The Wardrobe of a Lady Traveler:
The Life and Adventures of Isabella Bird Bishop
by Lucie Whitmore
illustrations by Sophie Gilmore
I first encountered Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop while writing an essay for my studies in nineteenth century dress. I found her fascinating; for her adventurous spirit, her adaptation of unusual dress, and her ability to take shelter in the entirely unknown. She was – seemingly – fearless.
Isabella, born in 1831, moved to Edinburgh – my favourite city and the place I call home - in 1858. I cannot be sure how Isabella felt when surrounded by the old grey stone, cobbles and mist of Edinburgh, but I know that she did not find peace in her home life. Isabella’s generation lived within the strict conventions of Victorian society, a time in which women had little independence or function beyond their home lives. Their clothing was hugely restrictive; flounced skirts at their widest supported by steel cage crinolines, corsets tightly laced, sleeves voluminous. This was the age in which men did not wish to know that women ‘divided below the waist.’
Having suffered from back problems and a variety of other ailments her whole life, Isabella – on doctors orders – set off on her first overseas adventure in 1854, seven months exploring North America. And it was in this freedom, this pursuit of the unknown and the unrestricted, that Isabella found her place in the world, as well as good health.
Isabella, who explored – among many others – Tibet, China, Korea and Russia, was not the only nineteenth century lady to embark on solo travel. However the extent of her voyaging is particularly impressive and her literary output, in the form of letters and accounts from each trip, is sizeable. It was her 1879 publication, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountain’s, which led me to feel that I knew Isabella. I became entranced – reading her confident accounts of life as a lady traveller – by the ways in which Isabella could escape the customs of her home and upbringing and put her trust in adventure. While travelling through Colorado in 1873 she was entirely reliant on the shelter of strangers for a roof over her head each night of her journey. Her particular style of travelling was very physically demanding; she trekked either on foot or horseback for days on end, slept rough, climbed mountains and had numerous accidents along the way. She put her faith in the fresh mountain air, the navigation of the stars and the steady feet of her strong-willed pony, Birdie. Respectable women, who were allowed so little liberation in her lifetime, could never have behaved in such a manner where she came from.
As a dress historian, I find it fascinating to chart Isabella’s life – her adventures, fears, hopes and aspirations – through her clothing choices. She showed her strength and bold spirit through her decision to wear trousers while travelling, a momentous decision given her background and a highly controversial choice in contemporary society. She once commented that trousers – part of the “Hawaiian riding dress” she wore whilst navigating the Rocky Mountains in 1873 – were only worn ‘once removed from the prying eyes of home.’ However she referred repeatedly to the outfit in her books, which were extremely popular back home in Britain, and even allowed the costume to be exhibited in the 1884 International Health Exhibition in London. A later edition of the book featured an etching of Isabella in the costume alongside a justification from the author about her decision to wear it. She had been criticized in The Times for wearing “masculine habiliments” – men’s clothing – and she sought to defend her femininity.
As well as the mishaps that took place on her travels, Isabella suffered great sadness in her home life. When her beloved sister died she lost a huge part of her drive and motivation, and the death of her husband in 1886 left her a widow after just five years of marriage. These events affected her wellbeing as with any bereavement, but Isabella again took shelter in the unknown – travelling Asia and the middle East rather than dwelling on her sorrows at home in Edinburgh. She was still travelling the world well into her late sixties, as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, and more and more women gained the freedom and courage to set off on their own journeys.
On Isabella’s later expeditions her clothing choices became even more experimental, perhaps due to an increased disconnection from home after her bereavements, or perhaps because her celebrity status gave her greater courage.
In portraits of Isabella Bird she is usually depicted in traditional Victorian clothing, choosing, like many other travellers, to adopt British fashions whilst at home. However a late photograph taken in Edinburgh in 1898 shows Isabella wearing her ‘Manchu’ dress, a garment combining decorative Asian textiles and an oriental style of draping, with elements of classic Victorian tailoring. In this rare portrait, much like the earlier etching of her riding dress, Bird presents herself as a woman both traditional and exotic; the duality in her character is expressed through her clothing choices, and though she wishes to remain respectable she is not afraid to present herself as a ‘woman of the world.’
Over the years Isabella Bird forged a new identity for herself; as her health improved and her confidence grew her clothing became more masculine, more multi-cultural and more daring in turns. Her dress choices reflect not only her own desires but those of other female adventurers, lady travellers and ambitious, free thinking women of the late Victorian era; she never entirely dismissed the customs of polite society – she was a Clergyman’s daughter after all – but she thrived on adventure and foreign culture, and she wasn’t going to let her dress stand in her way.
Lucie Whitmore spends her days in Scotland researching the endlessly compelling histories of dress and textiles, rummaging in museum stores and re-telling the stories of objects. She has a background in textile design and is currently doing a PhD on the 'intangible' history of costume, focusing on women's social history and the First World War. She has a brand new puppy named Birdie, after Isabella Bird Bishops's courageous pony. You can find more of Lucie's work on her new blog.