Aesthetic Dress

posted in: History of fashion | 13

From about 1860 until 1900 there was a brief and rather specialised interest in Artistic or Aesthetic dress. This movement was associated with William Morris, the pre-Raphaelite artists and modern women concerned with gaining greater freedom. In a polite and slightly affected way they rebelled against corsets, fussiness and “fashion” and chose garments in linen or cotton, softly draped and non-constricting. The rather plain garments were designed to allow ease of movement for the arms and legs and did not require corsets, being fastened with a belt at the waist.   Simple hairstyles and rough, rustic beads and plain fabrics were preferred; in their style they harked back to a golden Medieval age. Even the little girl is wearing a similar dress, beads and geometric hair cut. Does the woman, second from the right, have her hands thrust into pockets?

William Morris
William Morris with family and friends

A number of artists during this period liked to paint ladies with undressed hair, wearing comparatively loose clothing. This Whistler portrait on the right, shows a beautiful young red-head dressed in a long white pin-tucked dress, worn with puffed and fitted sleeves in contrasting white fabrics. This was quite a contrast with the bustles, expensive and colourful woven silks and elaborate hair dos of the age.

The Liberty store in London sold many items to appeal to the same customer group – people who loved English style, craft skills, tradition, artistic modern design and radical thinking. Here is an advert from the 1880s advertising smocks, tea gowns, and “Phyllis”, rather a short dress made in cashmere with smocking on the bodice and sleeves, pin tucks, and draping. Liberty of London (everyone’s favourite shop)  is still there, just as gorgeous and still offering original clothes for the more “artistic” and sensitive shopper.

Liberty of London advert
Liberty advert 1880

Recently I was able to inspect a rare surviving example of this type of dress at an exhibition on Women, Fashion, Power. The dress on display was made out of a slightly rough natural coloured linen cloth, with all the shaping created by smocking. I assume the garment started as two straight pieces (with neck cut out) that were smocked to create the wide yoke, shaped cuffs and slim waist. It has an elegant, feminine shape, and the smocking is very beautiful, but it does look like fancy dress for a shepherdess to me.

Aesthetic Dress women, fashion power exhibition
Aesthetic Dress

What do you think? Any echoes with today’s “Art teacher chic”, “Lagenlook” or the voluminous dresses designed to hide a multitude of sins?

13 Responses

  1. Beth

    I find that photograph of William Morris and his family quite scary; nobody looks happy in their new loose-fitting dress!
    They certainly don’t have the glamour that corsets and fine materials bring, though! I think we’d look scruffy in these dresses today. I guess women nowadays like a cross between tight and loose-fitting clothing; there’s a time and a place for both (although I’m not talking about the breath-takingly tight corsets!) It’s really interesting how fashion evolves.

    • paleobibliophile

      I believe that having your photo taken back then was an ordeal involving sitting still for an extended period of time. Photography was much slower than it is now and the subject had to stay in place without moving for up to several hours.

  2. Joyce

    They remind me of hippies too. ——- hard to believe it took us as long as it did to get to pants- even I remember what a big deal it was to wear pants to school!

  3. Stephanie

    K., this is very interesting. I don’t think I ever knew anything about this particular movement, except tangentially. Thanks! Yes, I think there’s a link with “art teacher chic.” My mom, a music teacher, went loose and kind of hippie in her dress when she was mid- to late- career. I used to bug her to put on something with a waistline that came above her ankles! 🙂

  4. mrsmole

    I think the dress was created to show off her smocking skills and maybe back in the day before air conditioning it kept her cool too? Thank you for sharing the old photo…yes they all do look quite sombre and serious even wearing looser clothes…was the man a control freak in his private life? I’m guessing the women had to get right back to their chores after this portrait was taken and the men just sat around smoking and talking trash.

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