Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era
For Pre-Raphaelite fandom, it’s a weekend of anniversaries. Most notably, today is Pre-Raphaelite Day, which I explained a bit about last year when I wrote about The Myth of Pre-Raphaelite Dress. On this 165th anniversary of the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by a group of unruly art school students, the Pre-Raphaelite society is again calling for votes on Twitter for your favourite PRB painting. Voting is easy, just do #PRBDay! It is also worth noting that is the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Pre-Raph Society, so many congratulations!
Now, on perhaps a more bleak note, yesterday also saw a more solemn anniversary: the death of William Holman Hunt. Before we bow our heads and weep, his 1910 death meant he had quite the long party. Let’s see, born 1827… means… 83 years! (It took me far too long to do that math this morning.) Hunt is an intriguing character, and one I will confess I know too little about. In fact, when I dug into my research to get some more substantial material for this post, I was surprised to discover that he had very little mention in my PhD at all! Something I will have to rectify in the book. As such, let’s simply look at a sampling of pictures that show my own folly in setting him aside.
Whether you feel Hunt cuts a dashing figure is probably down to whether you are in to bushy beards. I think we can all agree that he at least started out somewhat reputable, as seen in this early sketch by Millais in which he sports fashionable Victorian sideburns. His cravat is neatly tied, and the only hint of ‘Maniac’ (a nickname he earned for his laughter, not necessarily his temperament) is perhaps the daring glint in his eyes.
Very little has been written about Hunt and his clothes, outside how he used items he collected in his paintings. In her 2008 catalogue essay for the exhibition Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision, Linda Parry examined Hunt’s keen interest in textiles from an early age, and discusses his own personal collection, some of which is now in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. This collection, which included various textiles and garments including kaftans, smocks, robes, caps, sashes, and even slippers, was used for costume props, home decorations, and most notably, everyday clothing by Hunt. Two extant photographs from a sitting with Cameron on 30 June, 1864, show him in a pinstriped robe which extends to perhaps mid-calf, the stripes aligned vertically down the torso, but horizontally across the arms in the same material, and closed at the waist with a lighter toned silk sash.
Although a black and white image, we know the robe was indigo with lighter blue or white stripes, with red trim and lining, for he painted himself in the same costume for a self-portrait he made for the prestigious Vasari Corridor at the Uffizi. For Hunt, these garments referenced the clothing of biblical times, as well as signifying his own spiritual pilgrimage. Thus in choosing the identity he wanted preserved for posterity, in both the photograph and the painting, he selected exotic clothing that may have appeared simply bohemian to the average observer, but which, for him, reflected his inner spiritual state and religious conviction.
That said, Hunt’s ensembles are a lot of fun. The more eccentric of these he wore in private or semi-private, in his studio, or amongst more unconventional friends such as Julia Margaret Cameron and her sisters at Holland Park. But he certainly ventured out in public in masculine manifestations of Artistic Dress, such as we see in a detail of Brooks’ monumental Private View of 1888.
Wearing a rather stylish fur trimmed coat, he chats animatedly amidst the social buzz… he looks like a rather charming conversationalist! I also very much like this later photo of him in a velvet coat, I only wish I could see the entire suit, as I wonder if he is also wearing Aesthetic breeches:
I’m going to believe that he is. And I’m definitely going to spend more time with the dapper and charming Hunt in future research.
EDIT: I forgot the most amazing image of Hunt, of all of them! That was me rushing to post… but look at this! Here is is re-enacting the painting of The Scapegoat. Don’t you just want to invite him to your next ‘At Home’?
 Linda Parry, “Textile Background: Cloth and Costume,” in Holman Hunt & the Pre-Raphaelite Vision (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008).
 Dakers, 20; quoting letter to Lady Constance Leslie.