Transgressive Fashion in the Victorian Era
Two rather exciting exhibits related to Artistic Dress have just opened in the London area: Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits at the Watts Gallery; and Yinke Shonibare MBE: The William Morris Family Album at the William Morris Gallery. As I am currently ensconced across the pond, I cannot yet review these exhibits, but am very excited to see them. But today I was pointed to posts on each of these that I feel reflect some of the problems in discussing, and understanding, Artistic Dress.
A moment, while I adjust my soapbox.
One of the larger issues I wrestle with in my research, which I’ve mentioned in this blog before, is the way in which ‘Artistic’ and ‘Aesthetic’ are used interchangeably in both Victorian literature and discussions since. In some ways this might be a semantic debate not worth tackling, but I actually find the problem interesting because it reveals that alternative sartorial practices amongst artistic circles were much more diverse than is often thought. This is one of the reasons why I have deliberately chosen to give primacy to the term Artistic Dress in my research, as I feel it reflects a broader approach to these fashions. It includes Aestheticism, but also some of the socio-political aspects of Reform dress. It also encompasses earlier styles that have been referred to as ‘Pre-Raphaelite Dress’ (I’ve written a little about this here); and later styles that gave way to the freer fashions of the early 20th century. Artistic Dress encompassed a range of approaches to fashion, and in my opinion, individuals that were proponents Aesthetic Dress in particular seemed to be very concerned with crafting a look that was not just reflective of creative sensibilities, but also made to be seen, in public.
It is for this reason that I struggle with positioning Jane Morris as a scion of Aesthetic Dress, as this brief post by the William Morris Gallery implies when it says:
Jane and the other women of the Aesthetic Movement established a new style of dress that made the unconventional fashionable and paved the way for women’s bodies finally being released from restrictive clothing.
This is not the first account to lay credit to Morris; one of the Tudor house photos (above), taken by Parsons and styled by Rossetti, in fact illustrates the entry for ‘Aesthetic Dress’ in the Berg Companion to Fashion. The problem here is that close examination reveals that the two dresses she wears in these photos are not radical new modes of fashion: one is modelling costume, the other is a standard Victorian dress. Both are worn without supportive undergarments, likely for the purposes of Rossetti’s creative delectation. To hold them up as examples of Morris’ day-to-day dress in 1865 is a rather large presumption. In fact, the accounts of her being seen ‘guiltless of hoops’ (as Henry James put it) in this period (1860s) occur when she is in the semi-private space of her home, or in friend’s studios. I do not mean to suggest that she did not dress in an artistic fashion, rather that holding her up as the trendsetter is problematic. Further, Morris was not in a social position to influence widespread changes in fashion – unlike the Pattle sisters, whom Watts so elegantly recorded and whose portraits are at the heart of the Liberating Fashion exhibition. Outside of that one suggestion, however, I have no qualms with the above Morris Gallery post and am incredibly excited to see Shonibare’s interpretations of the Morris Family Album. I am a huge fan of his work.
Similarly, Richard Dorment’s review of the Watts Gallery exhibition reflects established views on perceptions of Aesthetic Dress, alongside some surprisingly harsh criticisms of the women who wore them. Dorment, who has curated and co-authored excellent projects on Whistler, is someone well-versed in the canon of Aestheticism. I am less certain of how in-depth his research was in terms of dress, but one of his images in fact links back to this blog (*cough cough*); and he does in fact provide keen insight into Frith’s A Private View that is derived from the artist’s own comments in his Reminiscences (1888):
There were – and still are, I believe—preachers of æstheticism in dress; but I think, and hope, that the preaching is much less effective than it used to be. The contrast between the really beautiful costumes of some of the lady habituées of our private view and the eccentric garments of others, together with the opportunity offered for portraits of eminent persons, suggested a subject for a picture, and I hastened to avail myself for it. 
(I’m being very self-referential in this post, but you can read more about Frith’s painting and Aesthetic Dress here.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dorment’s review frequently conjures the old standby artiste of which no discussion of Aestheticism would be complete – our Jimmy Whistler. Now, at the risk of offending my own dear mentor (and his co-author) Margaret F. MacDonald, I confess that I’m getting slightly weary at the gravitational positioning of Whistler in every discussion of Aesthetic Dress. Because, in truth, although fashion is incredibly important to his work, and although he is central to Aestheticism in England for a time, only a handful of his works portray Aesthetic Dress.
Dorment refers to the best example, my personal favourite Mrs Leyland. But for him to comment, at the end of the review, that ‘the omission of Whistler is unforgivable’, I have to slightly cringe. Because it would have been quite a challenge for the Watts Gallery to get either Mrs Leyland or any of the White Girls for what is essentially a small exhibit (though I admit the latter would have made a lovely comparison with Sophia Dalrymple).
Dorment also claims that ‘Adherents of rational dress for women like the painter GF Watts were concerned not with enhancing female beauty but with promoting women’s health by advocating clothing that allowed their bodies to move freely’[sic]; and that ‘Watts’s interest in dress reform has little to do with fashion and still less with art for art’s sake.’ I suppose he means that Watts isn’t concerned with mainstream fashion, and that in his concern with what seems natural in beauty Dorment rightfully aligns with Ruskin and Morris – and I would add Godwin to that list as well. But Watts certainly does place emphasis on issues of beauty in relation to fashion and reform in his writings on dress. In fact, it is this combination of issues on the need for beauty in reform dress that ultimately gives rise to the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union. Watts essay on women’s dress in the second issue of their journal Aglaia makes the concern with fashion, beauty and art very clear. Focused on the matter of taste – a central topic for Aestheticism – he states:
…any arrangement that diminishes or disturbs the effect of the upright spring of the neck from the level shoulders, more beautiful than anything else in the world, and unlike anything else in the world…there can be no greater sign of defective taste.
…That lines are beautiful in proportion to their capacity for variety, and the interest greater by the display of light and shade; that length of line gives height and distinction to the human figure, are principles which should never be ignored by any who would cultivate the delightful art of dressing with good taste. 
One can easily imagine the dresses of Sophia Dalrymple and her sisters, worn nearly 50 years earlier, in this description. Yet Watts painted not just women in various forms of loose clothing, as in the Pattle pictures, but also rendered society ladies dressed in very fashionable gowns that had come under the influence of Aestheticism. A good example of this is his 1877 portrait of Blanche, Lady Lindsay, playing the violin in a gown that, although in colour and trim is certainly styled Aesthetically, is also cut to be worn with a corset, and the catching up of the fabric in the rear has been made to resemble a bustle. In this way she could express her artistic sensibilities while not straying too far from the fashionable silhouette of the day.
Issues of taste as expressed through fashion are at the core of these images. Dorment also comments on taste in his review, pointing out that ‘Then, as now, it wasn’t the fashion designs that were the problem but the (lack of) taste of the people who actually wore the clothes they saw in fashion periodicals.’ Not having seen the exhibition, I’m not entirely sure what painting Dorment is referring in his criticism of this work:
As for poor drippy Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, got up by her sadly misinformed father (the artist, Sir Lawrence) as a Grecian maid, you can laugh, you can cry – but have to admit that she looks awful.
I don’t think it is, and dearly hope it isn’t, the lovely portrait of the sixteen-year-old Anna wearing an Artistic Dress with a rather bohemian-looking necklace of seashells. Her look is radically ahead of its time, evoking a style that the Bloomsbury group might sport in another two decades.
Both Dorment’s and the William Morris Gallery’s commentaries speak to the ongoing discrepancies in understanding what Artistic and/or Aesthetic Dress was, and what it wasn’t. Again, not having seen the exhibition, I cannot speak to the story it does or doesn’t tell in regards to Aesthetic Dress, but I’m very glad that the topic is getting further attention. Both exhibits are sure to highlight the importance of and innovative approach to sartorial practice for Victorian artists, showing once again that they deserve a place amongst the annals of the avant-garde.
 William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1888), 441.
 G.F. Watts, ‘Women’s Dress’, Aglaia, Vol. 2 (Spring 1894), 24-25.
Visual Culture Historian: Art, Design, Architecture & Fashion - I wear many hats, all of them fabulous. Currently inspiring and infuriating young creative types at the Glasgow School of Art.