Guest blogger: Veronica Horwell & the catwalk in Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

1838/39 chapter 18

Doing a recent Guardian books podcast, I was lucky enough to meet Veronica Horwell, cultural commentator extraordinaire. One of the topics of the podcast was the early days of the catwalk, and Veronica told me she reckoned she’d found perhaps the earliest mention of such modelling, in Dickens. So naturally I signed her up immediately to do a guest blog:

Veronica Horwell writes: Charles Dickens researched Nicholas Nickleby in 1837-8, and he balanced his Dotheboys Hall account of the contemporary "care home scandal" of the Yorkshire schools, where mentally ill, handicapped and unwanted sons of the middle and upper classes were sent, with a description of the servitude of respectable young women who were being sweated as skilled seamstresses in the top end of the London garment trade. Ralph Nickleby, uncle to Nicholas and his sister Kate, is an upmarket loan shark, banker and stockbroker, and one of his debtors is the firm of Mantalini, milliners and dressmakers, so very smart that it doesn't have a shop, but instead two spacious drawing rooms, used as showrooms, on the first floor of a big house in Cavendish Square, behind Oxford Street (just then becoming a fashionable shopping district). Madame Mantalini -- notwithstanding the phoney name, she's English -- produces dresses, bonnets and the fussy textile accessories of the decade, and though chic clothes were then created and fitted to order, she seems to have had model or sample garments made up already so customers could judge the finished effect -- Dickens writes that she has elegant bonnets and "some costly garments in the most approved taste" in the showroom windows: also there are dresses already made up on stands, others laid over sofas, or flat out on the carpets, or hanging from full-length mirrors. There is also a wide selection of luxury fabrics.

Madame Mantalini offers Kate a job, sewing, making alterations etc, six days a week, 12 hours a day, around the working back side of the premises: in the busy court and social season she may be ordered to labour in a stuffy, skylit room round the clock for days for a little overtime pay. As Kate is new and not much use yet to the skilled workroom, and is also very pretty, Madame Mantalini suggests to her workroom overseer and chief saleswoman, Miss Knag, that "for the present … it will be better for Miss Nickleby to come into the showroom with you, and try things on for people." That last phrase is significant -- it implies two meanings: that Miss Knag, besides "tying a string or a fastening hook and eye" to dress customers in hats and accessories (bespoke, couture dresses had to be cut and fitted exactly to their intended wearers, and that would have been done in privacy and likely in their own homes, not in a public showroom), actually wore the sample garments-- modelled them. Miss Knag has worked for Madame Mantalini for 15 years, is mutton dressed as excessively fussy lamb, has the only sound business head on the premises (when the Mantalinis go bankrupt, she takes over the business), and is unjustifiably vain of her appearance: she considers herself an ornament of the establishment. After just a few days of Kate being quietly helpful and possibly modelling in the showroom, it all ends in disaster when Miss Knag shows a couple of ordered wedding bonnets to the tarty little bride-to-be of an aged, frisky lord, and her sister. The girl objects:

'Madame Mantalini,' said the young lady.

'Ma'am,' said Madame Mantalini.

'Pray have up that pretty young creature we saw yesterday.'

'Oh yes, do,' said the sister.

'Of all things in the world, Madame Mantalini,' said the lord's intended, throwing herself languidly on a sofa, 'I hate being waited upon by frights or elderly persons. Let me always see that young creature, I beg, whenever I come.'

'By all means,' said the old lord; 'the lovely young creature, by all means.'

'Everybody is talking about her,' said the young lady, in the same careless manner; 'and my lord, being a great admirer of beauty, must positively see her.'

'She IS universally admired,' replied Madame Mantalini. 'Miss Knag, send up Miss Nickleby. You needn't return.'

'I beg your pardon, Madame Mantalini, what did you say last?' asked Miss Knag, trembling.

'You needn't return,' repeated the superior, sharply. Miss Knag vanished without another word, and in all reasonable time was replaced by Kate, who took off the new bonnets and put on the old ones: blushing very much to find that the old lord and the two young ladies were staring her out of countenance all the time.

The pictures are: the original Hablot Browne illustration of Madame Mantalini’s shop, and Kate Nickleby from a 1912 edition of the book.

Nicholas Nickleby featured on the blog before, with a young lady who was richer, but clearly less refined, than Kate.

With thanks, of course, to Veronica Horwell.


  1. Miss Knag could take over the business because, as a spinster, her money was hers: on Madame Mantalini's marriage all her money and property belonged to her feckless husband and she had no more right to it. Meanwhile, in the Anglican marriage service, the groom said "with all my worldly goods I thee endow".

    1. Have you read Laurence Stone's books about the history of marriage and the legislation about it? I found them riveting as well as terribly sad, some horrific stories, and a useful tool to have when discussions of equality come up.

  2. Moira - Thanks for hosting Veronica.

    Veronica - Thank you so much for this background information on the era and on Nicholas Nickleby. It isn't just the styles that have changed over time is it? It's the way that clothes are made and sold too. Fascinating!

    1. It was riveting wasn't it? We're so used to our ready-made clothes. Bitching in the workplace probably hasn't changed that much though....

  3. When I think Dickens, I immediately think Eng.Lit. and being back at school. Not someone I'm going to read for pleasure.

    1. OK we'll let you off that one. He is good at a sinister creepy atmosphere, though, and going down the mean streets...

  4. Daniel Milford-Cottam27 September 2013 at 09:32

    actually, what is described is not so much the catwalk, as the standard role of a model girl. it's fascinating to see this described so early but it isn't catwalk modelling. It was very common to have a girl in the workroom model a hat or other accessory to demonstrate how it was worn. When this extended to dresses, I'm not sure, but it's often credited to Worth in the late 1850s when he had his wife go about in his dresses, and is said to be the first couturier to have used professional models (which Kate isn't, she's just an employee dragged out to show off the bonnets). The catwalk, as we would know it, appears to be an early 1900s invention, often credited to the future Titanic survivor Lucile, who also trained up girls to act as her professional mannequins. Marie Corelli hilariously and bitchily describes attending one such presentation in 1904 - extravagantly dressed girls parading around a stage to the strains of a Hungarian band while being ogled by sleazy men-about-town. There's a distinction between the nineteenth century model girl and the twentieth century model/catwalk presentation, with a good example of the transition seen in the film The Lodger - the heroine works as a model girl, but also participates in dedicated presentations, as opposed to simply showing off a dress placidly to an individual client on demand.

    1. That's very interesting and illuminating, thank you very much. I should say, it was probably me boldly adding the word 'catwalk' where none was meant! I recently did 2 entries on a 1930s play called 'Nine till Six', set in a dress shop, which I thought had good insights into modelling - here with link to the earlier one. Two girls leave modelling to be usherettes as they'll have better chances of meeting men...

  5. Daniel Milford-Cottam27 September 2013 at 10:38

    Uh oh. Did I prematurely submit a comment or delete it? Not sure. Either way, the Corelli book is "Free Opinions Freely Expressed", and can be found online in its entirety - the essay on dress and Lucile's early catwalk presentations is "The Madness of Clothes" and it's hysterical. Not being a fan of reading books digitally, I've only really read that one essay properly, (as research for my own upcoming book on Edwardian fashion for Shire) but I should look at the others too once I have a chance.

    Incidentally - the V&A have two of Lucile's design books from around the same time as the presentation Corelli describes, so while you might not find the actual design for the gown called "Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower" that Corelli deliriously mocks, you'll find gowns with equally colourful monikers... (I particularly like "The Tender Grace of a Day that is Dead"!)

    This passage is too good not to share.

    "Faint gigglings shook the bosoms of the profane as the "Incessant Soft Desire" glided into view, followed by "A Frenzied Song of Amorous Things," - indeed, it would have been positively unnatural and inhuman had no one laughed.

    Curious to relate, there were quite a large number of "gentlemen" at this remarkable exhibition of feminine clothes, many of them well-known and easily recognizable. Certain flaneurs of Bond Street, various loafers familar to the Carlton "lounge," and celebrated Piccadilly-trotters, formed nearly one half of the audience and stared with easy insolence at the "Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower" or smiled suggestively at "Incessant Soft Desire". They were invited to stare and smile, and they did it. But there was something remarkably offensive in their way of doing it, and perhaps if a few thick boots on the feet of rough but honest workmen had come into contact with their smooth personalities on their way out of Madame Modiste's establishment, it might have done them good and taught them an useful lesson."

  6. That's wonderful - I have to do a blog post on it!


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