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