Marche, which opened in Paris in 1838. London’s first was Whiteley’s which opened in 1863 in Bayswater.

Numerous items of dress in the Farebrother collection were acquired from London department stores such as Dickens and Jones and Liberty. All the outfits from the department stores would have been bought to be worn for special occasions as they are of the highest quality of both design and fabrics.

Katherine Farebrother’s department store dresses

CT003367: The most striking dress from Dickens and Jones is a yellow and cream coloured silk brocade outfit with figured lozenge shaped design motifs. It dates from circa 1900 and includes a bodice, skirt and cape. It is one of Mrs Farebrother’s best ball dresses and is typical of the style of dress of an upper middle class woman of her day.

CT003682: Dress from D&J, c1900-05. The majority of Katherine Farebrother’s clothes were in silk, the most expensive fabric. This dress is made from muslin, a fine cotton weave, which had been in and out of fashion since the late 18th century. This example is in a light brown coloured muslin with a standing collar of cream lace and satin ribbon decoration on the shoulders and the bodice front. The silk lining has unfortunatley deteriorated quite badly with age and, if to be in good order for future generations, will need extensive conservation.

CT003369: Dress from D&J, c1900-05. Another dress from Dickens and Jones has a black silk bodice and skirt decorated all over with small white floral motifs. The bodice has additional decoration with contrasting black velvet ribbons and cream lace. It has been proposed that this outfit is half mourning, one of the stages in the mourning process so indicative of the Victorian era, possibly for Queen Victoria herself, but without more indepth research we can not be sure.


Dressing for the occasion

In the 19th century there was a huge population growth in urban areas. With diverse social groups leading their lives in the same cities, problems with identity arose. In order to differentiate themselves from the lower classes, the middle classes adopted strong visual signifiers of social status. For the expanding middle class, consumer items, and dress in particular, becamse indicators of wealth and social staus. Strict rules were developed which prescribed appropriate dress for different occasions.

Such was the power of middle-class society that it was not extraordinary for Katherine Farebrother to pack her clothes away on the death of her husband and enter a period of mourning which demanded a new and distinct set of clothing. (What was extraordinary was the length of time she stayed in mourning – fifteen years).

Katherine Farebrother’s outfits for an occasion

CT003146: The tea gown began life in the 1870s as a very informal gown worn at home when alone. It allowed for loose corsetry and developed into a more elaborate gown as the 19th century progressed. This example, by Thomas Bloom, dates from circa 1895. It is made of dark green coloured wool with decorative braid extending across the front and back and around the upper sleeves. Its style is influenced by the Aesthestic movement. Due to extensive damage to the lining, a symptom of the age of the garment, it had to be completely replaced in the mid-1970s using rayon (instead of the original silk) incorporating the original boning.

CT002182: The last decades of the 19th century foreshadowed the 20th century womens’ wardrobe with the development of the blouse as an alternative to the bodice for day or afternoon dress. This example of afternoon dress stays with the traditional form of a skirt and bodice dates from circa 1905-07. Both the bodice and skirt are made of cream silk with the bodice being decorated with pleated panels across the front and decorative buttons and tassels.

CT003541: When going out for an evening, for example to attending dinner parties or to the theatre, a much more showy form of dress was worn. This example dates from circa 1900 and is made of red coloured silk taffeta with black machine lace of stylized flora motifs lying over the taffeta. The strikingly bright red of the taffeta is toned down by the use of the lace which also gives added decoration of floral motifs to what would otherwise be quite a decoratively plain dress.

CT003368: Towards the end of the Victorian era women took up more leisure activities such as lawn tennis and cycling. These all required distinct forms of dress, as did the popular pursuit of walking. Katherine Farebrother’s walking suit was put away when she entered mourning, and is now part of the collection held by Brighton museum. It is made of sea-green coloured wool and consists of a knee length straight jacket, split from the waist to the hem and a floor length skirt. Both the jacket and skirt are decorated with black silk Russian braid.  It was designed by J.H.J. Nicholl & Co and dates from circa 1907.

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