Artistic Dress

Let me remind you that beautiful objects are the nourishment of the artist; unless he can be constantly taking in and assimilating beautiful ideas, he is starved, he is without the tissue absolutely necessary for his work. The artists who lived when dress was beautiful show the influence of this healthy nourishment in their work.

-Henry Holiday, ‘The Artistic Aspect of Dress’, 1892.[1]

‘Mrs Luke Ionides’ by William Blake Richmond, London, 1882. Oil on canvas. Collection of the V&A, Museum no. E.1062-2003. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund and the Friends of the V&A.

Artistic Dress was (and perhaps still is) the sartorial style through which certain individuals (artists, patrons, or anyone who wished to express an ‘artistic attitude’) communicated their identification with artistic circles, life, and philosophies often running counter to mainstream. It arguably developed as a recognized category of dress in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. But because a fairly diverse group practiced it, and because, as one commentator put it in 1885, ‘there is no one artistic dress, either real or ideal,’[2] defining this category has been challenging for fashion historians, who by and large use the term in vague and often confused manners.

While Artistic Dress is a category which is acknowledged in the current literature on fashion history, it has had limited and at times conflicting treatment. It is most often employed to describe sartorial codes in Victorian Britain in which significant arts practitioners and patrons—particularly those associated with Pre-Raphaelitism, the Arts & Crafts Movement, Aestheticism, and Art Nouveau—wore (and at times designed and promoted) clothes that were often labelled in contemporary literature as ‘artistic’ or ‘aesthetic’. These descriptors designated such clothing to be of a unique and creative calibre, but also outside the norm. As such, it has been a subject of interest for art and fashion historians, but usually only approached marginally within the scope of larger studies on related artistic movements, or within studies of larger fashion histories on nineteenth century dress and/or Dress Reform.

[1] Henry Holiday, “The Artistic Aspect of Dress,” Aglaia: the journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union July 1893, no. 1 (1893): 13-30.
(Constance Wilde?) C.W., “Ladies Dress–Aesthetic and Artistic,” Pall Mall Gazette (London, 1885).


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