Exhibition Review – This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine (Royal College of Physicians) and Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs (Fashion and Textile Museum, London)

During the 19th century, several middle class women, mindful of the second class status of their sex, began to demand the right to be seen as equal to men. These included campaigns for the right to vote, the right to employment and to handle their own money and property, the right to an education, in other words to be seen as citizens and their own person independent of men.

One of the rights that some women campaigned for was to study medicine and practise it as a profession: and the history behind this campaign is the main theme of the Royal College of Physicians’ on going exhibition. Entitled This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine, it charts the history of the struggle of women to be able to study medicine and to be recognised as professionals.

RCP exhibition

Of course as the title suggests, women and medicine have gone hand in hand for millennia. As wives and mothers, a basic knowledge of medicine, DIY treatments and remedies was essential and for centuries midwifery was seen as the preserve of women. However there was always a double standard – while it was acceptable to practise medicine at home, it was unacceptable to do it outside. Women who practised medicine in the same way as men were treated with suspicion and often accused of witchcraft.

During the nineteenth century as women campaigned for the right to study and practise medicine on a professional level, the Royal College of Physicians was actually at the forefront of the general opposition. In the past, they had prosecuted women who were practising without a licence and refused to admit women as members on the grounds that they lacked the stamina and the ability to think logically enough to become professional doctors. Despite these objections, women such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake managed to train and qualify as doctors and in 1909, the RCP finally admitted Ivy Woodward Haslam as a member while the first women fellows were admitted in 1925.

The early women doctors experienced a lot of prejudice back home and many went abroad to other countries in the British Empire where they could use their expertise and have a career in a way that would be denied them had they remained in Britain. The First World War was another opportunity for women doctors to be able to use their medical skills for the war effort.

While the exhibition is small and packed with information it’s not overwhelming and the displays are carefully curated in order to highlight the story of women and their long struggle to be recognised as part of the medical profession. It is also fitting that the displays also highlight women doctors’ engagement with the world around them by landing their support for the suffrage movement and playing an important role during the two world wars. However this also brings me to one major issue I have with this exhibition, while the curators highlight women doctors’ involvement with the suffragettes, there was a major omission with those who joined the suffragists. Or what about those who opposed female suffrage, don’t they matter as well?

Despite that one oversight kudos to the RCP for this interesting and informative exhibition, this highlights another interesting facet of women’s struggle for equality in all aspects of life.

 

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Fashion during the twentieth century has not only reflected how science and technology has affected the production and design of clothes but crucially with women’s fashions how changes to the lives they led resulted into a radical break from the fashions of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As women won the right to vote and entered the work force and professions in greater numbers, fashion reflected the more active lives that they were living. The style of the 1920s with its simpler cuts, looser shapes and shorter hemlines to complement the short hair that many women were sporting became an enduring image of the so-called “Roaring Twenties” where economic boom and a desire to move on from the horrors of war gave rise to the hedonism that we associate with this period.

The good times were not to last however and 1929 with the Wall Street Crash in America was the beginning of the end. The Great Depression would cast a shadow over the 1930s as the self-indulgence of the 1920s gave way to a more sober and restrained decade. This sobriety would be reflected in the clothes and as a follow on from 2016’s 1920s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs exhibition, the Fashion and Textile Museum for 2018 has decided to put 1930s fashion in the spotlight.

Entitled Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs chronicles a decade of economic depression, the rise of totalitarianism and amidst the gathering storm of another war through clothes, accessories and photographs which demonstrated how 1930s fashion was very different from the 1920s – the clothes were much more ladylike and structured, a far cry from the androgyny and looser shapes of the previous decade. What they have in common with 1920s clothes though was the simplicity of the designs and the almost uniform silhouette of the clothes, which was an acknowledgement that women were dressing themselves and that even the upper classes could no longer afford to have maids to help them dress hence the more simple fastenings and the use of fabrics that could easily be pressed or steamed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom as the 1930s were a period of greater leisure due to government legislation that provided for paid holidays and the popularity of the dance hall and cinema for all classes. Fashion during this period reflected this greater access to leisure and entertainment as well as demonstrating the power of Hollywood where its pantheon of screen stars such as Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis influenced the look of the era; eclipsing royalty, the aristocracy and society figures as fashion role models for the masses.

What makes this exhibition interesting and compelling are the clothes – apart from a jacket and dress designed by Norman Hartnell the rest of the clothes on display were from the High Street, DIY dressmaking and obscure labels. Famous labels such as Chanel, Schiaparelli and Lanvin are conspicuous by their absence which gives us a much more rounded picture of what the ordinary woman during the 1930s were really wearing beyond the glamorous images propagated by the likes of Vogue. The downside however is that many of the clothes lack the sparkle and colour of the 1920s and many of them seem to merge into like a uniform – many of the dresses are noticeably the same basic sheath type that’s both easy to run up at home from a paper pattern and to care for without a maid’s help. However that is perhaps deliberate as 1930s fashions not only make a reference to the greater importance of mass production of clothes but also that styles during this time reflected a much more sober period and a growing anxiety that would manifest itself when another world war would finally break out in 1939.

 

Note:

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 13 December 2018

Photos from exhibition taken by blogger

 

This vexed question’: 500 years of women in medicine is on at the Royal College of Physicians until 18 January 2019. Admission is free. For more information please go to: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/vexed-question-500-years-women-medicine

Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs is on at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 20 January 2019. Admission charge applies. For more information please go to: https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/night-and-day-1930s-fashion-and-photographs/

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One thought on “Exhibition Review – This vexed question: 500 years of women in medicine (Royal College of Physicians) and Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs (Fashion and Textile Museum, London)

  1. Two very interesting exhibitions, WS. I would love to have gone to the Jazz Age one, as that is my favourite era in history. And I used to live very close to Bermondsey Street, at one time. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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