One of the enticing things about the work of Margaret Macdonald and Charles Rennie Mackintosh is the intimate creative partnership they shared. Their friend Muthesius called them the Künstlerpaar – the ‘art couple’. It’s part of what attracted me to their work, and I’ve written and talked about it for, gosh, over 15 years now. For Valentine’s Day, here a selection of things to swoon over…
First, here is a talk I did a year ago for the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society on artistic couples.
I promise, if you read through a bit of exposition, the reason for the title shall become clear.
It has been a shamefully long time since I have updated this blog. Blame teaching. Speaking of which, it has been a fantastic year in that regard, capped by the fact that last Autumn I actually taught a class on Artistic Dress at my lovely institution, the Glasgow School of Art. I have been meaning to write about it for ages, but now it has been so long, I feel I must do it in an all-too-brief recap.
Essentially, rather than write an essay, I decided my students should revive the late Victorian GSA tradition of performing Tableau Vivant (a bit more on this below). They formed groups and came up with these ‘living pictures’ to display aspects of Artistic Dress in their own view. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the results, and luckily, while I was dashing about ‘directing’ the event (we invited staff, students and friends to come in and see the performance), my fantastic colleague Bruce Peter got pictures! Please click on through to see this event for now, and I will make a dedicated post to this wonderful class in the very near future.
I wished to mention it here, however, as it somewhat related to the real purpose of this post. I recently participated in a wonderful panel at the 39th annual Association of Art Historians conference. Organised by Colin Cruise and Amelia Yates, it was on the subject ‘Image, Identity and Institutions: the Male Artist in the 19th century.’ I was honoured to be included in the group, which also included my former advisor and mentor Margaret F. MacDonald. Likewise, it is always great to see old friends and meet new Victorianistas, and in the latter category, Sian White has written a very nice review of our panel at her blog – read Part I here, and Part II, which includes my paper, here.
I did consider posting the text of my paper here, ever-wary of the balancing act between being magnanimous with my research, and saving the ‘juicy bits’ for the book. But as this was written to be delivered in a talk, and there are so many lovely images of even lovelier artists, I thought I might try something a little different. I made a little documentary.
This certainly has its glitches, and in the spirit of keeping it close to the original, this is really just an elaborate powerpoint with voiceover and some other fancy additions that iMovie allows. It is also read at an easier pace than conference time limits encourage. So, if you happen to have a spare 32 minutes and 20 seconds, and you want to learn a little more about bohemians, dandies, fantastic moustaches and floppy ties (and where the title of this post comes from), please sit back and watch.
And please do leave comments here, I’d love to know what people think!
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:
The Author of Job***
Early Gothic Architects
Leonardo da Vinci**
Joan of Arc
Michael Angelo [sic]
Early English Balladists
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.’ 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.
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.
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’) 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, 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.
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.’ 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…
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, and subsequently reprinted and elaborated on in her 1879 text The Art of Dress and related 1880 article in The Art Journal. 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. 
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. 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.
 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.
 Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter and Poet. 19-20.
For those of us who study Aestheticism, white dresses can be tricky. When we see a romantic vision of a woman in a billowing white dress, we often wish to label the lovely lady ‘Aesthetic’. But the truth is, if you begin to study public collections of Victorian dress, as I have been lucky enough to do, you begin to see that there were in fact a plethora of white dresses from this period – many of which were cut in mainstream styles. Let’s think about it logically… you are a fashionable Victorian woman, ca. 1860, who wouldn’t be caught dead in public without proper undergarments (corset, crinoline, etc.). It is summer. It is hot. What colour are you going to wear? And won’t you also pick a light, frothy fabric like muslin that won’t weigh you down even more than you already are?
Just as many of us still see white as a ‘summer’ colour, this was the case with Victorian dress. So while colour can certainly signify Aesthetic (sage green, sunflower yellow, etc.), I don’t think white can necessarily give us that definitive clue. With white dresses, I’ve started to look more carefully at the cut, and perhaps more specifically the styling, to try and think about whether a dress might be classified as Aesthetic, Artistic, or both.
This isn’t to say that white dresses aren’t an important part of studying Artistic Dress, they have in fact featured prominently in my research.
To begin, I think the original ‘Woman in White’ from this period was Watts’ Portrait of Sophia Dalrymple. Dalrymple, one of the famed and beauteous Pattle sisters (which included Julia Margaret Cameron), enjoyed an element of priviledged freedom in the upper class but artsy home of her sister, Sarah Prinsep, at Little Holland House. (The Pattles are central to my own research, but for now, if you are intrigued to know more, I’ll refer you to Caroline Dakers’ excellent book The Holland Park Circle.) From my thesis:
…as early as 1851, Watts painted Sophia Dalrymple in a flowing white gown, more than a decade before other famous paintings of women in white, such as Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl of 1864 [fig 3], or Rossetti’s Lady Lilith of 1864-68 [fig. 5], and yet the Holland Park Circle has not been given much consideration in literature on the origins of Aesthetic Dress. And Watts’ was not the only ‘woman in white’ portrait of this era: in 1858-9, future Holland Park resident and Royal Academy president Frederic Leighton painted his favourite model, the exotic Italian Nanna Risi, in a full sleeved pristinely white garment in Pavonia [fig. 1 above].
What is particularly noteworthy in studying many of these depictions of women in white – and where the portrait examples here depart from Kirsty’s example – is that most are ‘uncrinolined’, as contemporaries put it. It is in fact this ‘uncrinolined’ state which has given the female wearers of Artistic Dress their rather bohemian reputation. What follows is an excerpt from PhD chapter three (Artistic Dress and Second-Wave Pre-Raphaelitism), titled ‘(Uncrinolined) Women in White’, which discusses this form of styling as well as the possible symbolic implications of white:
In her 1889 autobiography, the poet Mary Howitt described a studio party given by Rossetti in 1861:
The uncrinolined women, with their wild hair, which was very beautiful, their picturesque dress and rich colouring, looking like figures out of the pre-Raphaelite pictures… I can think of it now like some hot struggling dream, in which the gorgeous and fantastic forms moved slowly about. They seemed all so young and kindred to each other, that I felt as if I were out of my place, though I admired them all.
In February 1862, George du Maurier described a visit paid to him by his friend ‘Jimmy’ Whistler, and his mistress (and model) Joanna Hiffernan:
Joe came with him to me on the Monday afternoon, got up like a duchess, without crinoline—the mere making up of her bonnet by Madame somebody or other in Paris cost 50 fr. And Jimmy describes all the Parisians on the boulevard as aghast at ‘la belle Anglaise!’
Here, at the start of this decade, we have two instances where models – women entrenched in artistic circles – are publicly seen without their crinolines. As evidenced in the images of the Pattle sisters during the 1850s, this was not a new, but a growing trend amongst this set… Pre-Raphaelite painting also depicts uncrinolined costume, but the historic and literary subject matter (in essence, fantasy) allowed for these liberties. Watts’ 1851 portrait of Sophia Dalrymple, however, pushes these boundaries in that the distinction is blurred between a possibly classically attired subject, and an intimate contemporary portrait. Is Dalrymple in costume, or is she simply dressed in the kind of garments she and her sisters wore in their intimate circle? Was the costume of art bleeding into life at the start of the 1860s, as these quotes suggest?
It was an exciting time to be in Holland Park, as was discovered by a new denizen of the circle: James McNeill Whistler. After seeing Whistler’s At the Piano (1858-59) at the Royal Academy, Watts brought him to the attention of Luke Ionides, the now adult son of Watt’s early patron Alexander Ionides. Through this connection, Whistler began to gain commissions from – and thereby entrance to – the Holland Park Circle. There, he would have seen at least paintings of women in white, Watts’ portrait of Dalrymple and possibly Leighton’s portrait of his favourite model Nanna Risi as Pavonia. Perhaps following in their footsteps after spending time at Little Holland House, Whistler also painted Hiffernan in a white gown, but certainly with a more daring edge. Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (fig. 3), painted during the winter of 1861-62, shows her in a simple white dress falling straight to the floor, ‘uncrinolined’ and with ‘wild hair’, much like the descriptions in the aforementioned quotations. Alongside Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’hérbe, it caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, for the depiction of her was surely a signifier of her fallen state.
In terms of symbolism, The White Girl has been discussed in numerous other places—in particular, the signification of her white dress, from its alignment to virginal purity to its relationship to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, published just two years prior, has been of interest. In terms of costume, it was given careful attention alongside Whistler’s other two ‘symphony’ portraits of Hiffernan in white, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864) [fig. 4] and Symphony in White No. 3 (1865-67), in Patricia de Montfort’s 2003 essay ‘White Muslin: Joanna Hiffernan and the 1860s.’ Drawing connections between these depictions and domesticity, rather than the typical ‘fall from grace’, de Montfort points to the deliberate choice of fabric colour in relation to Whistler’s own aesthetics:
Cambric, the finely woven linen Whistler used in The White Girl, and muslin, a sheer plain-weave cotton of soft textureused for Hiffernan’s dress in The Little White Girl, are fabrics associated with modesty and home life rather than showy public display. In 1864 white was the antithesis of the new chemically produced aniline dyes in colors such as electric blue and magenta, popular for modish outdoor and day wear… Whistler sought out the appropriate fabric to create the luminescent effect he desired.
Furthermore, the dress in The White Girl evokes a sense of modesty in its high neckline and long sleeves, which is not far removed from respectable conventions of the time. It is the styling, however, which raises eyebrows, the loose hair, the lack of supportive undergarments. But it is worth considering whether the ‘whiteness’ of this dress renders it more respectable – and perhaps even ‘artistic’ rather than scandalous, even though it is worn in such a fashion. In terms of the signification of the dress, another ‘white girl’ painted in the same year makes for an interesting comparison: Rossetti’s Lady Lilith [fig. 5], which was, in fact, painted for Frederick R. Leyland, a patron who would become critical for Whistler in the coming years.
Rossetti’s painting depicts Lilith, the original ‘fallen woman’, at her toilette, and was modelled first by Fanny Cornforth, and then Rossetti later repainted the face with that of Alexa Wilding. She is depicted en déshabillé at her dressing table, surrounded by symbolic flowers as she combs out her rich red hair. Lilith is dressed in a loose white gown save for a red ribbon wrapped about her wrist, which falls suggestively along her lap. White roses surround her, with a single, large red poppy rising prominently in front of her in the lower right. All of these suggest the complex purity/impurity Venus connotations of this first wife of Adam. Although Rossetti’s intention is to depict a ‘Modern Lilith’, the fantastical aspects of his rendering of space relate a more timeless aspect.
In contrast, both of Whistler’s white girls present such complexity in a somewhat more subversive manner, and through the use of less-revealing Victorian dresses, and more contemporary, recognisable spaces, which are of course suitable in that they are contemporary subjects rather than a historical motif. However, both The Little White Girl and Lady Lilith have a similar inventory of objects: mirrors, flowers, and a decorative vase. But whereas Rossetti’s is an undefined, almost claustrophobic space, Whistler presents us with an elegant example of Japonisme that would have been much more familiar and comfortable to the Victorian viewer (despite the ‘vague sense of time and place’ Whistler creates) – a real scene, as it was painted in Whistler and Hiffernan’s own dining room in their house on Lindsey Row. One final, important touch separates the Little White Girl from Lilith: the former wears a wedding band, which we are visually drawn to by her gaze and the positioning of her finger on the mantle.
It could be argued that both artists use the white dresses symbolically to raise questions about the sexual state of the subject. In each case, the white dress is entrenched in the symbolism of the painting, and as such become little more than another prop for artistic expression. But perhaps that is a way to think about the same dresses as worn by these women in their real-world social interactions? Would Joanna Hiffernan, so exquisitely (if controversially) articulated by Whistler’s hand in these images, not wish to be seen as the White Girl ‘in the flesh’, as it were? In particular, being from a working class background, a certain self-fashioning – a sense of artistic style – would perhaps be the thing that admitted her to the aforementioned social circles Whistler inhabited.
It would possibly be ill-conceived to consider these works as examples of Hiffernan’s personal sartorial codes, were it not for Du Maurier’s observations, the Victorian cut of the garments, and perhaps one final bit of visual evidence: in Whistler’s 1865-6 painting The Artist in his Studio (fig. 6), Hiffernan reclines in the dress from The White Girl (or one very similar), casually chatting with another model holding a Japanese fan and wearing a loose pale pink gown reminiscent of a kimono. It evokes the sense of a moment captured (albeit clearly posed and conceived by the artist) which allows us to consider that this might be an example of her style, either of her own doing or at the hands of Whistler.
And the dresses are not historic (or fantasy) costume, but examples of actual Victorian garments.
In fact, de Montfort identifies a dress very near identical to the one in The Little White Girl, in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York (identified by De Montfort in the catalogue Whistler, Women and Fashion) [fig. 7]. The dress is of bleached linen tarlatan, with ruched sleeves and bodice, likely a day dress made for walking in the summer months. The full skirt would have certainly been worn with a crinoline. In Whistler’s painting, however, we can see from the fall of the skirt in the painting that Hiffernan posed without crinoline; the ruched fabric provides what fullness is there. Is this, perhaps, an example of what du Maurier witnessed? She is without crinoline in the other symphonies, as well as The Artist in his Studio. Whistler, like Rossetti, was very interested in the fall of drapery, something which the ballooning effect of hoops or crinoline would have detrimentally marred. Is it too great a leap (perhaps too lacking in feminist principles) to suggest that the women who associated with these artists would have shared such aesthetics – whether under the influence of the ‘male gaze’, or through their own senses of beauty and comfort?
But to return to the styling of the models, the white dresses are in my view representative of developing Artistic fashion, and as well foreshadowing the coming demise of the bell skirt. Hiffernan wears them sans crinoline, just as Pre-Raphaelite women in the 1860s were doing in studio parties, and the Pattle sisters doing in their ‘At Homes’ from the 1850s on … The complex relations between artist and model, male and female, woman and muse, were crafting an intriguing dynamic whereby garments of costume were becoming garments of use.
Perhaps that is the case in Kirsty’s painting. If this work was indeed painted towards the end of the century, we would have been well into the phase where ‘costume’ (as we understand the term today), and Artistic Dress, had influenced mainstream dress to the extent that such a garment might be worn by a fashionable-but-mainstream lady, with just a touch of bohemian in her soul.
 We see what is likely the same garment as an undertunic in Leighton’s A Roman Lady (La Nanna) [Philadelphia Museum of Art], painted around the same time.
 Mary Botham Howitt and Margaret Howitt, Mary Howitt: Volume 2: An Autobiography (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
 Margaret F MacDonald, “East and West: Sources and Influences,” in Whistler, Women, & Fashion, ed. Aileen Ribiero, Margaret MacDonald, and Susan Grace Galassi (New York: The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2003), 85.
 See for example Robin Spencer, “Whistler’s ‘The White Girl’: Painting, Poetry and Meaning,” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 140, no. No. 1142 (May 1998): 300–311.
 Patricia de Montfort, “White Muslin: Joanna Hiffernan and the 1860s,” in Whistler, Women, & Fashion, ed. Aileen Ribiero, Margaret MacDonald, and Susan Grace Galassi (New York: The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2003), 77–91.
This post is a bit more personal, inspired by a brief moment I had at work this week.
I haven’t yet made the official ‘I’m a Doctor!’ post because, in all honestly, it’s all happened so fast that I don’t think it has actually sunk in. I’ve celebrated properly with drinks & friends, but I haven’t rushed to change my title at the bank. Life just keeps ticking on. It did occur to me, however, that while I thanked everyone including my local café in my acknowledgements, I did forget to extend my gratitude to one unusual source: Mrs Frances Leyland. Or rather, her gorgeous portrait, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink, Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, painted by James McNeill Whistler.
It was nearly a decade ago, around New Year’s Eve 2002, that I was wandering the Frick and stumbled upon her. It was a point in my life where I was questioning many things: my job, my relationship, whether I wanted to continue living on the West Coast. After a museum career focused on children’s and science centres, I missed my first love, art history. The trip to New York – a place I hadn’t been in many years – underscored this vacancy.
But as an undergrad, I’d been focused on the Renaissance. I didn’t even discover the Pre-Raphaelites until my last term, and their own interest in topics like Dante captured my fancy. But I hated Whistler. I found him incredibly boring.
So when I rounded that corner and turned to see Mrs Leyland poised so elegantly in a frothy pink gown, I was a bit flabbergasted. It was one of those moments, when you connect with a work, with its sheer beauty, and your head begins to buzz. I didn’t recognise it was Whistler, because I knew little of him, and was very surprised – chagrined even – when I read the label. When I could tear myself away, I moved to look at the other figures in the room, including her husband F.R. Leyland and Lady Meux. I found them beautiful, but they didn’t quite hold the power of Mrs Leyland.
I spent a great deal of time in that room, almost until closing. It was evening, and there was a string quartet in the courtyard, so I’m certain that lent some magic and romance to my musing. I’ll leave aside some other more personal contributing factors, but in short, I left the Frick that night knowing it was time to return to my study of art.
On my way out, I noticed a poster for an upcoming exhibit, Whistler, Women and Fashion. I was sorry I wouldn’t be in New York for it, but I ordered the catalogue as soon as I returned home to the Pacific Northwest.
Fast forward a decade. When I moved to Glasgow, it was to study Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. But it was a different Margaret MacDonald who induced me to stay. I hadn’t known the the University had the holdings of Whistler’s estate, nor even that the Curator of that fantastic exhibit – the other Margaret – was ensconced at the University of Glasgow. I didn’t know she and I would get on like a house on fire, and that she be willing to take me on and be such a shrewd and kind mentor. And I certainly didn’t know, that night almost a decade ago, that the vision of Mrs Leyland would put me on this extraordinary path.
This week, while at work doing some editing for the Whistler Etchings Project, I found myself, once again gazing at the same poster I’d seen at the Frick. It is pinned on a wall in the project office. I turned to Margaret – busy editing etching catalogue entries herself – and said ‘She’s the reason I’m here, you know.’ And I briefly related my tale. She smiled and said that Mrs Leyland was the reason she was still there also. That essentially, through her many years of research, that painting, the beauty of it, was one of the things that kept her going as well. I guess it is just one of those exquisite works that, when things begin to get challenging, tedious, or frustrating, you can look at and say ‘Oh yes, that is why I do this.’
And I should add, to keep this on ‘blog topic’, that the dress – oh, the dress! – certainly makes an appearance in my research. It is brief, for those who wrote about it in the exhibition catalogue, particularly Frick Curator (and exhibit co-Curator) Susan Grace Galassi, did a fantastically thorough job. The Tea Gown Mrs Leyland wears was in fact designed by Whistler, he left many sketches of its development. An excerpt from my research:
The pastels show Whistler experimenting with different styles for the dress, incorporating historicised details such as standing collars, puffed sleeves, and the Watteau pleat which is the focus of the final painting, but which does not appear in all of the sketches. Several of the sketches show the front of the gown as having the material crossing diagonally over the bodice, as a fichu might; whether this is the case in the final garment, we cannot tell. In one sketch, Whistler designed the skirt in elaborate flounces tucked up with rosettes. Although he experiments with lemon yellow and orange accent colours, the material is always diaphanous. We do not know the order of the drawings, as they are undated, nor do we know who exactly constructed the gown, and when (although there are some instructional notes made in French on some of the drawings). It would be interesting to know how much the selection of material shaped the final garment, which is viewed from the back and arranged in a graceful waterfall of pale pink silk chiffon, accented with blossoms to balance the ones appearing on the branches entering the canvas at left.
Although we cannot see the whole gown, we can tell that it is comprised of a long-sleeved robe of chiffon, a mass of it gathered between the shoulder blades in a Watteau pleat, but the rest of it a single sheer layer. It is worn over a sleeveless white underdress, leaving the bare skin of the arms visible under the sheer sleeves, which are bound with a golden brown cord from a rosette at the shoulder, then wound down to be tied at the wrist. It is further trimmed with rosettes on the bottom of the train, but whether these are accurately depicted or artfully arranged accents of Whistler’s brush is uncertain. The model’s hands are clasped behind her back, her head turned, and her neck exposed. Galassi notes, ‘In Japanese dress, the back of the neck—considered an erogenous zone—is often revealed.’ This form of draping, evocative of a kimono, underpins much of Whistler’s aesthetic taste in women’s vestments, and in what he preferred to pose them. In light of his amorous nature, the erotic aspect of these garments certainly was not lost on him.
We sadly don’t know who made this dress in the end, or what happened to it. I myself question whether it was even wearable in public, or concocted merely for the fancy of paint and canvas. It is sensuous, suggestive, alluring, and not at all the thing to be worn on the street! But this is part of the painting’s seduction, and an element of the overall ‘Symphony’ which continues to draw me (and others) in, and wonder…
So thank you Mrs Leyland… well, ok, to be fair, thank you Mr Whistler… for making such an exquisite Symphony that would inspire me to follow my own heart’s desire.
 Susan Grace Galassi, “Whistler and Aesthetic Dress: Mrs Frances Leyland,” in Whistler, Women, & Fashion, ed. Margaret F. MacDonald, Susan Grace Galassi and Aileen Ribiero (New York: The Frick Collection and Yale University Press, 2003), 114.
I had an outraged email from my friend and fellow researcher in fashion history, Emily, regarding this 2008 post on the MTV website. Their caption for the image above states: Thomas Gainsborough’s “Mrs.Charles Hatchett” exemplifies the Victorian style used by steampunkers today.
I’ll set aside my own rants and quote Em here, who says it all, really:
How does a GAINSBOROUGH portrait from 1786 exemplify VICTORIAN fashion used by steampunk. How?? How does it do this?
If ever evidence were needed of MTV idiocy… dear god, Thomas G is writhing in his grave. Not to mention Mrs Hatchett. And a whole host of Victorians who wouldn’t have been seen dead with such a peculiar hairstyle. Although it has curious affiliations with mullet perms of circa 1980 something…
Indeed. Furthermore the second photograph is NOT Steampunk! It is some glammed-up pseudo-18th century concoction of some couture stylist, and kind of interesting, but certainly not Steampunk. Now, I will refrain from an in-depth analysis of what Steampunk IS, but for those readers who may not know, a quick google will fix this, as will a quick trip to steampunk.com. Also, I welcome great links in the comments below.
But I thought this worth mentioning here for two reasons. First, it shows the value of not just a basic education in art and fashion history, but in history in general (1786 = Victorian?!). Secondly, I am in fact very interested in these anachronistic interventions in contemporary fashion, and how this might be seen as a continuation of Artistic Dress. From the PhD conclusion:
On 5 September 2008, the exhibition Gothic: Dark Glamour opened at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Curated by fashion historian Valerie Steele, it was the first in-depth critical and historical analysis of ‘Goth’ fashion from subculture to a highly theatrical and artistic mode of dress and self-expression. The exhibition and accompanying text trace the ‘genealogy of the gothic sensibility’ over the past three centuries through various cultural phenomena, including the gothic novel, the Romantic and Decadent movements, Victorian mourning dress, German Expressionist cinema, the Hollywood horror film, and the development of the Goth music genre over the past 25 years. In exploring the history of this alternative sartorial movement, Gothic: Dark Glamour reveals the critical influence of the Victorian era to Goth fashion, citing several sources of inspiration which were likewise influential to nineteenth century artistic practices: medieval art and architecture; d’Aurevilly’s and Baudelaire’s writings on fashion and Dandyism; the transition of costume (fancy dress) into couture; interest in exoticism; and, perhaps most notably, the English fashion for wearing black.
The non-normative perception of contemporary alternative fashion trends, such as those exhibited in Gothic: Dark Glamour, is not a new phenomenon, and in fact echoes the reception of Artistic Dress in the nineteenth century. This, coupled with the shared sources of inspiration, suggests the importance and relevance of Artistic Dress as a catalyst for an increasingly avant-garde mode of sartorial self-expression that continues into the present day.
I’m a big fan of Valerie Steele’s approach, and she will no doubt get many a mention on these pages. But for anyone interested in this subject, I highly recommend checking out the exhibit site, and the catalogue is fantastic. Particularly as she places the amazing couture of designers like McQueen (and let’s all take a minute to swoon over their Autumn/Winter 2012 Collection, an example is below) with the likes of Indie/goth designers like Kambriel (image above), who has, all on her own internet-based savvy, earned loyal clients like Neil Gaiman and (quintessential Steampunk) Amanda Palmer–and who, it should be noted, makes excellent Steampunk ensembles. I remember chatting with Kambriel several years ago on LiveJournal, and she is a lovely and talented woman – I’m glad she is doing so well!
I just thought this was an interesting tidbit, and worth sharing and thinking about these two examples of people getting it completely wrong, and very right. And I hope whoever wrote that nonsense at MTV has long been dismissed.
 Valerie Steele, Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press, 2008).
Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Siddal, artist, poet, and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. To honour this, events were held at the gorgeous Highgate Cemetary where she is buried, notably talks by Jane Marsh and Lucinda Hawksley. I would have loved to attend, but alas, I am in the PhD death throes. However, my friend Verity Holloway (a brilliant young scholar in her own right, not to mention more than a little bit of a Stunner) was fortunate enough to be there, and wrote a lovely review and reflection of the event.
Lizzie plays a key role in my research, and was one of the more interesting items to pursue. Sadly I am lacking in time to share more about this now, but I’ll say this: like many before me, I have learned that the myth from the canvases was not the woman. She was talented, witty, shrewd, and likely no shrinking violet. No one recognised this better than Rossetti’s own sister, Christina, and I’ll be a bit cliché and post her famous poem on the subject here:
In the Artist’s Studio
One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel — every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
One of my favourite Victorian paintings is a bit of a standalone in that it is not made by one of my favourite painters. Don’t get me wrong, Frith is certainly a great talent, and works like The Railway Station certainly deserve some extended gazing. But I simply love A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 for reasons that might be obvious to those interested in the subject of this blog; but also simply as a Victorian fangirl – oh to be amongst that crowd!
Frith has included some truly wonderful examples of Aesthetic Dress, which were all the rage at the time of painting, 1882-83. One of the main problems I am addressing in my research are definitions of these classifications of dress, particularly between Artistic and Aesthetic Dress, which are often used interchangeably. Without going in to too much detail just now (I’ll save this discussion for a longer entry later), I’ll simply state that I think Aesthetic Dress ‘happens’ in a very specific time and place, logically during the period when Aestheticism was a popular trend, roughly 1870-85 (and I do mean roughly). Frith’s painting records this, and it was one of those ‘must include’ examples in my research. There is a well-repeated quote from Frith’s biography that he made this painting specifically to record the ‘aesthetic craze’, but I was interested to read the longer account of it in his Reminiscences (1888):
Seven years ago certain ladies delighted to display themselves at public gatherings in what are called æsthetic dresses; in some cases the costumes were pretty enough, in others they seemed to rival each other in ugliness of form and oddity of color. There were – and still are, I believe—preachers of æstheticism in dress; but I think, and hope, that the preaching is much less effective than it used to be. The contrast between the really beautiful costumes of some of the lady habituées of our private view and the eccentric garments of others, together with the opportunity offered for portraits of eminent persons, suggested a subject for a picture, and I hastened to avail myself for it. Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him. He is supposed to be explaining his theories to willing ears, taking some picture on the Academy walls for his text.
That ‘apostle of the beautiful,’ seen in the foreground at centre right, is of course Oscar Wilde, who in 1881 was a new neighbour to James McNeill Whistler & Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Chelsea. By the time the painting was displayed, however, Wilde had already conducted his lecture tour of America in service of Gilbert & Sullivan’s satirical operetta Patience, which famously lampooned Aestheticism (which was unfamiliar to Americans, thus Wilde was sent to ‘educate’ them, ostensibly so they understood the farce). Frith surrounds Wilde, who is still in his bachelor days, with adoring ladies who seem to hang on his every word. The gathering would have no doubt caused Wilde’s more sceptical critics to chuckle when it was displayed in 1883.
Frith’s painting echoes the kind of reportage seen in fashionable magazines of the day, which catalogued in great detail the clothing seen at social events like private views. In addition to capturing a quintessential gallery opening, Frith achieved his goal of ‘recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress’ by rendering three excellent examples of ladies’ Aesthetic Dress, which were surely painted from life (more on this below). At left, two ladies are presented in green and ochre (along with a child in an earthy orange dress with matching bonnet), all natural colours lauded in Aesthetic circles. The woman at left wears a golden ochre gown shaped by loose pleats, and styled so that it is gathered up to reveal an ivory ruffled satin underskirt. The green dress worn by the woman at right is a nod to a more medieval style, with sleeves that are puffed and slashed at the top then tight to the wrist; a low, square décolletage over a high-collared chemise; and a long, comparatively straight skirt with a castellated hem. Her dress is accessorised with a sunflower to match the gold trim, and she wears a dark green velvet beret-like cap.
One of Wilde’s admirers wears the third and perhaps most unique of the dresses. Seen from the back, it employs a Watteau pleat which, rather than trailing over the long train of the Princess-line gown, is looped up through a strap that cleverly buttons to the side of the skirt. The sleeves are ruched above and below the elbow, and loose at the shoulder and elbow, which is both pleasing to the eye and functional in providing freedom of movement. The gown is otherwise unadorned, the warm salmon tone and the draping of the fabric itself providing the only ornamentation.
In placing these unique gowns side by side with more traditional Victorian ladies’ dress, with their hourglass corseted figures and pronounced bustles, this painting demonstrates the differences between mainstream and Aesthetic fashion that would cause further debate in the 1880s. As well, Frith hints at the mounting strain within the artistic circles themselves. Wilde is dressed in an earthy brown suit, much like that of Leighton (who stands at the very centre, his back to us), but he has a signature lily tucked in his buttonhole as a nod to his Aesthetic tendencies. He does, however, also wear a silk top hat like many of the other proper gentlemen (an item he would later criticise), perhaps most notably like the older, more conservative John Everett Millais (at far right). We cannot read too much into Wilde’s placement midway between Leighton and Millais; although Leighton became the President of the Royal Academy in 1878, Frith wasn’t to know Millais would be his successor, even if briefly, upon Leighton’s death in early 1896 (Millais died later that year). However, Wilde’s costume as rendered by Frith, and as well Frith’s intention for representing him as noted above, seems to almost foreshadow the coming debates of the mid-1880s Wilde would engage in, very publicly, with Whistler on dress and the arbitration of taste. Furthermore, Frith’s comments in his autobiography, made in 1888, echo Whistler’s jibes at Wilde (though he didn’t call him by name) made in his famous Ten O’Clock lecture in 1885.
In his Reminiscences, Frith also includes comments on his experience with a model, Jenny Trip, in his recollections of making this work, who he employed to pose for one of the aesthetic ladies. He states that he was not a great employer of models, and only did so for the aesthetes, which reveals that although the more famous people sat for him, he did not recruit ‘actual aesthetes’ for these figures, but composed them himself. I found the exchange rather engaging, and thought I might repeat it here:
Miss Trip was a trial to me. Never did she ‘come to her time.’ Her conversational powers were nil. Nothing that I could say seemed to interest her in the slightest degree, and, unless I spoke, silence reigned. She had a pretty, pensive face, on which a smile seemed as much out of place as it would be on the face of a mute at a funeral. This most provoking smile was more especially irritating when it was the only reply to a terrific scolding.
‘What is your father?’ said I to her one day, when she came into my studio two hours late.
‘He is a stoker on the Chatham and Dover line.’
‘How early does he get to his work?’
‘He goes out at five in the morning.’
‘Indeed,’ said I; ‘and his daughter—that is you—cannot get to your work by ten. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’
Not a word of excuse. She smiled. I made a mental vow that, once the æsthete was finished, my acquaintance with Miss Trip should finish too. That happy moment came at last; there was but little to do, and for that little my smiling friend was not absolutely necessary.
‘As you find it impossible to get here by ten, perhaps you can come at two to-morrow?’
She said she could, and smiled.
I then told my servant that unless the young lady was within a quarter of an hour of the time fixed, she was not to be admitted.
I allowed two o’clock to pass, and at three, my servant happening to come into my room, I asked after Miss Jenny Trip.
‘She has just been, and gone again, sir.’
‘What did she say when you told her you had orders to send her away because she was after her time?’
‘She didn’t say anything, sir; she only smiled.’
It is probably wrong of me, but after that tale, I find I rather like Miss Jenny Trip.
You can read Frith’s recollections of painting ‘The Private View’, and the rest of his Reminscences, at archive.org.
 William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1888), 441.
Much of my research deals with trying to clarify a definition for Artistic Dress, as it has been treated in vague and conflicting manners. I was interested to note that the Berg Fashion Library now has a brief definition for it, where it was not included in their recent ‘Companion to Fashion’ publication (rather, Aesthetic Dress was the main inclusion in this area). Berg’s concise definition isn’t too far from what I am trying to establish, although mine is of course crazy-PhD sized. But for the record, Berg states:
Source: Berg Dictionary of Fashion History
(F, occasionally M)
Period: 1848–ca. 1900.
The influence of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of painters founded in 1848 by Holman Hunt, Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, on clothing was reflected later by Walter Crane: ‘…the dress of women in our own time may be seen to have been transformed for a while, and, though the pendulum of fashion swings to and fro, it does not much affect, except in small details, a distinct type of dress which has become associated with artistic people…’ (1894, Aglaia, p. 7). The ideal pre-Raphaelite woman had thick, softly curling hair, a pale complexion, strong features and a taste for unstructured garments in natural colours. This alternative style, one of the first successful movements antithetical to fashion, continued and evolved, and was caricatured and satirized, but the ideas of comfort and timeless elegance influenced designers such as Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny in the 20th century.
In my research I have been able to look at some amazing things. Studying Victorian fashion, and getting to go into museum collections and unwrap amazing gowns and look at them, is better than Christmas. But one of the most fascinating objects I’ve been able to study is The Fan. More on this later, but for now, just a picture.