Artistic Dress

Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era

William Morris and ‘The Lesser Arts of Life’

‘Portrait of William Morris’ by George Frederic Watts, oil on canvas, 1870. 25 1/2 in. x 20 1/2 in. (648 mm x 521 mm). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, Given by George Frederic Watts, 189.7 NPG 1078.

When I came to the subject of Artistic Dress, I had a great many assumptions about it, particularly in terms of who wore it, and who promoted it. Some of them were correct, and some I have found through my research to be misconceptions. While those who associated themselves with the Arts & Crafts Movement were certainly amongst the artistic dressers, I was surprised to learn that the man at the heart of it, William Morris, was not an active or vocal promoter of alternative fashion, certainly not to the extent as his friends and colleagues like G.F. Watts, E.W. Godwin or Walter Crane. In honour of his birthday yesterday, I thought I’d share a small excerpt of my research which relates one of the only instances of his publicly speaking on the subject.

The rare example comes from a lecture given on the 21st of January 1882, at the Birmingham and Midlands Institute, titled ‘Some of the Minor Arts of Life’. This was an expanded and refined version of his earlier 1877 lecture ‘The Lesser Arts’, and was published later in the year as part of a collection titled Lectures in support for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which Morris was a central patron (he had helped to found it with friends in 1877).[1] One of the areas which Morris decided to expand his discussion was on dress, a subject on which he had heretofore been largely silent, at least in print. By the time of this talk, Artistic Dress had become something of a fusion of practical principles of health, mingled with the sensual ideals of Aestheticism. In his personal life at least, Artistic Dress was prevalent in the wardrobe of his wife Jane (although not in the manner often thought—this is a lengthy discussion and will be the subject of a future post), and by this time, that of his daughters.

‘Portrait of May Morris’ by Frederick Hollyer, platinum print, 22 March 1886. 5 7/8 in. x 3 7/8 in. (148 mm x 98 mm) image size. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London,
Given by Robert R. Steele, 1939, NPG x19854.

In fact, an 1886 photo of May Morris when she was a young woman and budding designer, taken by Frederick Hollyer, depicts her as a Pre-Raphaelite illustration come to life. She is seated in profile facing left, her right elbow propped on the armrest of an Arts & Crafts settle. She rests her chin delicately on that hand while reading a page that she holds in her left. She wears a dark-toned velvet Artistic Dress, which is of a comfortable but not overly roomy fit, with a round collar and loose but not full sleeves that taper to wrist, where the sleeves of her white-toned underdress (possibly linen) are turned back over the velvet sleeves to form a cuff. The dress is otherwise plain, accentuated only by a thick almost choker-like necklace and hair arranged in a Greek style with a thin fillet. Her dress is both beautiful (aesthetic) and useful (practical), in line with the Arts & Crafts principles with which she was raised. While May was clearly following in the footsteps of her mother fashion-wise, she was equally her father’s daughter in regards to her Socialist-Utopian principles and her own artistic skill.

Morris himself was not particularly known as an eccentric dresser, unless one considers his pragmatic and unkempt style, which seems more down to the practicalities of being an artist than any overt fashion statement. His posthumous biographer, John Mackail, doesn’t have a lot to say about his dress, save a few passages which underscore that his clothing choices were unique, but related to his life as an artistic practitioner:

His dress always seemed full of his individuality. Certain youthful indiscretions in the way of purple trousers are remembered as having belonged to the time of the Oxford Brotherhood. But his ordinary dress had no special quality except great simplicity and untidiness… it was only in conventional dress that he looked really peculiar… In his suit of blue serge and soft felt hat, he had something of the look of a working engineer and something of that of a sailor… Indeed a stranger might very well, not only from his clothing, but from his rocking walk and ruddy complexion, have taken him for a Baltic sea-captain. In those days he had not yet adopted the blue cotton shirts which, in later years, became his invariable dress and almost of the essence of his appearance.[2]

‘Portrait of William Morris’ by Frederick Hollyer, platinum print, 1874. 5 3/8 in. x 3 3/4 in. (135 mm x 96 mm). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, Given by Robert R. Steele, 1939. NPG x3762.

It was perhaps Morris’ practical approach to dress which kept him from including it in his writings and lectures in a focused manner until the 1880s, when it had become a widely discussed topic.  In his lecture on the ‘Lesser Arts’ of  ‘pottery and glass-making; weaving, with its necessary servant dyeing; the craft of printing patterns on cloth and on paper; furniture;’ he opted to also include ‘the art of dress’ with ‘fear and trembling,’ no doubt an amusing reference to the heated fashion debates that were prevalent in the 1880s (between Whistler & Wilde for example), and of which his audience would have been keenly aware. [3] He begins with a criticism of male dress, which like his peers centres on the drab tones and the problematic chimney-pot hat. However he approaches the subject with humour and charm marked with self-awareness that he is, perhaps, not the most fashionable of commentators:

The last of the Lesser Arts I have to speak of I come to with some trepidation; but it is so important to one half of the race of civilized mankind, the male half, that I will venture. Indeed I speak of the art of dress with the more terror because civilization has settled for us males that art shall have no place in our clothes, and that we must in this matter occupy the unamiable position of critics of our betters. Rebel as I am, I bow to that decision… I have not near enough courage even to suggest a rebellion against these stern sartorial laws; and after all one can slip into and out of the queer things with great ease, and that being the case, it is far more important to me what other people wear than what I wear: so that I ask leave to be an irresponsible critic for a few moments. [4]

He then moves on to a more detailed discussion of female dress, but rather than merely attacking the corset and crinoline (which he does) through a promotion of classical and historic costume, he offers a reasoned and humorous look at more recent dress history, calling mid-eighteenth century dress ‘a kind of enchanted wood of abominations into which we need not venture.’ He showed an appreciation for the subsequent ‘graceful and simple’ style that followed ‘just before the French Revolution’; then blames the ‘affectations’ and ‘extravagances’ of Napoleonic period Neoclassical garments for the conservative backlash of fashion in the 1830s, calling their ‘grim modern respectability’ a ‘dire revenge.’ From here he discussed the ‘two periods of feminine dress’ he has lived through: first of the 1830s-40s (‘I well remember its horrors’), and then the period of the crinoline, about which he states ‘I have good hopes that one may say that the degradation of costume reached its lowest depth in this costume of the Second Empire.’

From here, Morris again takes a rather unique tactic to his advice on dress, one which stems from his Arts & Crafts ideals and the larger Socialist concerns that underpin them. He presents similar arguments in terms of female dress as Haweis did, particularly in relation to freedom, individuality, and resistance to the recommendations of milliners; however his language seems more sympathetic, almost feminist, in appreciating the new choices for female garments and what they mean for women’s emancipation:

…when woman’s dress is or may be on the whole graceful and sensible (please note that I say it may be); for the most hopeful sign of the present period is its freedom: in the two previous periods there was no freedom. In that of grim respectability a lady was positively under well-understood penalties not allowed to dress gracefully, she could not do it; under the reign of [the] crinoline, if she had dressed simply and beautifully, like a lady, in short, she would have been hooted in the streets; but nowadays, and for years past, a lady may dress quite simply and beautifully, and yet not be noticed as having anything peculiar or theatrical in her costume. Extravagances of fashion have not been lacking to us, but no one has been compelled to adopt them; every one might dress herself in the way which her own good sense told her suited her best. Now this, ladies, is the first and greatest necessity of rational and beautiful costume, that you should keep your liberty of choice; so I beg you to battle stoutly for it, or we shall all tumble into exploded follies again.

Morris encourages a sense of freedom and individuality and assures women that they will not be looked at askance for their choice in clothing. This assurance is somewhat questionable if we are to judge by the parodies of Punch (see below), and perhaps indicates the artistically privileged and liberal milieu in which Morris (& Company) dwelled.

Morris’ advice isn’t entirely altruistic, however, and is as much rooted in aesthetics as it is in social equality. Specifically, he shows a kinship with many of his fellow artists in his love of drapery, however he manages to cleverly link the desire to see the draped female form with the idea of maintaining her freedom:

Then next, your only chance of keeping that liberty is, to resist the imposition on costume of unnatural monstrosities. Garments should veil the human form, and neither caricature it, nor obliterate its lines: the body should be draped, and neither sewn up in a sack, nor stuck in the middle of a box: drapery, properly managed, is not a dead thing, but a living one, expressive of the endless beauty of motion; and if this be lost, half the pleasure of the eyes in common life is lost… the fashionable milliner has chiefly one end in view, how to hide and degrade the human body in the most expensive manner… Now, ladies, if you do not resist this to the bitter end, costume is ruined again, and all we males are rendered inexpressibly unhappy. So I beg of you fervently, do not allow yourselves to be upholstered like armchairs, but drape yourselves like women.

It is both an empowering and a sensual speech by Victorian standards, suggesting that to resist the unnatural aspect of the corset in favour of clothing which falls about the body (in a manner pleasing to the male gaze, the ‘pleasure of the eyes’) is to dress like a woman. Not a girl, not a lady, but a woman. This is arguably an innovative tactic, very different than previous experts who have focused on deprecating Victorian fashion (Godwin for example, though he also was a champion of drapery); or handed down advice from on high as an authority (as is the case with Mrs Haweis, who certainly wished to empower female choice, but did so in a high-handed manner). Morris seems to be appealing directly to women as both a respected design expert, and a man who who unabashedly loves the female form. [And one of course thinks of the photographs of his wife (below)… however this particular image was taken in 1865, and is problematic for reasons I promise to present in another post… but also for its association with Morris’ friend and Jane’s presumed lover Rossetti. For more on this, see Kirsty Stonell Walker’s excellent post on Morris.]

John R. Parsons, ‘Jane Morris’ (in the garden of Tudor House, styled by D.G. Rossetti). Albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative. 195 mm x 129 mm. Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, museum no. 1741-1939.

Morris never seemed to make a direct, focused contribution on the subject of dress outside of including it as one of the ‘Lesser Arts’, and as we know his focus in this area was centred more on decorative textiles. However it is worth noting that this highly influential figure found the subject important enough to insert himself into the Artistic Dress debate at this time, even if briefly, to lend his voice to the cause of change in sartorial practice for the betterment of art and life.


[1] Read more about the history of this organization at: http://www.spab.org.uk/what-is-spab-/history-of-the-spab/

[2] William Ernest Henley, ed., The Magazine of Art, vol. V (London & Paris: Cassell, Peter, Galpin & Co., 1882), xlvi, http://www.archive.org/details/magazineofart05londuoft.

[3] William Morris, “The Lesser Arts of Life (A Lecture Delivered 21 January 1882),” in Lectures on Art Delivered in Support for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (London: Macmillan and Co, 1882), 174–232.

[4] Ibid.

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2012 by in Artistic Dress, Arts & Crafts Movement, Jane Morris, May Morris, William Morris.

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'Mrs Luke Ionides' by William Blake Richmond, London, 1882. Oil on canvas. Collection of the V&A, Museum no. E.1062-2003. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A.

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