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.