The fashion history books have always recorded the changing face of style, and now, 100 years after one particular fashion liberation, two new exhibitions at the Ulster Museum are telling its story.

Costumes Parisiens and The Age of Liberty offer a glimpse into the opulent fashions of 1900s Paris and beyond, when women were freed from their corsets and unleashed into an age of fashion freedom and liberation.

From gowns to day dresses, parasols to hats and fans, Costume Parisiens celebrates French fashion and culture during the glamorous early years of the 20th century. The exhibition, which is on loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, presents a stunning collection of vividly illustrated fashion plates from 1912 through to 1914. One hundred years after the publication of the fashion magazine Journal des Dames et des Modes (1912-1914), the exhibition features almost 150 of the Journal’s unique fashion illustrations, known as Costumes Parisiens.

As haute couture became an increasingly important part of the French fashion industry, fashion plates became miniature masterpieces advertising the latest creations designed or inspired by the best Parisian couturiers. Only a small number of high quality, limited edition fashion magazines were produced in Paris in the 1910s and the Costumes Parisiens on display in this exhibition serve as a stunning and vivid record of Parisian culture and fashion in the last years of the Belle Époque.

Alongside Costumes Parisiens runs Age of Liberty – an exhibition of women’s costumes from the same era that has been drawn from the Ulster Museum’s own collection. Dresses from 1910 – 1918 are among the highlights of the exhibition including a 1912 velvet evening dress. The velvet evening dress displays many of the luxurious qualities of the high fashions of the day. The upper bodice is made of delicate silk chiffon trimmed with tiny glass beads, and the rest of the dress is elaborately constructed with heavy silk velvet and beaded tassels.

Another highlight in the exhibition is a 1912 ‘going-away’ outfit. This was worn for a honeymoon trip - taking the last liner to sail to America before the outbreak of the First World War. The suit is simple yet elegant, and concealed in an inside pocket was a poignant love letter. While the groom was waiting for the wedding rings at the renowned Belfast jeweller, Sharman D. Neill, he hastily penned a note to his beloved: ‘Lily darling, They are at present hunting for the rings. Young Neill says he had both left out yesterday: They have just got them and this seraph can go up with your parcel. Cheer up, little girl, the sun is coming out and remember that I love you with my whole being. J. W. ‘

Elise Taylor, Curator of Applied Art for National Museums Northern Ireland; “This era of fashionable dress marked the point where women finally abandoned the corset which had enslaved them since the 1700s. Fashion became more comfortable and practical, in step with changes in the role of women at the time. Yet quality and style were still important, as can be seen in the fine dresses made of silk and satin, trimmed with embroidery and beads. A hundred years later we can still admire their beauty and elegance but, importantly, allow fashion to tell some of the fascinating story of social change in the early 20th century.”

Dr Fionnuala Croke, Director of the Chester Beatty Library, said: “We are delighted to collaborate with National Museums Northern Ireland by sharing this exhibition and giving the wider public a glimpse into the treasure-trove that is the Chester Beatty Library collection. Our founder, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty gave us a gift of limitless importance and beauty and this exhibition is testament to the diversity of the Library’s holdings. We have greatly enjoyed working with our colleagues in the Ulster Museum and look forward to future shared projects.”