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Fashioning Victoria

Fashioning VictoriaFashioning Victoria: curating the royal image for dynasty, nation and empire is a collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces and University of Warwick, funded by an AHRC Research Networking Grant. Project partners include the Royal Collections Trust, Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art, the Bodleian Library, and TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities).

This research project will examine Queen Victoria’s role in the fashioning of her own image, and the consequences of this for monarchy, nation, and empire from the nineteenth century to the present. 2019 will be the bicentenary of Victoria’s birth at Kensington Palace, an opportune moment to assess the myths that commonly circulate about her. The network will bring to light her own agency in self-fashioning, thus shifting perceptions about Victoria within the academic community, and for a broad public audience.  

Queen Victoria’s name is used to identify an era. Over her long reign the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. The birth of photography, and an explosion in print culture and the press, allowed her image to touch its furthest reaches. Her image, painted and sculpted, still dominates public spaces scattered throughout every continent. The narrative of Victoria’s life has been rehearsed continuously since her death, testament to an enduring fascination with her as subject. However, these narratives have not cast her as the focus of a culturally political study. Instead, orthodox approaches have set her up as a curiously inert figure, detached from public life and from the political shaping of the monarchy.  

Fashioning Victoria challenges these orthodoxies by examining Victoria herself as a pro-active political agent in the construction of an image for nineteenth century monarchy, and therefore directly implicated in what would become the Queen Victoria phenomenon. We contend that Victoria’s gender was all-important to this transitional phase in monarchical history, and that she self-consciously developeda feminized ‘benevolent’ monarchy over her long reign, to produce the framework which exists today: powerful and resilient notwithstanding the gender of the monarch.  

The project has three objectives:

First, it will examine Victoria’s creation of her own image, and the ways in which she managed her conflicted role, as a Queen Regnant, but also a wife and mother. Through a consideration of the material legacy left and curated by Victoria, it will assess how this image took physical form and was tested, honed, and developed by her, to serve the needs of the monarchy over the seventy-four years of her reign.  

Second, it will map the journey of this self-curated image from Victoria’s private sphere to the public realm, and particularly across the British Empire. It will explore her involvement in the commissioning and purchase of painted, sculpted and photographic images to celebrate her family and its dynastic ambition, an the dissemination of these through a burgeoning print culture, and their use through many contexts, locally and globally. This will include the ways in which the image was used to counter critical responses to Queen and Empress, in attempts to quench the flames of colonial resentment at British rule in ceremonial events or to challenge republican sentiment at home.  

Third, the project will consider how the image of Victoria might be curated today in the digital sphere, and how this material can be made available not only to scholars but also to a wide, global public fascinated by Victoria. This will involve devising ways in which a project can be undertaken across a set of institutions around the globe, and how the ‘digital museum’ might challenge the notion of the physical ownership of material culture, allowing curation by a wider and more diverse audience.

In all aspects of this project, the artefact will serve as its essential nodal point. We shall map the journeys of Queen Victoria’s things, from their initial acquisition, sometimes as simple commodities, and also by gift, barter, or appropriation, as they made their way in and out of private and public spheres, touching new communities and being read in new contexts. Thus, a single object, such as the dress Queen Victoria chose to wear to open the Great Exhibition in 1851, can link the politics of royal fashion, the promotion of industry, the dynamic between the role of monarch and consort, and the place of monarchy within a promotion of nationalism.

Applications were invited for a full-time PhD (via MPhil route) studentship related to this project.

CONFERENCE: Victoria’s Self-Fashioning: Curating Royal Image for Dynasty, Nation and Empire, Kensington Palace
20th to 21st May 2019.