In The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) Oscar Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff famously declares:
“If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by always being immensely over educated”.
As a young female academic with a flair for the outrageous and eccentric dress, I am proudly over-dressed and over-educated.
For me, the two things are intimately interconnected.
I use my dress as a way of expressing myself and of exploring and presenting my research and teaching interests. And, if I am “occasionally a little over-dressed”, I wear that charge, like my Ph.D., my Edwardian tailcoat, my tweed bloomers, and my 1960s’ green pantsuit, with flair and pride.
As a fashion historian and literary critic, I am interested in how dress tells our stories.
In life and in literature, we fashion ourselves through our choice of dress, whether we intend it or not.
Dress expresses our personalities, political views, academic interests, sexuality, religious beliefs, economic status, social affiliations, mood, and purpose.
Through our clothes, we make our most confident declarations and hint at our most intimate secrets. Whether explicitly, in a slogan on a t-shirt or implicitly, through a violet in a buttonhole, our clothes convey messages of who we are and how we relate to the world and others in it.
In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) the narrator states:
“…vain trifles as they seem, clothes have … more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us … There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; … but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking”.
Dress is a material expression of ourselves, and a potent symbol for identity. Dress is at the very essence of our being. As the saying would have it, we wear our hearts on our sleeves.
The nineteenth century was the first sartorial culture to explicitly articulate the vital function of dress in shaping and asserting individual identity. For the Victorians, every item of clothing, every embellishment, every cloth, every stitch, was significant.
Books and manuals were written on the topic, and it was the subject of passionate debates in the periodical press.
The height of a top hat, the colour of a petticoat, the movement of a fan, the cut of a jacket, the choice of a flower or broach, all would speak of the wearer’s social position, respectability, mood and character.
While such standards were dictated by fashion and etiquette, dress also functioned as a code through which individuals subverted social conventions.
Victorian sub-cultures and political and artistic movements established communities through their style of dress, from the dandy and aesthete to the rational dressing New Woman.
My research into Victorian literature and fashion explores this. In Victorian popular literature, colours and styles of dress function as a code through which heroines explore and express subjectivities and sexualities that challenge the ideal of the passive, virginal and heterosexual woman.
Inspired by these counter movements and their outspoken and outrageously dressed proponents, I use my dress as a way to explore and express myself, my scholarship, and my academic and political views.
My dress reflects my work as a fashion historian, literary critic, writer, lecturer, collector, and curator. My wardrobe is a carefully curated collection of garments and a systematically catalogued library of stories.
From childhood, dress has been the way I understand my world and tell stories about it; my dress is symbol and catalyst for memory.
Each of my outfits is a carefully edited sentence, crafted for its aesthetic form and expressive effect.
I wear vintage pieces, handmade and bespoke tailored garments, and contemporary Australian and British design.
My style is eclectic but held together by common stylistics and narrative threads.
I draw inspiration and narratives from the late-Victorian New Women and aesthetes of my research, the Teddy Girls of the 1950s, and contemporary fashion, and embellish it with a touch of whimsy. I am drawn to bold colours, rich textures and patterns, fine tailoring and details, and asymmetry in design.
In my professional dress, I appropriate and subvert the sartorial icons of traditionally male academic culture: reading glasses and a tweed blazer.
In my sartorial choices, I refashion the meanings associated with particular garments and ways of dressing by their unlikely combination.
I wear bespoke tailored tuxedos with stilettos; a tweed jacket with a silk camisole; an Edwardian tailcoat with 1970s trousers; a velvet opera coat with Doc Martens; a 1960s pants suit and modern blazer; a bow tie with a little black dress; a brocade blazer with a black turtleneck. And each combination tells its own unique story.
My dress and aesthetic is crucial to my teaching methodology.
In academia, you have to assert the right to be seen and heard, you have to command attention and respect. For me, this means actively confronting the perception that dress is frivolous, fatuous and self-indulgent, and that style and an interest in fashion is antithetical and irreconcilable with intellectual endeavour and serious scholarship.
I do this in my writing and publications, and my teaching practice, and by using my dress as another way of interpreting and presenting this scholarship.
When I present my work, I use my dress as a visual cypher, another primary source.
I teach eighteenth to twentieth-century literature, popular culture and fashion, telling these stories through narrative, art, and cloth.
When I teach, I choose my dress to suit the topic.
This is not a game of dress-up, but a serious intellectual proposition.
I convey the mood or essence or power of a text through my dress and my gesture.
When I lecture, I am Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot, appealing for women’s rights to tell their own stories; I am Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre calling for the recognition of her independence, passion and strength; I am Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, mourning the passing of youth and desire; I am Lord Alfred Douglas or Amy Levy, giving voice to “the love that dare not speak its name”.
A lecture is an act of storytelling, and of literary analysis, and a carefully costumed performance.
For me, dress is a form of scholarship, imagination, art, and fantasy; my dress it is an outlet for an intellectual mind, an artistic soul, and a theatrical temperament.
My dress reflects a historian’s interest in the past, an author’s desire for storytelling, and an artist’s and collector’s eye for the unusual and the beautiful.
My dress is a rebellion against anonymity, uniformity, futility, triviality, and everyday mundanity.
It is a radical act of self-expression and individuality in a world of mass culture and social conformity.
My dress says: I dare to be, I dare to speak, I dare to love.
To close with the famous words of Oscar Wilde, Victorian, aesthete and original Stylish Academic: “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”. I choose both.
Dr. Madeleine C. Seys is a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide where she teaches pre-twentieth-century literature, popular culture, and fashion. She has a reputation as a stylish and somewhat eccentric academic, with a collection of outrageous jackets, well-cut suits, and unusual jewelry.
Madeleine completed a Ph.D. at The University of Adelaide in 2015 for which she was awarded a Dean’s Commendation for Doctoral Thesis Excellence and the title of John Howard Clark Scholar.
Her research interests include Victorian literature and popular culture, fashion and textile history, gender and sexuality, Pacific studies, art history, and museology and museum curatorship.
Her publications reflect these interests and their intersections through the media of scholarly prose, academic journalism, and fiction.
Her book Fashion and Narrative in Victorian Popular Literature: Double Threads (2018) is available in Routledge’s Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature series.
Madeleine also works as a consulting museum curator, conservator, and fashion historian. In her spare time, Madeleine is a dressmaker, frequenter of vintage shops, and curator of her own wardrobe!
All images are the copyright of Dr. Madeleine C. Seys ©