Ladylike exhibition at The Lady Lever Art Gallery

A new exhibition in Port Sunlight, Wirral looks at a dazzling array of women's accessories that added sparkle to fashion from when Queen Victoria was a girl up to the outbreak of the Second World War WORDS BY HANNAH POLLARD

In the days following the recent royal wedding, ‘the dress’ was big news. The talk in the Cheshire Life office, however, was not only about the high-waisted skirt and lace sleeves of the bride‘s creation from the house of Alexander McQueen (designed by Cheshire-born Sarah Burton) but the hats, shoes and handbags adorning those gathered to celebrate.

There’s no arguing that accessories can make or break an outfit and royalty is no exception. Now a new exhibition at The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Wirral, brings them into the spotlight in The Finishing Touch: Women’s Accessories, 1830-1940. The dazzling array of women’s fashions ranges from items dating back to Queen Victoria’s childhood up to the outbreak of Second World War.

Visitors can admire a pair of corded black silk shoes with patent leather tips belonging to none other than Queen Victoria herself, as well as green satin and rabbit fur slippers worn by her daughter-in-law, Alexandra Princess of Wales, dating from around 1890 and embroidered with flowers and leaves.

Staff at National Museums Liverpool (which runs the gallery) have scoured their fashion collections for many items never displayed before, coming up with 60 bags, shoes, hats and other accessories including fans, jewellery and gloves. Popular items include a beautifully painted mother of pearl fan, a pair of jewel-heeled shoes dating from the 1920s flapper era and platforms from the 1930s. A veiled 1840s wedding bonnet, dress caps and a widow’s bonnet illustrate Victorian trends while sophisticated cloche and straw hats reflect the more relaxed styles of later years.

Alyson Pollard, curator of the Decorative Art department, says: ‘The Finishing Touch looks at changing social customs and how these influenced accessories that women wore. The changing role of women – from largely passive to more active – is shown through the items on display.’

These changing roles are well illustrated by the exhibits, particularly the footwear. Early examples are delicate in construction suggesting indoor use, and are unusually small by modern standards.

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Alyson says: ‘It was very desirable to have very small, dainty little hands and feet. This was a sign of being a lady. So ladies would cram their feet into these very tight, narrow shoes’. This practice was responsible for many women suffering from foot deformities, made worse by the fact that shoes only began to be shaped for left and right feet in the mid-19th century.

These shoes are in sharp contrast to a pair of two-inch heeled leather boots with suede imitation spats dating from 1917-20. While magazines such as Punch lampooned fashions that made women appear masculine, such accessories served to highlight the more independent status they were able to take on after the First World War.

Free to enter, the exhibition is now open and will run until December 11th, giving plenty of opportunity to view the collections - and will be accompanied by a series of events suitable for all ages. Adults can watch specialist demonstrations on felt making, enamelling, millinery and corsages, while children can get in on the act with ‘That’s Hats’ hat-making workshops, ‘FANtastic’ and ‘Badge it Up’.   

The museum is open daily. Details can be found at

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