Aesthetic Dress & Reaction…

The Aesthetic Movement, and more specifically Aesthetic Dress, arose in response to the predominant fashions of the Victorian Era and as such, sought to replace challenged convention in advocating for less structured and confining fashions. Of course, as with all fashion movements, there’s always friction between competing trends and styles and this is captured somewhat subtly in this 1881 painting by William Powell Frith:

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881

This painting is a somewhat of a who’s who of British society and many notable people are depicted:

The annotated version…

For our purposes, what’s notable are the two groups of people in the front wearing aesthetic dress. Oscar Wilde is included with the right aesthetic dress group, speaking about the artwork. Also, behind the right group is a group of men reacting negatively to Oscar and his group. The painting was meant to be a caricature in that Frith had little regard for aesthetic dress nor Oskar Wilde, one of the aesthetic movement’s most vocal advocates. Frith explains in My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Vol. 2 (pp. 256-27):

Seven years ago certain ladies delighted to display themselves at public gatherings in what are called aesthetic dresses; in some cases the costumes were pretty enough, in others they seemed to rival each other in ugliness of form and oddity of colour. There were — and still are, I believe — preachers of aestheticism 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 of it. Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him. He is supposed to be explaining his theories to willing ears, taking some picture on the Academy walls for his text. A group of well-known artists are watching the scene.

The motivation for making this painting could simply be attributed to his simple dislike of Oscar Wilde (often referred to as “the apostle of the beautiful”) but it also reveals a reaction towards aesthetic dress and the aesthetic movement whose ideas ran counter to the structured realist painting style that was predominant in Victorian Britain.  It certainly strikes us as modern readers as seemingly much ado about nothing- aesthetic dress was pretty innocuous and with it’s emphasis on unstructured movement, it did offer an alternative for women.

Liberty & Co., Day Dress, c. 1890s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986.115.2)

Ultimately, what we found compelling here is that we see a trend and a reaction before us in an explicit way and it’s interesting to watch the conflict develop. As a fashion trend, aesthetic dress didn’t last long; fundamental changes in women’s wear was another 20 years or so off with visionaries such as Paul Poiret. However, it’s a good illustration of how fashion trends and their reactions are often rooted in cultural conflicts. We hope to explore these ideas some more in future posts.

You Learn Something New Everyday…

It’s funny how one can be so focused on examining an image for a specific detail that you  completely overlook something that’s glaringly obvious with another detail. In a post we published yesterday, we cite various examples about how color can also be expressed through a pattern on a fabric as well as with a solid colored piece of fabric. One example that we used was this one:

Day Dress, c. 1880; The Museum at FIT (P92.21.1)

On the surface, this dress appears to have the standard silhouette appropriate for the 1878-1881 time frame with it’s princess line. But, it was pointed out to us by one of readers that the dress has a high train  and underlying bustle that firmly puts in the late 1880s. Since we were so intent on the fabric itself, we didn’t stop to look very closely at the pictures, especially with the rear views:

Back Bodice Close-Up

Looking at the rear views, we noticed that the train was definitely NOT late 1870s/early 1880s. Rather, it appears that the extreme train characteristic of the late 1880s was created by the use of what appears to be a simple overdrape of fabric combined with swagging the front skirt and combining it with a underskirt. It’s a complicated and awkward arrangement. Here it is broken down:

When we first looked at the pictures, we originally thought that perhaps the dress wasn’t staged well by the museum staff- it does happen. But on closer examination, we realized that no, this was dress was designed to accommodate a later 1880s style bustle.

So what’s the story? We wished we knew but we can offer some theories. First, we believe that given it’s tightly sculpted cylindrical silhouette and princess lines, this dress started life sometime in the 1878-1881 time frame and was later modified (clumsily) to fit the late 1880s style. But…the fact that the fabric completely matches would suggest that maybe this was made in late 1880s. The princess line wasn’t unknown during late 1880s but it doesn’t show up a lot except with tea gowns and “house” dresses. Also, for a conversion there is a lot of extra work that was put in that really wasn’t necessary with the double layer front skirts. In the end, it’s hard to tell but we tend to lean towards the dress having been made in the late 1880s. It’s probably not the what we’d readily call “haute couture” but then again, garments during this era had quite a lot of variation in the construction quality (like every era…). It’s certainly an interesting riddle and we thank our reader for pointing this out to us. 🙂


Postscript:

After some further consideration, we have to conclude that this dress is truly a product of the Mid-Bustle (aka Natural Form) Era and that it was staged incorrectly for museum display. To us, the biggest giveaways are the functional vertical row of buttons running down the back and the tightly square-off shelf in the rear. First, the button row is consistent with the princess line silhouette- after all, there has to be a way to put on and remove the dress- and this would completely interfere with a proper late 1880s train and bustle. Finally, note that the button row extends out flat on the shelf- this is something that looks awkward and unnatural (and not found on any originals garments or patterns that we’ve examined. The upper rear of a later 1880s dress was more like this:

Also, the earlier dress style emphasized a cylindrical silhouette that was decorated with a second skirt that swagged in both front and rear. With this example, it appears that all of this was undone and stretched out to accommodate the late 1880s bustle. Below are some examples:

Three-Quarter Rear View

Rear View

This has been a fascinating exercise in figuring out the style and time frame based on dress style and how that can be misleading when an extant original isn’t displayed correctly. Of course, we could also be dead wrong but I seriously doubt it. 🙂

And For A Little More Victorian Style Color…

As a follow-up to our previous post on harmonizing colors, we offer some more thoughts on the subject of color and Victorian style. Generally speaking, dresses could take one of two basic forms when it came to color: all one solid color (i.e. monochromatic) or combinations of two or more colors. The concept of the one-color dresses is pretty straight-forward:

Day Dress, 1877; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.2432a, b)

Day Dress, European or American, circa 1885; Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum

Liberty & Co. (attributed), Ballgown, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.155)

Maison Truffert, San Francisco, Evening Dress/Ball Gown, c. 1894 – 1896; Augusta Auctions

Worth, Ball Gown, c. 1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.299a, b)

But the use of a single color could also take the form of a patterned fabric:

Day Dress, 1885; V&A Museum (T.7&A-1926)

Day Dress, c. 1880; The Museum at FIT (P92.21.1)

Day dresses were more likely to be found in one color than ball gowns and evening dresses but in either case, using one color tended to give a somewhat flat look to the the dress so often lace trim, patterned material such as embroidery, or some other decorative effect was utilized to counter this. Below are several examples of this:

Worth, Ballgown, 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.11a, b)

Worth, Ballgown, c. 1894; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC4799 84-9-2AB)

Day Dress, c. 1880s; Fashion History Museum Ontario

Lace was often employed to add dimension and depth:

Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; FIDM Museum (S2006.870.22AB)

In some cases, dresses employed a combination of plain and patterned fabrics, all in the same basic color such as with this dress:

Day Dress, c. 1885; Walsall Museums (WASMG : 1976.0832)

More common in dresses was the use of a combination of colors which usually took the form of different colored fabrics for the under and over skirts or the bodice and hem:

Worth, Ensemble-/Reception Dress/Evening Bodice, c. 1877 – 1878; Cincinnati Art Museum (1986.1200a-c)

Day Dress, Mid 1890s; Augusta Auctions, Museum of the City of New York Deaccession.

Bourdereau Veron & Cie, Place de la Bourse, Paris, Day Dress, c. 1893; Kent State University Museum (1983.1.207 ab)

Often, stripes and/or patterns were also employed in the color combination:

Day Dress, Emile Pingat, French, c. 1874; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1938-18-12a,b)

Here’s a couple examples of more complex use of color combinations. In the dress on the left, solid light and dark blue are combined with a patterned fabric that’s also predominantly blue. On the right, red with floral embroidery is combined with solid colored white/ivory lace.

In this example below, a solid black underskirt is combined with a bodice/overskirt of dark green striped black silk with floral appliques. Black beading and feathers further accentuate the color combination:

Reception Dress, c. 1890; Goldstein Museum of Design (2013.004.012)

Outer garments could also provide an added element to the color combination as with the figure on the left with a wine/burgundy-colored mantle with celadon trim that matched the solid celadon-colored dress. The figure on the right demonstrates  a combination of ivory-colored lace and solid pink:

Color combinations could even take the forms of stripes and patterns:

Day Dress, c. 1875; Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum

And probably one of the most dramatic uses of two colors can be found with this ball gown that utilizes just stripes:

Doucet, Ball Gown, c. 1890; Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina (1998.13A-B)

Pops of color could also be used as part of a color combination. In the example below, an ivory-colored front under bodice and center underskirt grabs the eye:

Worth, Day Dress, c. 1890 – 1893; Kerry Taylor Auctions

And on a larger scale, the use of the red as a color pop goes a long way towards making this evening dress an eye-catcher:

Worth, Evening Ensemble Dress, 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.622a–c)

The above illustrations gives only a small hint at the combinations and methods that were employed in utilizing color and it’s clear that while pure colors (e.g., one colored fabric with another) could be employed in combination, the combination could also take the form of striped or patterned fabrics, lace, and/or other trims in various colors. More importantly, it’s not just about layer colors, but it’s about layering colors in varying textures and luster to create a garment that projects depth and ultimately a life of its own.

Harmonizing Color- Victorian Style

One common element in fashion is the matching and harmonizing of colors in an outfit. This can take the form of arranging complementary and analogous colors or the arrangement of one color in various hues and tints. One of the most common methods of harmonizing color in an outfit is to simply use the same color for all the elements- skirt, bodice, hat, parasol, et al. While both methods were utilized during the late 19th Century, the absolute matching of colors was less prevalent than what is the case today and this can be seen in many of the various extant dresses and fashion plates of the period. Below is a plate from the July 1888 edition of Der Bazar that illustrates this with the middle figure:

With the middle figure, we see the use of a French blue as the predominant color for both bodice and skirts with yellow as an accent color for the sleeve cuffs, collar, bodice front and amscyes. Also, most notably, the same color blue is depicted with the parasol and hat with matching yellow accent color. Here we see a harmonious whole created with the two colors to include even the hat and parasol.

However, we need to make a few qualifications here: the color choices could have simply been the work of the illustrator operating under the mandate of “make something pretty looking” or it may actually reflect a conscious desire to push matching accessories. We’ll probably never know the full story on this but what we do know is that color harmonization to Victorians was more broadly interpreted that what is the case today. Here’s an example of a color scheme that’s seemingly not so harmonious with the left figure from the October 1887 edition of Der Bazar:

To the modern eye, brown and violet are not the most seemingly harmonious colors, yet they’re technically complementary or split complementary colors going by the standard color wheel.  Of course, we’re looking at a model wearing a mantle over the dress and color-wise, outerwear tends to be neutral but it still gives the idea.

Going further, here’s another color combination that’s not a seemingly logical choice as seen with the left figure in this plate from the January 1887 edition of Godey’s Ladysbook:

With the left dress, we see a combination of old gold/mustard yellow and pink,  a combination that’s not a first choice in today’s fashion. Of course, this is somewhat of a subjective thing and no doubt there are examples that will contradict but it still illustrates the idea that there are a number of ways to harmonize color in an outfit, whether it’s just a dress or an ensemble to include accessories.

OK, enough fashion plates, let’s look at an actual dress with this 1880s visiting dress:

Three-quarter frontal view

Side Profile

Here we see an explosion of warms colors from underneath a cool celadon/sea foam green outer layer. With the striped underlayer, we see a series of analogous colors which in turn somewhat complementary to the celadon/seafoam green. It’s an interesting illustration of the use of color for the era and it’s quite imaginative. When it comes to color preference, there are not many hard and fast rules and in the end,  it’s a matter of personal preference. In this post, we have attempted to point out some of the nuances of color choices in the fashions of the era. 🙂