The Marvellous Mrs Mary Merrifield

The only known portrait of Merrifield, a photograph possibly taken in the 1880s. Courtesy of The Keep, Brighton.

Curator Alexandra Loske is excited to discover that artist and writer Mary Philadelphia Merrifield was also a pioneering dress historian. She explains more in our new blog in the series 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex .

Anita Corbin’s exhibition of 100 First Women Portraits exhibition got me thinking about some historical pioneering Sussex women I have been researching over the last few years. This one is one of my favourites in many respects. She was by all accounts a multi-talented, prolific, and hugely intelligent woman who, luckily for us, spent most of her life in Brighton. In 2017 I introduced the marvellous Mrs Merrifield to visitors of Brighton Museum with a display showcasing her work, in particular her work on colour history and artists’ techniques and pigments. A smaller version of the display was on show at the Booth Museum in 2019/20.  Having seen the display, a previous colleague of ours wrote a rather wonderful blog post about her. You can read it here.

Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889) was a self-taught artist, colour researcher, amateur scientist, and writer. Just after the Royal Pavilion was sold by Queen Victoria in 1850 she exhibited her paintings in the first art exhibitions held in the Pavilion (before the main Museum and Art Gallery was built), including landscapes she had painted on her travels to the continent in the 1840s. Later she was involved in the shaping of the natural history collections at Brighton Museum, became a specialist in marine algae, wrote a popular guidebook about Brighton and learned several foreign languages along the way (as you do).

front page of the book Dress as a Fine Art. Type written on beige plain paper.
Title page of ‘Dress as a Fine Art’ by Mary Merrifield, 1854

But Merrifield was a trailblazer in another area, so she deserves at least one more outing here. In 1854 she published what is probably the first ever book on dress history, certainly by a woman, entitled Dress as a Fine Art, comprising essays that had previously been published in the Art-Journal and Sharpe’s London Magazine. It was a small format publication, illustrated by Merrifield herself with charming and occasionally amusing line drawings, and came out simultaneously in London and Boston.

‘Dress as a Fine Art’, illustration from the book by Merrifield, 1854, showing a woman wearing loose “oriental” dress.

This little book is a fascinating overview of present and historical fashion, focussing on many aspects of clothing, such as particular cuts, embellishments, footwear, patterns, and even children’s clothes. Unsurprisingly for a woman who had spent the previous decade researching colour history, there is a long chapter on colour in fashion, and how to find the right colours for your complexion and hair tone. Is it possible that Merrifield was the first woman to write about what seems a particular fashionable trend now – ‘finding your palette’ in clothing and make-up etc?

A typical British fashion plate, 1827

Merrifield was critical of some of the ‘absurdities’ of Paris fashion and certain ‘freaks of fashion’ in previous centuries, and how ‘fashion, with its usual caprice, has interfered with nature’ and ‘natural philosophy’. By this, she meant the way women were tight-laced and strapped into stays and corsets that were detrimental to their health and that of unborn children. By contrast, she considered some Greek and Middle-eastern costume much more elegant and in keeping with the natural shape of a woman’s body. Her illustrations of loose, “oriental” dress are among the most beautiful in the book, and allude to a form of women’s liberation, at least in the sartorial sense. Merrifield, who had seen the rise and impact of fashion plates in late-18th and early-19th-century popular magazines, such as La Belle Assemblée (1806 to 1837) and Ackermann’s Repository of Arts (1809 to 1829, and dedicated to the Prince Regent!), encouraged women to look critically at such representations of beauty and body shape, and urged dressmakers to look at the real and natural human figure. These were strong and progressive views in the high-Victorian age, which saw cinched waists and corseted bodies return with a vengeance, after a brief period of high-waisted, looser Regency fashion.

Written by Dr. Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator

‘Dress as a Fine Art’, illustration from the book by Merrifield, 1854, showing the effects of corseting.
‘Dress as a Fine Art’, illustration from the book by Merrifield, 1854, showing a ribcage freed from the constraints of a corset.

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