Today’s post is written by Kimberly Hereford, a PhD candidate in art history at the UW.
Just what is Aesthetic fashion and how was it different than everyday Victorian dress? In the day, Aesthetic dress was daring and existed outside the framework of etiquette and correct Victorian society. Though deemed scandalous and unfashionable by the public at large, initially a small group of avant-garde women dared to wear these gowns in public.
On Thursday, May 23 I hope you will join me in the museum’s Reed Collection Study Center for “Off with the Corset!” to view a select group of objects from the Henry’s permanent collection and to discuss how Aesthetic dress differed from more conventional and acceptable woman fashion.
By looking at objects from the Henry Art Gallery’s permanent collection, we will explore what constituted “unfashionable” versus “ideal” Victorian standard of beauty, themes evident in the museum’s current exhibition Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty.
The Aesthetic dress movement grew out of the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement, which also influenced the Arts and Craft movement in England. “Truth to nature and beauty in all things,” was the guiding principle of Aestheticism, a Victorian art movement designed to counter the Industrial Revolution by rejecting conformity and materialism. The adherents to Aesthetic fashion believed that clothing should not distort the natural form of the female body, but rather should be in harmony with natural and individual characteristics with the wearer, and above all, allow ease of movement. The greatest outrage for the adherents to the Aesthetic movement was the tight lacing of the corset and the bulges caused with stiff bustles.
There are two excellent examples of Aesthetic dresses in the Henry’s collection, a hand-sewn blouse and a light blue silk dress from Liberty & Co. Each piece contains detailed smocking, a hallmark of Aesthetic fashion. Rather than harsh aniline dyes, these dresses were often made using “natural” dyes and would have been worn without a petticoat or bustle. The total effect, would have seemed droopy, limp, and even “sloppy” – the antithesis of everyday fashionable attire
By 1884, a shift occurred and Aesthetic dresses could be procured by the everyday Victorian woman from Liberty & Co. in London, which was deemed the “chosen resort” for the followers of this movement. The Liberty silks and its distinctive floral motif became associated and trademarks of the Aesthetic dress and instantly recognizable.
My talk on the 23rd will also focus on these daring and fashion-forward women who were the first to cause a stir with their unusual style. Although Aesthetic dresses such as those in the Henry’s collection, would have been initially perceived as eccentric and “out of fashion,” we will also consider how, as the century progressed, this style not only became acceptable, but eventually influenced dress designers and continues to linger even today.