This exhibition showcases examples of female fashion from the 1870s to 1914, an period of history that has become known as the La Belle Epoche or ‘the beautiful era’. Over this time, ladies’ fashion changed at a faster rate than any other time in history.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s, women wore bell-shaped crinolines. Underneath these dresses, women had hopped frameworks upon which the material was draped to hold out a dress.

People heated and lit their homes with candles and open fires and crinoline dresses were a fire hazard. Florence Nightingale estimated that 630 women in 1863-64 died from their crinoline dresses catching fire (below).

In the 1880s, the crinoline was replaced by the bustle. This was a wire structure that shaped the dress to give a woman an over-exaggerated posterior (below).

By the 1890s, the hourglass figure had become popular with big shoulders and full dresses emphasising a small waist.

In the 1900s, the S figure had come about where the hourglass shape was altered to push the chest out and hips back.

During the ten years before the Great War, the style had changed completely to a high waistline under the bust and free-flowing materials. Tight curves changed to loose lines.

Why did fashion change so much? The rise of mass literacy, newspapers, and photography meant an increasing number of people were being exposed to new ideas which created consumer demand and appetite for change. There was also a changing perception of the role of women with more women working, taking up sport, riding bikes, and driving the new automobiles; dresses needed to be more practical than decorative.