‘Direct from the loom to the consumer,’ declares this advertisement for the Bradford Manufacturing Company’s dress catalogues for 1880. The textile industry was at the centre of Britain’s industrial expansion in the Victorian period. Technological advances meant that cottons, wools, silks and dyestuffs could be produced at unprecedented rates, and the results were exported around the Empire.

In the central panel, a seamstress somewhat improbably models a brightly coloured dress in one of the prevailing styles of the day: the cuirass bodice with tight sleeves and a tapering skirt, designed to mould around the wearer like an all-body corset. This style is in marked contrast to what had been popular as little as five years before, which was wide-shouldered and flowing dresses of maximal width at the base of the skirt. Because this style tended to drag along the ground, and necessitated so much cleaning and repair, a new and more severe style of dress came into fashion – particularly among women of limited means. One constant between eras was the trend for covering all of a woman’s skin from ankle to wrist to neck. Lower necklines were only considered appropriate for evening wear, and were still somewhat scandalous to more conservative members of society.