The Thornycroft Dress

Hamo & Agatha Thornycroft, Dress (possibly a Wedding Gown), 1884. Striped washing silk from Liberty, with hand-smocked and gathered sleeves, lined with cotton, Victoria & Albert Museum, Given by Mrs W.O. Manning [T.171-1973].
Hamo & Agatha Thornycroft, Dress (possibly a Wedding Gown), 1884.
Striped washing silk from Liberty, with hand-smocked and gathered sleeves, lined with cotton.
Victoria & Albert Museum, Given by Mrs W.O. Manning [T.171-1973].

This is a post I wasn’t going to make – it was in the ‘save it for the book’ category. However, one of my keen-eyed students from my Artistic Dress class at the GSA pointed out to me that some of my research had been posted to the V&A online catalogue – with no credit to me. Now, before the gasps of outrage form, let me say that I am fine with this, and use it as an excuse to share one of my favourite stories from my thesis. It might prove an interesting (hopefully) insight into how research of this type makes an impact, even if small.

The research relates to a dress (above) that has been viewable in the online collection for some time (its condition is too fragile for sustained display). It was one of the first dresses I identified to study, and has been referenced in other literature in this area. Another wonderful white gown, it is one of those specimens often identified as Aesthetic Dress, and it does somewhat walk in that rather murky area. When I first researched this dress, and at the time of my PhD completion (early 2012), the V&A catalogue said very little about it, but credited it as being a Liberty gown, designed by Hamo Thornycroft. Now, the object information has been updated with information I discovered in the Thornycroft archive at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, which I happily passed on to the curators. I did this because they allowed me to come and examine the dress when it was still being mounted for display in the Cult of Beauty exhibit, and after a chat with the Senior Textile Conservator Frances Hartog, I realised that they were not aware of the relevant letters. Interestingly, Hartog’s own observations on the gown were in line with the story I learned from the Thornycroft letters (more below). The marriage of research and technical study is a wonderful thing! As is academic generosity.

I shall cease being vague, and excerpt the relevant material from my thesis, as it was one of my favourite stories to write. Probably because it is a wee bit of a romance! Read on…

Unknown photographer, Hamo Thornycroft as Proteus from ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, ca. 1880s. Photograph, Thornycroft Archive, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.
Unknown photographer, Hamo Thornycroft as
Proteus from ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’,
ca. 1880s. Photograph, Thornycroft Archive, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.
Unknown photographer, Agatha Cox (later Thornycroft), n.d. Photograph, Thornycroft Archive, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.
Unknown photographer, Agatha Cox (later
Thornycroft), n.d. Photograph, Thornycroft
Archive, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.

The Thornycroft Gown:
a Liberty Dress?

In 1884, the same year [that E.W.] Godwin began the ‘Art Dress’ department at Liberty, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft and his wife Agatha created what is for me the quintessential example of an Artistic Dress. According to their daughter (Mrs W.O. Manning), who donated the dress to the V&A in 1973, this was Agatha’s wedding gown.

Both Hamo and Agatha had a well-established interest in both historic costume as well as dress reform, judging from photographs. One photo shows a young Hamo dressed as Proteus from Two Gentleman of Verona (perhaps for a fancy dress party or a tableau vivant); and another photo shows an even younger Agatha as the Queen of Hearts. But costume balls were a popular pastime for many Victorians; more interesting is a photo of the couple taken in 1884, probably shortly after their marriage [below]. Hamo wears the sort of comfortable outdoors attire that Godwin and [Walter] Hamilton spoke of… checked breeches tucked in woollen socks, a loose comfortable coat, and a short-brimmed cap. Agatha wears what was certainly a ‘rational’ ensemble: a loosely-fitted walking dress (comfortable but not straying too far for the fashionable silhouette), and a long mantle-like overdress topped with a shorter cape that ties artistically at her throat. From her posture and the fit of the outfit it is plain to see she wears neither corset nor bustle or crinoline; one imagines she has chosen the woollen combinations promoted by dress reform societies. It is a comfortable and candid portrait of the young couple.

Inknown Photographer, Hamo & Agatha Thornycroft, 1884. Photograph, Thornycroft Archive, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.
Unknown Photographer, Hamo & Agatha Thornycroft, 1884. Photograph, Thornycroft Archive, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.

The Thornycrofts’ affection is plain in a series of letters written by Agatha that relate to the Artistic Dress she wore for her wedding. [At the time of writing this thesis], the gown… was labelled by the V&A as a Liberty dress, designed by Hamo Thornycroft. Specifically, the object file list[ed] ‘Liberty & Co. Ltd’ as the maker, then in the summary states:

The dress was made and worn by the wife of Sir Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1926). He was a sculptor and designed it for her. They were both interested in the dress reform movement and conceived the dress in accordance with the movement’s principles so it did not restrict the waist and arms…

The sewing is not professional and the dress has been altered. The Liberty material is a thin, probably Indian, washing silk of a type that seldom survives.[1]

The information in the entry is conflicting: the maker is listed as Liberty, yet the discussion states it was made by Agatha, and designed by Hamo. It also states the sewing is not professional, which would also negate authorship of Liberty & Co. as maker.[2] This conflictive listing is possibly due to cataloguing necessities mixed with information given to the museum by Mrs Manning. However, new evidence gives us a clearer picture of how the gown came to be: there is reference to it in three letters written by Agatha, which were not accessible until their daughter left Hamo’s personal papers to the Henry Moore Institute in the 1980s.

In a letter dated Jan 1st 1884, just after their engagement, Agatha wrote to Hamo while she was staying outside of London:

Dearest.  The box from Liberty caused me a great deal of surprise and delight at your kindness in sending me such a lovely present.  The stuff is beautiful and it has often been my ambition to have a dress of it but I cannot help reproaching you at the same time for indulging me to such an extent…  The question that arises is, how can I get it made into a wearable form?  I am afraid the genius of the Tonbridge dressmakers is not sufficiently great to induce me to let them try their hands on it.  But I cannot yet make up my mind on such a weighty and important subject.  You see women are all alike; just as vain as one another!  I have been considering already the design of the dress but I think you must help me with that. It requires great consideration…

A week later, she wrote:

I am going to get my dress made by a dress maker here, the only one I think who can carry out instructions at all near the mark.  I shall keep her well under my eye which will be possible if she comes here to work.  I think the conclusions we came to very satisfactory with regard to the dress the other night.  I have a good idea of what it should be like.  It was sweet of you to make so much trouble about it.

Then finally, on the 21st, she wrote to thank Hamo for lace and mittens he sent, and observed ‘The lace is lovely and will suit the Liberty gown.’[3] Thus these letters offer us rare insight into one way these clothes were made.  It is also interesting to note that she refers to this as a ‘Liberty gown’, although it was not made by Liberty & Co., merely the fabric came from there.

The final design encompasses all the aspects of a proper Artistic Dress. It is made of fine, lightweight silk, dyed in natural colours – an off-white, with a turquoise blue stripe (now badly faded so the dress appears ivory, see detail images). One can imagine it being worn with the turquoise jewellery that was very popular with the artistic set at this time. The dress design the Thornycrofts concocted was modest yet graceful, and in fact, according to V&A Senior Textile Conservator Frances Hartog, the stitching itself is rather basic, hinting perhaps at the uncertain skill of that Tonbridge dressmaker.[4]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The bodice has a low square neckline and is decorated only with flattering smocking that gives it a rustic charm. Wilson tells us that smocking was revived in the 1870s ‘to give movement to the sleeves and yoke, and by the 1880s it was fashionable for conventional dress.’[5] I would add to this that smocking also had a specific social significance related to both a more picturesque, romantic (and historicised) attitude; and the joy and usefulness of handicraft promoted through the Arts and Crafts movement.[6] Smocking is beautiful and useful, a kind of ornamentation of which Godwin and his followers approved; that it becomes a popular feature of Artistic Dress (and subsequently fashionable dress) is unsurprising.

The back is adorned simply with pleating and a row of functional buttons. The sleeves are fitted above and below the elbow, allowing the coveted freedom of movement. The skirt is beautifully draped in the front in a Greek style that hints at coming Edwardian fashion, while the back is gathered up to create an illusion of a soft bustle, without the added weight of a crinoline. The overall effect is an elegant gown which in its healthful and aesthetic qualities embodies all the tenets of Artistic Dress, without straying too far from the fashionable Victorian silhouette.

Thus it stands that this dress, although made from Liberty silk, is not actually a ‘Liberty & Co.’ brand or make of dress, as we might understand it today. It is an excellent example, however, of the way in which Liberty supported the home arts industry through providing materials for Artistic Dress. They were proactive and even didactic in this respect, as the next chapter’s investigation of their catalogues, reveals.

And so, the object file has been updated to reflect that the maker is actually unknown, although it does still list Liberty as a ‘maker’. I can only imagine this is for search purposes, as I doubt they are trying to credit Liberty’s, but rather flag it up for researchers due to the fabric. It might easily cause confusion, however, another reason I’m glad the notes have been updated with the letter excerpts I provided.

The V&A was incredibly generous in allowing me access to this dress – and incidentally, I always find them wonderfully helpful and open to researchers. So I can’t really be upset that the they didn’t credit me with discovering this material (and the online catalogue isn’t an appropriate space for that anyway) – because the goal of research, at least for me, isn’t glory, but furthering knowledge. (Well, maybe just a little glory. Or a steady paycheck at least.) And now, the V&A know a bit more about this wonderful specimen, and future researchers can use this material to develop their own work. And I feel pretty good about that.


[1] From the online catalogue for: Liberty & Co. Ltd. (maker), Dress (Thornycroft/Liberty), Striped washing silk, with hand-smocked and gathered sleeves, lined with cotton, ca 1885, T.171-1973, Victoria & Albert Museum,

[2] For more on amateur and professional sewing and dressmaking at this time, see: Burman, The Culture of Sewing.

[3] Liberty & Co. Ltd. (maker), Dress (Thornycroft/Liberty).

[4] Frances Hartog, related to the author in a conversation at the Victoria & Albert Museum, March 2010.

[5] Wilson, “Away with the Corsets, On with the Shifts,” 21.

[6] For more on this, see: Parker, The Subversive Stitch; and: Janice Helland, British and Irish Home Arts and Industries, 1880-1914: Marketing Craft, Making Fashion (Irish Academic Press, 2007).

Tableaux Vivants Redux!

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'More than just a Punk'. Photo by Paulina Brozek.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘More than just a Punk’. Photo by Paulina Brozek.

Last week was the second annual Artistic Dress Tableaux Vivants at the Glasgow School of Art. Performed by (fantastic) students in my ‘Artistic Dress: Fashion, Style and Identity’ elective course, this year was just as clever and fun as last. I talked about last year’s event briefly in this post, which includes a bit of background on how tableaux vivants, or ‘living pictures’, played a role in the more didactic activities of those associated with the Artistic Dress movements. Because it is end of term, and it was a tiring one, I’m going to take a bit more of an informal (even chatty) approach to this post so I can simply share the stellar job my class did this year.

Students in the 2012 Artistic Dress class recreated the heyday of the GSA. Mackintosh lives!
Students in the 2012 Artistic Dress class recreated the heyday of the GSA. Mackintosh lives!

I must say, first, that last year set the bar very high. For never having done this before, the students pulled it off without a hitch, and everyone loved it. I was excited to see what my students might dream up this year, and was not disappointed. Before I share the results, however, I must really say how fortunate I feel to not only teach a subject I love, but to do so a place full of history, with a staff that supports creative approaches to learning, and students who dive in and take their study beyond the classroom, enthusiastically engaging with the material. The GSA is an amazing place.

My class was tasked with the following project: to create research-based tableaux vivants that expressed notions of Artistic Dress, whether examining historic fashion movements, or exploring new possibilities of what the term could mean. To achieve this, they had to do more than simply find a fun example and dress up, but they really had to research and justify their choices (their grade is actually based on a journal that is a sort of essay/portfolio of their work on the project). So while it might just look like a fabulous fancy dress night, there is actually a great deal of consideration behind these tablueax. The results were so well done that I honestly can’t pick a favourite (and shouldn’t anyway), so I’ll relate each in the student’s words, then give a few thoughts about them.

I was pleased to discover that one group did in fact want to explore more traditional notions of Artistic Dress, perfectly suited to use the beautiful Mackintosh Library:

The Artistic Dress — Different Times, Different Places Mackintosh Library

Artistic Dressers:
Anna Broger
Paulina Brozek
Kelly McEwen
Sophie Warringham

Exploring different varieties of ‘artistic dress’ from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Focusing on what influenced the artists and designers and how they represented it in ways of dress and fashion. From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Symbolism in Poland to the Kunstkleid from Vienna, we exhibit the results of our research.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Artistic Dress - Different Times, Different Places'
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Artistic Dress – Different Times, Different Places’

This was comprised in three quietly beautiful scenes: Pre-Raphaelites sketching and embroidering (above: Rossetti and Siddal come to life in the Mac Library – goosebumps much?); the Arts & Crafts evoked by the adoption of folk costume (modelled on the student’s own Polish national dress, below):

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Artistic Dress - Different Times, Different Places'.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Artistic Dress – Different Times, Different Places’.

…and a re-imagining of a Secessionist after research on Gustav Klimt and Emile Flöge – and here I must give extra kudos to Anna Broger as it was the first dress she has ever attempted (below), and she even did her own hand embroidery. It was lovely!

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Artistic Dress - Different Times, Different Places'.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Artistic Dress – Different Times, Different Places’.

I must also note that the Mackintosh Library currently houses the GSA Special Collections (we have a more functional concrete library across the street). It is often thought of as a ‘mere’ museum space, frozen for the tourists who pass through on tours several times a day. But I use it regularly for sessions with my students where, under staff supervision, they sit and view original design periodicals and sources in this magical environment. So yes, that is an original Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration Anna is (very carefully) holding and reading (being Austrian, she is doing a better job than I would). Not a bad way to spend two hours, is it?

I should mention that this two-hour event is always open to the public, and before our visitors reached the library, they had to pass through the rather bohemian recreation of Weimar’s inter-war avant-garde, constructed in the famous niches of the first-floor corridor:

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'Totentanz Weimar'
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘Totentanz Weimar’

Totentanz Weimar Germany. Weimar, desperate optimism.
First Floor, west corridor

Artistic Dressers:
Christopher Barton
Jamila Brown
Erin Colquhoun
Zsofia Dukai
Hilary Macaulay
Mylene Podvin

He becomes she, she becomes he, art becomes life, and life becomes art. Playing on the symbiotic relationship between Art and Weimar’s transgender community we will explore the life death dance and sex in interwar war Berlin. By recreating Berlin’s infamous Eldorado club we hope to illustrate this golden age of social liberty and sexual freedom through tableau. We hope to represent the exploitation of the androgynous nature of 1920’s clothing (straight lines and suppressed femininity) by the transgender community, and how performance costume explored these blurred roles and pushed the boundaries of sexual representation through dance.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘Totentanz Weimar’

The images really don’t do justice to this scene, for which the students built café tables and researched some rather unique and specific characters to portray. In addition, Christopher Barton made a short film which was projected onto the opposite wall, creating a darkly rich mood for the scene. If you love this period, take a moment to view it here:

From here guests wandered down two flights to the Mackintosh lecture theatre in the basement… if they were brave enough to pass directly through the rather questionable-looking punks congregated on the lower landing.

More Than Just a Punk
West stairwell between ground floor and basement

Artistic Dressers:
Rachel Blair
Amy Bond
Hannah Dykes
Franz Maggs
Elinor McCue
Yoshimi Tanaka

We are expressing and displaying a variation of the diversity of “punk” through Glam Punk, Horror Punk, Street Punk, UK Punk, and American Punk, with political and musical influences. A controversial yet confident stance performed through artistic sartorial expression.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'More than just a Punk'. Photo by Bruce Peter.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘More than just a Punk’. Photo by Bruce Peter.

I was excited by all the tableaux for various reasons, but this one was of course a bit more personal… every time I walked through, I felt like I was  heading back into my youth, to the club… they looked like old friends, and with the Ramones and Sex Pistols blaring, the effect was bold.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'More than just a Punk'.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘More than just a Punk’.

In some ways, it was a simple set up, with an array of DIY posters simply stuck on the wall. But what was really great is that every time you passed through, the group had changed positions, arranging themselves so you had to step over and around them to make your way past. It really evoked that sense of potential threat, and they commented later that more than a few people hesitated before proceeding up the stairs with caution. Fun!

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Factory'. Photo by Paulina Brozek.
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Factory’. Photo by Paulina Brozek.

Finally, the last tableaux was perhaps not as intimidating as the punks, but it was every bit as edgy. With just a bit of aluminium foil, the dark-panelled lecture theatre was transformed into Andy Warhol’s Factory.

The Factory
Mackintosh Lecture Theatre, West wing basement

Artistic Dressers:
Ruth Crothers
Ruth Leslie
Checkie Leong
Ava Marr
Olivia Qi

A representation of the distinctive, artistic dress within Andy Warhol’s ‘Silver Factory’. Particularly focusing on the Avant-Garde and bohemian style of members such as the artist Andy Warhol himself, socialite and actress Edie Sedgwick, photographers Billy Name and Gerard Malanga and artist Brigid Berlin.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: 'The Factory'
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013: ‘The Factory’

Again, pictures don’t do justice at all, but like the others, these students carefully researched and chose the ‘characters’ they wished to recreate, and incorporated sound and video to really bring the artistic party of the Factory heydey to life.

Every group really outdid themselves this year, and I am very pleased. My only disappointment – and I moaned to them about this – was that there was no Steampunk! Perhaps I’ll get lucky next year.

GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013. Well done everyone!
GSA Tableaux Vivants 2013. Well done everyone!

Oh yes, and I decided to join in the fun too… I attempted to do my best Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. I need more colour in my wardrobe to truly pull it off.


See the complete set of this year and last over at flickr.

Special thanks to the generous support of the following GSA staff: Jenny Brownrigg, David Buri, Duncan Chappell, Delphine Dallison, Juliet Fellows-Smith, Rachael Grew, Talitha Kotze, Nicholas Oddy, Bruce Peter, Sarah Smith, Peter Trowles, and Susannah Waters.