Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era
This post is a bit more personal, inspired by a brief moment I had at work this week.
I haven’t yet made the official ‘I’m a Doctor!’ post because, in all honestly, it’s all happened so fast that I don’t think it has actually sunk in. I’ve celebrated properly with drinks & friends, but I haven’t rushed to change my title at the bank. Life just keeps ticking on. It did occur to me, however, that while I thanked everyone including my local café in my acknowledgements, I did forget to extend my gratitude to one unusual source: Mrs Frances Leyland. Or rather, her gorgeous portrait, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink, Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, painted by James McNeill Whistler.
It was nearly a decade ago, around New Year’s Eve 2002, that I was wandering the Frick and stumbled upon her. It was a point in my life where I was questioning many things: my job, my relationship, whether I wanted to continue living on the West Coast. After a museum career focused on children’s and science centres, I missed my first love, art history. The trip to New York – a place I hadn’t been in many years – underscored this vacancy.
But as an undergrad, I’d been focused on the Renaissance. I didn’t even discover the Pre-Raphaelites until my last term, and their own interest in topics like Dante captured my fancy. But I hated Whistler. I found him incredibly boring.
So when I rounded that corner and turned to see Mrs Leyland poised so elegantly in a frothy pink gown, I was a bit flabbergasted. It was one of those moments, when you connect with a work, with its sheer beauty, and your head begins to buzz. I didn’t recognise it was Whistler, because I knew little of him, and was very surprised – chagrined even – when I read the label. When I could tear myself away, I moved to look at the other figures in the room, including her husband F.R. Leyland and Lady Meux. I found them beautiful, but they didn’t quite hold the power of Mrs Leyland.
I spent a great deal of time in that room, almost until closing. It was evening, and there was a string quartet in the courtyard, so I’m certain that lent some magic and romance to my musing. I’ll leave aside some other more personal contributing factors, but in short, I left the Frick that night knowing it was time to return to my study of art.
On my way out, I noticed a poster for an upcoming exhibit, Whistler, Women and Fashion. I was sorry I wouldn’t be in New York for it, but I ordered the catalogue as soon as I returned home to the Pacific Northwest.
Fast forward a decade. When I moved to Glasgow, it was to study Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. But it was a different Margaret MacDonald who induced me to stay. I hadn’t known the the University had the holdings of Whistler’s estate, nor even that the Curator of that fantastic exhibit – the other Margaret – was ensconced at the University of Glasgow. I didn’t know she and I would get on like a house on fire, and that she be willing to take me on and be such a shrewd and kind mentor. And I certainly didn’t know, that night almost a decade ago, that the vision of Mrs Leyland would put me on this extraordinary path.
This week, while at work doing some editing for the Whistler Etchings Project, I found myself, once again gazing at the same poster I’d seen at the Frick. It is pinned on a wall in the project office. I turned to Margaret – busy editing etching catalogue entries herself – and said ‘She’s the reason I’m here, you know.’ And I briefly related my tale. She smiled and said that Mrs Leyland was the reason she was still there also. That essentially, through her many years of research, that painting, the beauty of it, was one of the things that kept her going as well. I guess it is just one of those exquisite works that, when things begin to get challenging, tedious, or frustrating, you can look at and say ‘Oh yes, that is why I do this.’
And I should add, to keep this on ‘blog topic’, that the dress – oh, the dress! – certainly makes an appearance in my research. It is brief, for those who wrote about it in the exhibition catalogue, particularly Frick Curator (and exhibit co-Curator) Susan Grace Galassi, did a fantastically thorough job. The Tea Gown Mrs Leyland wears was in fact designed by Whistler, he left many sketches of its development. An excerpt from my research:
The pastels show Whistler experimenting with different styles for the dress, incorporating historicised details such as standing collars, puffed sleeves, and the Watteau pleat which is the focus of the final painting, but which does not appear in all of the sketches. Several of the sketches show the front of the gown as having the material crossing diagonally over the bodice, as a fichu might; whether this is the case in the final garment, we cannot tell. In one sketch, Whistler designed the skirt in elaborate flounces tucked up with rosettes. Although he experiments with lemon yellow and orange accent colours, the material is always diaphanous. We do not know the order of the drawings, as they are undated, nor do we know who exactly constructed the gown, and when (although there are some instructional notes made in French on some of the drawings). It would be interesting to know how much the selection of material shaped the final garment, which is viewed from the back and arranged in a graceful waterfall of pale pink silk chiffon, accented with blossoms to balance the ones appearing on the branches entering the canvas at left.
Although we cannot see the whole gown, we can tell that it is comprised of a long-sleeved robe of chiffon, a mass of it gathered between the shoulder blades in a Watteau pleat, but the rest of it a single sheer layer. It is worn over a sleeveless white underdress, leaving the bare skin of the arms visible under the sheer sleeves, which are bound with a golden brown cord from a rosette at the shoulder, then wound down to be tied at the wrist. It is further trimmed with rosettes on the bottom of the train, but whether these are accurately depicted or artfully arranged accents of Whistler’s brush is uncertain. The model’s hands are clasped behind her back, her head turned, and her neck exposed. Galassi notes, ‘In Japanese dress, the back of the neck—considered an erogenous zone—is often revealed.’ This form of draping, evocative of a kimono, underpins much of Whistler’s aesthetic taste in women’s vestments, and in what he preferred to pose them. In light of his amorous nature, the erotic aspect of these garments certainly was not lost on him.
We sadly don’t know who made this dress in the end, or what happened to it. I myself question whether it was even wearable in public, or concocted merely for the fancy of paint and canvas. It is sensuous, suggestive, alluring, and not at all the thing to be worn on the street! But this is part of the painting’s seduction, and an element of the overall ‘Symphony’ which continues to draw me (and others) in, and wonder…
So thank you Mrs Leyland… well, ok, to be fair, thank you Mr Whistler… for making such an exquisite Symphony that would inspire me to follow my own heart’s desire.
 Susan Grace Galassi, “Whistler and Aesthetic Dress: Mrs Frances Leyland,” in Whistler, Women, & Fashion, ed. Margaret F. MacDonald, Susan Grace Galassi and Aileen Ribiero (New York: The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2003), 114.