by Susan Jarrett
This multi-part series, originally presented at Historic Rugby’s Visitor Center in June 2021 and entitled- Fashioning Rugby: An English Lady’s Guide to Proper Dress in East Tennessee from 1870-1890, uses primary source documents (letters, photographs, artifacts) to imagine what key female residents of Rugby, Tennessee would have worn during the heyday of the settlement (1881-1887).
Rugby, Tennessee was the utopian vision of Thomas Hughes- a landed gentleman from Oxfordshire, England and influential lawyer, judge, politician and author. He is most famous for his novel Tom Brown’s School Days (c. 1857). Disaffected by the current economic, political, and religious state of Victorian Era England, Hughes envisioned a new society- one in which equality and the rejection of capitalism could create a more just, pure, and thus blissful existence.
Specifically, Rugby was a rejection of the British custom of primogeniture- or the right of the firstborn legitimate child to inherit the parent’s entire or main estate in lieu of shared inheritance among all or some children.
History tells us that Hughes’ Utopian settlement within the wild untamed wilderness of Northern Tennessee would ultimately fail. But for the 7 years in which it endeavored, The Rugby Settlement was successful in capturing the imagination of all who sought out and continue to forge a trail toward a more egalitarian society.
Margaret Elizabeth (Wilkinson) Hughes was the widowed mother of settlement founder Thomas Hughes. She is also the mother of famed social reformer, Jeanie (Hughes) Senior. In her late 80s, she relocated to the Rugby settlement from England with her teenage granddaughter, Emily, in an effort to show support for her son’s community. She was a friend of Lord Alfred Tennyson, was painted by George Frederic Watts, and gave up an aristocratic life in a stately English manor for a modest wooden home in rural Northeast Tennessee.
Margaret Hughes Wardrobe
Born in 1800, Margaret Hughes would have lived two thirds of her life under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). It is evident, Her majesty’s style influenced Mrs. Hughes sartorial selections- specifically her preference for mourning wear. All of Margaret Hughes formal portraits show her wearing a black French Chantilly mourning veil and black gown. While it was common for women beyond a certain age to prefer darker colored dresses, the majority of images we see of Mrs. Hughes exhibit some type of mourning wear. Surviving Rugby photographs also denote that much of Mrs. Hughes wardrobe was cut in a mid Victorian style (1850s-1860s). Hughes lived at Rugby from 1881 until her death in 1887. Let’s imagine what she would have worn.
Margaret Hughes came from a British gentry class and would have worn all the proper layers of undergarments for the duration of her life. Here we have images of a corded corset as was popular in the 1840s and provided a little less constraint than the steel boned corsets of the 1880s. Her undergarments were most likely made of fine cotton muslin or even linen and she would have opted for petticoats in lieu of cages and skirt improvers.
Gowns and Accessories
Margaret Hughes’ gowns would have been made of dark colored silks- most likely a solid color with little ornamentation- and cut in “an earlier style.” Margaret Hughes was not an ostentatious woman and would have therefore preferred fine quality over fussiness. She chose French textiles and china over English made and was alway photographed with her fine Chantilly lace veil.
Next: Dressing Emily Hughes
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