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.

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.

Once Upon A Time In Tombstone…

This is from a few years ago in Tombstone when my friend Arlene and I decided to wear 1890s instead of the usual late 1870s. 🙂

When it comes to Tombstone, people tend to focus on 1881 with the gunfight at the OK Corral, the Earps, et al. In reality, the town continued as a mining town all the way up until the 1920s when the local economy began to shift away (Tombstone was the county seat for Cochise County all the way up to 1929). Moreover, people tend to think of Tombstone as a little dusty frontier town in the middle of nowhere…well, in our humble opinion, they’re wrong.

On the fashion front, we have this commentary on Parisian fashions from the September 27, 1893 edition of the Tombstone Epitaph:

Among the new felt hats are sailors of broad brim and low crown. Derby gloves of chamois have the biggest of red buttons and are bound in red. Paris is advocating flesh-colored suede gloves for evening wear in place of the pure white so long worn. A sleeve which is stamped with the approval of Felix is made of frills of three-inch lace from the shoulder to the waist.

It is now quite the fashion to make up the pretty semi-diaphanous muslins and French lawns over light foundations of batiste or sateen. Pretty clusters of horse chestnut blossoms appear upon ecru-colored round hats of “nutmeg” braid, trimmed with russet brown velvet ribbon. Spanish yellow velvet ribbon is a fashionable trimming for cream tinted nuns’s veilings, crepons, clairettes and similar sheer wool fabrics for young ladies’ wear.

Information on the most current was readily available even in the remotest of places, thanks to newspapers, magazines, and catalogs of retailers such as Sears & Roebuck and Tombstone was no exception. In future posts we hope to be able to bring more of this to light so stay tuned! 🙂