The Myth of Pre-Raphaelite Dress

It’s Pre-Raphaelite Day!

What does this mean? Well, this is, ostensibly, the 164th birthday of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is being celebrated across the web, at the instigation of the fabulous Pre-Raphaelite Society, who have prompted all of us to twitter away with the hashtag #PRBday – lots of great posts already!

And the reason we celebrate? Well, it isn’t just that we PRB fans are salivating that the amazing new Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde is opening this week (why yes, I will be at the private view!)…

…but we are also celebrating the formation of the PRB itself. The Tate has provided this great post with a bit more detail here, but the nutshell is that in September 1848, a group of young art school friends in young John Millais’ bedroom at No. 7 Gower Street, to write their great declaration that cemented the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood into being.

They were looking rather rumpled and smudged with charcoal, gathered upstairs in Millais’ bedroom on a rainy afternoon as they passionately contrived the list of ‘Immortals’ they wished to emulate and, one day, be considered amongst. Mrs Millais came up the stairs and knocked on the door: ‘Boys, would you like some tea?’ And Millais, feeling over-excited and a bit angsty, rolled his eyes at his friends and shouted in a stroppy tone, ‘Not now mum, we are writing our manifesto!’

Anyway, that’s how it happened in my head.

The manifesto as we know it comes from William Holman Hunt’s personal account of the group’s birth and development in his book Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is something I always go over with my students as it is a great way to see what their interests were, and how the PRB moniker is something of a misnomer. Here is the pertinent excerpt:

Once, in a studio conclave, some of us drew up a declaration that there was no immortality for humanity except that which was gained by man’s own genius or heroism.  We were still under the influence of Voltaire, Gibbon, Byron, and Shelley, and we could leave no corner or spaces in our minds unsearched or unswept.  Our determination to respect no authority that stood in the way of fresh research in art seemed to compel us to try what the result would be in matters metaphysical, denying all that could not be tangibly proved.  We agreed that there were different degrees of glory in great men and that these grades should be denoted by one, two, or three stars… Gabriel wrote out the following manifesto of our absence of faith in immortality, save in that perennial influence exercised by great thinkers and workers:
We, the undersigned, declare that the following list of Immortals constitutes the whole of our Creed, and that there exists no other Immortality than what is centred in their names and in the names of their contemporaries, in which this list is reflected:
Jesus Christ****
The Author of Job***
Early Gothic Architects
Cavalier Pugliesi
Fra Angelico*
Leonardo da Vinci**
Joan of Arc
Mrs. Browning*
Michael Angelo [sic]
Early English Balladists
Giovanni Bellini
Leigh Hunt (Author of Stories of Nature*)

What ho! Who is that on the list? Why, it seems to be Raphael himself! And with a star of greatness no less! In fact, the list is interesting in that roughly half of these Immortals are post-Raphael, and several are contemporaries (I spy Tennyson, Thackeray, and Browning to name a few). The list is fascinating, and worth far more discussion that I offer here – I welcome observations in the comments!

But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I thought I might talk a little about how these young lads likely dressed in these early days. Much of this is really reportage from other researchers, and a lead in to my own observations on ‘Pre-Raphaelite Dress’ as it has been called. From the thesis…

From what we know of their early days, the men who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood dressed eccentrically by Victorian standards, as many art students of their gender did. Deborah Cherry points out that this unconventional dress ‘could not be adopted by women artists for whom, unlike men, disorderly conduct or dishevelled appearance endangered respectability and professional activity.’[1] This statement is true in general, however some marginal groups of women artists, such as Barbara Leigh-Smith (later Bodichon) and Joanna Boyce, close friends of Rossetti and Siddal, also participated in early emancipation activities which found them, at times, wearing reform dress, such as bifurcated skirts. Nonetheless, male artists enjoyed much more flexibility in what would be accepted as merely artistic eccentricity in dress, as the visual canon of the slightly unkempt, baggy-clothed and scruffy male artist was well established through portraiture (and particularly self-portraiture) via the likes of Rembrandt, Salvatore Rosa, and countless others; as well as through subsequent caricature resulting from these signifiers.

1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1847 Pencil and chalk, 197 x 178mm. Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool [LL3624].

At the outset, the men of the Pre-Raphaelite circle seemed to wear typical dress for their social standing. However it was reported early on by Hunt in his recollections that Rossetti favoured baggier, ill-fitting clothes and had an unkempt, devil-may-care appearance. In her biography of the artist, Jan Marsh used these descriptions to sketch a romantic vision of Rossetti entering the Antique School of the Royal Academy in 1846:

As the freshman arrived, the other students turned, seeing among the group a slight, dark lad, with loose-curled masses of rich brown hair, strong brows over deep-set dark-ringed eyes and a rather scowling, intense expression… He dressed with deliberate slovenliness – a none-too-clean collar, unblacked boots, a well-worn coat. Sartorial disregard was common for art students, but his was marked.[2]

Herbert Watkins, ‘John Everett Millais’, 1854. Albumne print, 32 x 31.5cm. Watts Gallery, Compton [COMWG.501].

It may be that some of the reason for his appearance was due to the somewhat impoverished condition of his family at the time, however Rossetti managed to turn this into an artistic affectation rather than a blemish. This vision can be seen in the romanticized self-portrait drawing Rossetti made in 1847 [fig. 1]. Rendering himself as a poet, the young, clean-shaven face, sensuous mouth, and thick, windswept hair (his brother William called them ‘elf-locks’)[3] is singular in the artist’s self-portraits; modes of representation left for the female muses he will come to paint. However the folded collar and short bow tie, which might to the modern eye look old-fashioned, are important to note, for they depart significantly from the preceding decades’ fashion for high collars and elaborately tied cravats. Rossetti’s tie here is that of an artist: short, loose, and practical. Likewise, in an 1854 photograph by Herbert Watkins, Millais wears a loose ‘floppy’ bow tie [fig. 2.] as becomes common practice for many male artists, as we shall see. In fact, the wearing of the tie was, for men, a language of its own, signifying a range of attitudes from refinement to decadence. The artistic dress of men, when not bordering on fancy dress, was often found in more subtle ways, in the details and accessories of their clothing, and the way they wear their hair – particularly facial hair. This will again become evident as the century progresses.

Thus in the years 1848 – 1860, the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle were not necessarily establishing new modes of dress, or ‘alternative vestimentary movements’ as has been suggested by author Alice Mackrell,[4] but rather they served as models for a kind of sensibility that influenced later modes of dressing in their own group and others through the artworks they created, their interest in historical costume, as well as the affectations they presented in their sartorial habits. The anecdote Marsh has presented is not an indicator of Pre-Raphaelite Dress, but rather of Artistic Dress; or rather the dress of an artist, which affected an air of rebellion via ‘sartorial disregard’ that would become more extreme in subsequent decades…

As this passage may suggest, I was surprised to discover that through my research, I came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t such a thing as ‘Pre-Raphaelite Dress’ as it has come to be known. While the lads sat around writing up their manifesto on who they wished to emulate, they never did make a credo on how they would dress, at least none that still exists. Theirs was a much more fluid mode of sartorial self-expression, and though perhaps self-conscious, I’m not convinced it was overly contrived.Most references to ‘Pre-Raphaelite Dress’ are in regards to the associated women, and I have an even bigger issue there. Stella Mary Newton made an in-depth discussion on it in her seminal 1974 text Health, Art, and Reason, and nearly every text since has simply followed her research, which in essence stated that Pre-Raphaelite Dress meant loose gowns with sleeves that allowed freedom of movement. Taking that as my own starting point, I began to really examine extant images, and, to overly simplify several chapters of my thesis, I found that actually, these women favoured a far greater variety of gowns than has been attributed them. I believe these overly-simplified observations are based on images made of them in modelling costumes, and cannot be viewed as reliable indicators of how they might have gone about day to day, at least in these early days of Pre-Raphaelitism.

‘Spring (Apple Blossoms)’ [1859, oil on canvas, 176 x 113cm, Lady Lever Art Gallery, LL3624] by Millais is an example of an artwork that is often cited to show that Pre-Raphaelite women wore loose-fitting unconventional dress. In fact, the cut of many of these dresses is rather mainstream. Where it departs from convention is that some of these young women appear to be sans-crinoline. Is this due to their habits, or is it modelling costume, the romantic choice of the artist for his particular vision?

So where did this myth come from? According to, well, me:

Some art historians state the origins of this form of dress with conviction: ‘the first women to wear, and therefore promote, Pre-Raphaelite dress were the models of these artists, notably Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris.’[5] This statement is exemplary of the assumption that Pre-Raphaelite women, especially those who sat for Rossetti, wore clothing in their everyday life similar to that in which they sat as models. These dresses are usually described as being loose in the bodice and sleeves to allow more freedom of movement than more restrictive fashionable dress, and worn without corsets or crinolines. The fact that the aforementioned women were all skilled seamstresses who made modelling costume for Rossetti and other artists has reinforced the notion that they must have made similar clothing for themselves that they wore as everyday dress. Altogether, these views have led to the popular conclusion that the Pre-Raphaelite circle regularly dressed in a radical bohemian fashion, the consequence of which can be seen in the completely unconventional costume and styling used in the 2009 BBC television drama Desperate Romantics. While perhaps capturing the rebellious spirit of the group for a fictionalised account, the visual portrayal of the characters – particularly of Elizabeth Siddal, walking through the streets of London with her hair down and dressed in tunic tops with skirts [fig. 3] – would have been more than shocking to Victorian society; it would have been disgraceful. Siddal, a respectable if poor member of the lower middle class, and a milliner (dressmaker) besides, would have hardly appeared publically in such a fashion…

Amy Manson as Elizabeth Siddal and Aidan Turner as D.G. Rossetti in Desperate Romantics, episode one. BBC, 2009. Apparently, Lizzie shopped at Camden Market.

It is possible to conclude that Pre-Raphaelite Dress was not an actual sartorial movement, but rather is a retrospective term that was adopted nearly three decades after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to describe clothing seen first in image, which inspired what we should be more properly calling Artistic Dress. Nonetheless, while the category ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ was used a descriptor for art and decoration in this period, one of the earliest print references to ‘Præ-Raphaelite Dress’ was made by Mary Eliza Haweis in her 1878 articles for Queen, a ladies’ magazine,[6] and subsequently reprinted and elaborated on in her 1879 text The Art of Dress[7] and related 1880 article in The Art Journal.[8] Even in these early days, she indicates semiotic problems with the term:

In the first place, what is meant by ‘Præ-Raphaelitism’ in Dress? If one were required to furnish an exact definition of that term it would be very hard; for everybody who catches it up means a different thing. But we may say, in a general way, that the present movement in dress under the above name is gradually spreading; first among art circles who have discovered, then among æsthetic circles who appreciate, the laws which govern beauty; and it represents the common reaction that follows any bad system carried on long… But this loose term ‘Præ-Raphaelite’ is extremely misleading. [9]

Haweis thereby applies the term to a style which we now label Aesthetic Dress; but which she herself goes on to suggest should rather be called ‘Art-Protestant’. She argues that this term is more accurate, as the clothing in question references historic costume from ‘roughly speaking, the period of Edward III’s reign, from 1327 to 1377,’ rather than just costume before the age of Raphael.[10] Although Art-Protestant never really caught on, Haweis’ desire to more accurately define this style again points to the semiotic confusion of these terms.

We have much more evidence of others, such as the ladies of the Holland Park Circle, wearing these loose and bohemian gowns, and later, within the scope of burgeoning Aestheticism we see more of this form of dress in Pre-Raphaelite circles (I’ve written a little about both here). Ultimately, this is why I favour and argue for the use of Artistic Dress as the term to encompass all these activities, as the others can be so confusing and misleading.

Semantics, perhaps, but I’m a word nerd.

[1] Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (Routledge, 1993). 91. Quoted in Colin Cruise, “Artists’ Clothes: Some Observations on Male Artists and Their Clothes in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Gendered Object, ed. Pat Kirkham (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996). 114.

[2] Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter and Poet. 19-20.

[3] Ibid. 22.

[4] Alice Mackrell, Art and Fashion: The Impact of Art on Fashion and Fashion on Art (London: Batsford, 2005), 88.

[5] Sophia Wilson, “Away with the Corsets, On with the Shifts,” in Simply Stunning: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Dressing (Cheltenham: Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museums, 1996), 20.

[6] (Mrs) Mary Eliza Haweis, “Pre-Raphaelite Dress,” The Queen, February 9, 1878. See chapter five for a detailed discussion of Haweis’ writing.

[7] (Mrs) Mary Eliza Haweis, The Art of Dress (London, 1879).

[8] (Mrs) Mary Eliza Haweis, “The Æsthetics of Dress,” The Art Journal (1875-1887) 6, New Series (January 1, 1880): 129–131.

[9] Haweis, The Art of Dress, 98.

[10] Haweis, The Art of Dress, 99.

Author: Robyne Calvert

Cultural Historian... art, design, architecture, fashion, etc.

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