The Aesthetic Movement & 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.



Fashion Transition- 1890, Part 1

Mary Endicott (neé Chamberlain) by John Everett Millais, 1890 – 1891; Birmingham Museums (1989P60)

The 1890s opened with styles that were little different the year before but at the same time there was change, especially with a de-emphasis on the bustle/train. Yes, it’s still there a little but it’s less prominent and the look is softening up. To better illustrate this, below are a series of fashion plates from Peterson’s Magazine that cover the January through April, 1890:

Peterson’s Magazine, January 1890

Peterson’s Magazine, February 1890

Peterson’s Magazine, March 1890

Peterson’s Magazine, April 1890

In the above plates, we see a mix of styles with a varying degree of emphasis on the train/bustle. Also, we’re seeing a lot of the Directoire/redingote and jacket-bodice/faux vest styles in varying degrees; the jacket-bodice style was to further develop in the 1890s and especially with walking suits. At the same time, we see a series of pseudo-robe styles that seek to suggest somewhat loosely fitting robes, somewhat suggestive of aesthetic dress although they’re still fairly structured.

So, let’s take a look at each of these developing styles, staring with the Directoire and redingote styles.

The key elements of the Directoire style, as applied to the late Nineteenth Century, were jackets with wide lapels combined with simple, mostly un-trained skirts. Also, the Directoire style was often closely aligned with the redingote style and both were often combined as seen with this example:

One of the most eye-catching features of Directoire style were the lapels/revers. Here’s a few more interesting examples that we’ve recently come across:

In the above example from the October 1892 issue of La Revue de la Mode, we see a set of very wide, pointed lapels on a jacket with a diagonally cut front that calls away to reveal a white waist or pseudo-waist. The striped skirt offers an interesting contrast and the whole effect is a geometrical collection of straight lines going in a variety of directions. Along the same lines is this style on the left illustrated in an 1892 fashion plate from La Mode Française:

In terms of style, with its long revers and overall length, this one leans more towards a Louis XVI style but still overlaps somewhat in that the jacket is clearly mean to be worn open, displaying an ornately trimmed waistcoat (or pseudo waistcoat), complemented by the embroidered trim on both revers. Elaborate decorative designs were a characteristic of Directoire style, especially with the larger lapels that provided the perfect “canvas” as with this illustration from the March 1899 issue of The Delineator:

Both of these outfits are amazing and a bit over-the-top. The left dress features an elegant coat with elaborate decorative patterns that were no doubt, done in silver and jet beading (or some combination thereof). Although the fabric is not specified here, we envision a black silk velvet . The pale blue skirt offers an interesting color contrast with its white floral applique pattern running along the hem. The perfect outfit for Spring. The outfit on the right is a bit more dramatic with its burnt orange jacket combined with a green skirt with a vertical soutache pattern running down the front. The contrast colors make for a harmonious package that sets the stage for the dramatic striped patterns on the lapels and collar; these definitely catch the eye and direct focus towards the wearer’s face.

Like the Directoire style, the redingote had its origins in the early 19th Century and so it only makes sense to also see its revival, albeit in a more limited form. Essentially, there were two basic redingote styles during the late 1880s/early 1890s: the functional coat meant to be worn as outerwear and the redingote as part of a complete dress style. In this post, we’re going to focus on the redingote as a dress style. For a little history, the redingote’s origins go back to the 18th Century and the term itself is a French corruption of “riding coat.” Initially, the redingote was a closely fitted coat with a flared skirt and was intended to be worn while horseback riding. Over time, the redingote evolved to something more formal that was worn for a number of social occasions. The redingote was inspired by men’s styles and as such they were typically made by a tailor as opposed to a mantua-maker. For a little historical context, here are some illustrations:

Redingote, c. 1790; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.2009.120)

Some insight into the revival of the redingote can be found in this description from the January 12, 1889 issue of Harper’s Bazar:

The garment most worn this winter, which hitherto has been as mild as that of Nice, is the redingote; and if severe weather should suddenly set in and oblige us to take refuge in furs, suspending the usefulness of the redingote, it will resume its ascendancy again next March. Made as it is now, it closely resembles a man’s coat. The revers are cut and rolled in the same fashion, the sleeves are similar, and the bodice of the street dress over which it is worn, usually of cloth, or Cheviot [a variety of wool fabric], or sometimes faille, bears the same relation to it as the masculine waistcoat to the coat.

The redingote, which is almost as long as the dress, is worn with different dresses, but if it is slashed in the back the breadths of the dress are usually of the same color, only the bodice front and skirt being different, as for instance, a black redingote over a dress which has back breadths of black faille. The great and unfortunate popularity which it has attained is entirely owing to our unusually mild temperature. All the fur-lined long cloaks and small wraps are as yet unemployed although doubtless their turn will come.

Beside the redingote cloak there are many pretty redingotes which form part of the dress, of brocade, or of Pompadour silks; these have revers turned back on the front, sometimes meeting at the waist with the open space above filled in by a lace plastron; below the waist, it spreads apart again, displaying a skirt of glacé silk, with embroidery or passementerie, or of a crêpe de Chine embroidered.

Simpler but not less pretty is a redingote  of plain or changeable silk opening on a plastron and skirt front of ancient silk— some old silk of the eighteenth century, which may possibly have been employed for furniture drapery in the interim, and is now restored to its original use. There is a perfect rage for old-time silks at this moment, and when one does not possess a sufficient quantity to make an entire skirt front, still there must be enough at least to furnish a gathered plastron and a collar and cuffs for a dress restored to its original use.

The above quote differentiates two styles of redingotes: one that was a full-on coat; and one that was part of a dress style. The coat style is fairly simple and functional as noted in the December 1891 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine:

Probably there is no garment more convenient and comfortable for cold weather than a redingote: it is thoroughly protective, the arms are free, and it constitutes a complete walking-costume in itself. The “Lorenza” is a perfectly plain, double-breasted garment with a lap in the middle seam in the back, and is adapted to all seasonable materials suit able for outer garments. The illustration represents tan-colored, rough-surfaced cloth, trimmed with seal far. The hat is of brown velvet with brown ostrich-tips and a bow of orange-colored velvet.

Here’s an illustration of the Lorenza pattern redingote:

For a better idea of what they looked like, here’s one extant redingote that I found on the Augusta Auctions website:

In viewing the above redingote, it appears that it’s most likely late 1880s vintage: it’s structure is clearly shaped to accommodate a bustled skirt. This is an interesting combination of functional and decorate styles and definitely fulfills its function as outerwear.

Now let’s take a look at some dress redingote styles starting with this style featured in the April 1881 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Below is a full description of the style:

No. 2 Is a walking costume for a young lady, the material of which is summer camel’s hair cloth, light twilled flannel, de laine, de beige, albatross, cloth, or any of the endless variety of spring fabrics, may be used for this style of dress. The skirt, has, first a narrow knife-plaiting two and a-half inches deep. Over this, a side plaiting, or more properly a kilt-plaiting, a-half yard deep, on to which a puff is laid, six inches
from the bottom. This puff is gathered with a cord in the edge.

The polonaise is a revival of the old fashioned Redingote—cut with loose fronts and a tight-fitting back—belted in at the waist to fit the figure. This garment is double-breasted and finished with a rolling collar of silk or velvet. The belt, cuffs, loops, and ends, forming the garniture of the polonaise, are all made of silver silk or velvet, to match, or else of a contrasting color, or darker shade of the same color.

From the illustration may be seen about how far in front to leave the garment open. The edges arc simply piped with the silk. The fullness in the back is arranged in irregular pouffs. A similar bow of loops and ends is placed at the back, just below the waist line. The bows may be made of ribbon, if preferred. Ten to twelve yards of double width material will be required. For collar, cuffs, and belt, three-quarters of a yard of silk or velvet. One yard extra for loops or four yards of ribbon. Two dozen buttons. Fancy buttons are most fashionable.

Besides the technical details, what’s interesting is that the idea that the polonaise is a revival of the redingote. This is an interesting proposition although we’re more included to think that it’s more of a blurring of styles. From the example above, it would seem that the redingote itself has been modified to be more loose towards the bottom and treated as more of an overskirt.  Moving forward, we see another Redingote style in the September 1888 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:


Unfortunately, there’s no description but it’s clear that this style runs fairly true to the classic 1790s style with a double-breasted front combined with skirt opening up to reveal a patterned underskirt. And for a little variation, there’s this style from the October 1890 edition of Peterson’s Magazine:


The above dress is described as a:

…handsome street or traveling gown. It is made of gray cashmere or camel’s hair. The petticoat, of two tints of gray in stripes, is kilt-plaited [pleated] on the left side, up to the waist. The overdress is the newest style of redingote polonaise, the front of which has a few plaits near the waist to give a slight fullness. The back of the skirt is very full. The trimming for this gown is of gray plush or fur, as the individual taste may decide…

The above redingote is styled as more of a robe than a coat but the effect is similar. Another variation of sorts can be found in these two dresses by Pingat:

Reception Dress, Emile Pingat, c. 1885; Shelburne Museum (2010-75)

Three-Quarter Rear View

Pingat, Promenade Dress, 1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.7758a, b)

Rear View

Right Side Profile

These two dresses are very similar in style and look back more to the mid-Eighteenth Century with  the cut of the coat and trim details. The redingote dress style was an interesting style variant in the 1880s and 1890s and while in many respects it reflected its 18th and early 19th Century predecessors, it also added new elements such as the robe. Unfortunately for us, there are not a lot of extant examples out there so we’ve had to work through fashion publications and the fact that patterns were offered through publications such as Peterson’s and Demorest’s suggests that there was a demand for these designs by the public.

(To be continued…)



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.