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. 🙂

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. 🙂

And For A Little Fashion From Sweden…1880s Style

With our upcoming trip to Sweden in September, we decided to dig a little into the Sweden’s fashion history as it relates to the late 19th Century and we found some interesting fashion plates from a Swedish fashion magazine entitled Freja. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about the publication but the fashion plates were compelling and so we had to share them. 🙂 First up in the spirit of the summer season is these two plates:

The styles depicted in these plates are fairly standard for the period but are still compelling in that each has a fairly similar silhouette yet each one has an individual style. In the first plate from August 1885, the figure on the left’s dress is a solid color with matching hat with the skirt having multiple layers of ruching and ruffles. The sleeves and bodice front are a bit over the top with all the excess lace and overall the dress reads a bit too formal for the seaside. The dress on the right presents a contrast with a printed floral design combined with a solid color ruched pseudo-waist/vest underneath the bodice front. The color combination presents a harmonious combination (allowing for the fact that this is a colored fashion plate). Finally, the dress on the right presents a unified whole with clean lines and minimal trim.

In this plate from August 1886, we  see two more different styles in which the waist is far more minimized than in the first plate. The dress on the left creates the illusion of a closed robe with white lace providing a contrast layers that outlines the rest of the dress. The garment is drawn in at the waist with a belt and gives an illusion of a continuous garment although it’s obvious that the bodice and skirt are separate (of course, we could be wrong, considering that we’re looking at a photograph of the place). The use of contrasting white lace flounces provides an interesting effect that outlines the garment and draws the eye in.

The dress on the right provides a different style approach with the use of a solid color combined with a thin material (probably some variety of a light cotton voile or similar over a heavier cotton underlayer (cotton seems the logical choice). The folds of the lighter outerlayer creates the effect of a loose-fitting garment although it’s obvious that there’s a corset and bustle on underneath. Perhaps a nod towards aesthetic dress? 🙂 If nothing else, it certainly gives off a princess line appearance. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the commentary that accompanied these places so a lot of our comments are based on a bit of conjecture.

The two dresses depicted in the above plate from February 1885 are more of what could be termed reception or visiting dresses and were meant for more indoors wear. The dress on the left is an interesting combination of a silk brocade underskirt combined with a solid silk overskirt, all in the same gold colors with a bit of white lace running long the front to provide contrast. The black velvet (conjecture on our part) bodice offers an interesting color counterpoint to the skirts. Thin strips of gold brocade fabric running on each edge of the bodice front provides a continuation of the skirts, drawing the eye upwards with a pseudo-waist of white lace for contrast.

Compared to the left dress, the right dress provides a light and airy contrast with its white lace underskirt, apron, and inner bodice combined with a rich red velvet-like outerskirt and bodice. It’s a visual one-two punch that definitely attracts the eye. 🙂

In this last plate from December 1884, we see a combination of afternoon/visiting dresses done in a combination of solid color velvet combined with velvet brocade. The dress on the right provides the best view with a velvet brocade underskirt combined with a solid-colored overskirt trimmed in fur. The bodice presents a dramatic appearance with a plastron of the same velvet brocade as the underskirt combined with solid-colored sleeves. This dress gives an effect of a robe being worn on the outside although it’s obvious that the bodice and skirts are separate. The above is just a taste of what was in style for Sweden during the mid-1880s and in future posts we hope to uncover more.

What Is Old Is New (Again)…

In keeping with the Classical theme, below is this 1880s ballgown that’s attributed to Liberty & Co. :

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

Three-Quarter Frontal View

While the V&A Museum dates this dress to the 1880s, we believe that this was most likely made sometime in the Mid-1880s based on the silhouette (although, as with all garment dating, we’re only making an educated guess). Constructed of a gold silk, this ballgown has a the bustle/train silhouette characteristic of the Mid-1880s while at the same time creating a style reminiscent of the Doric Chiton of Classical Greece:

With its free-flowing, ruffled folds, the ballgown’s fashion fabric gives the appearance of effortless draping. This is a somewhat of a departure to the norm where bodices, for both ballgowns and day wear, were tightly sculpted over a corset-created shell. However, in contrast to the Doric Chiton of Classical Greece, the 1880s interpretation by Liberty is a bit more controlled as can be seen with this interior view:

Interior view of the bodice.

The bodice’s interior construction is fairly typical of 1880s bodices with boning to maintain the bodice’s shape. In short, while this ballgown gives the appearance of flowing drapery, it’s just as controlled and structured as any other ballgown of the era. But, more importantly, the style is also reflects the Aesthetic Movement (aka Aestheticism), a trend that was growing during this era. One of the products of the Aestheticism was the advent of Aesthetic Dress, a dress style based on simplicity of line and rich fabrics that rejected the predominant structured fashion of the era created by the corset and bustle. Overall, the look was meant to be liberating and provide freedom of mobility.

The Doric Chiton of Classical Greece offered a lot more freedom of movement than what most Victorians were ready for…

While Aesthetic Dress’s objectives did not reach full fruition to much later (as with such designers as Paul Poiret), this represented a start. It must be noted that Liberty and Company was one of the leading proponents of Aesthetic Dress, starting production on a line of dresses in 1884. Finally, we’d like to note that this ballgown design is interesting in that it looks back to a much earlier time while at the same time offering something fresh and thus it offers another design choice for anyone interested in replicating styles from the 1880s.