From Tea Gowns to Buffet Dresses

Can we embrace these food-themed fashions for their beauty, rather than because they hide our curves?

Welcome to a post I started ages ago, and never finished off. So while the inspiration isn’t so ‘timely’, it is still a topic I’ve been stewing on (food pun intended) for some time.

This past Spring saw the very welcome return of The Great British Sewing Bee, which for the uninitiated, follows much the same format at The Great British Bake-Off: 3 challenges (corollaries: signature/pattern, technical/transformation, showstopper/made-to-measure), cheeky banter, and loads of tension. One ‘garment of the week’ (star baker), and one exit. The GBSB week 1 theme was ‘Wardrobe Staples’, and Sewists had 5 hours to create a made-to-measure Buffet Dress. Never heard of that? Me either! While 19th century fashion is my specialty, I’m not usually so switched off. Host Joe Lycett explained:

The loose-fitting Buffet Dress became a monster hit on the high street in 2019, and has since sold in the hundreds of thousands…


One contestant, Cathryn, a postal worker and former dinner lady, was more on trend than I, as she explained: ‘It’s been very popular with those who’ve been having some extra treats and things because we’ve been isolated.’ Cathryn is also, like me, a huge David Bowie fan and has a cat named Ziggy Stardust, so I totally trust her.

But looking at all the patterns, and finished dresses (which I won’t spoil here), it was apparent that a ‘Buffet Dress’ was the same thing as a Maxi Dress. Or possibly a smock. And when I ran shamefully to the internet to try and discern the origins of this tantalising term, I was relieved that many, many other people had never heard of a Buffet Dress before, including the brilliant Deborah Sugg Ryan.

I even asked at a recent 19th Century Dress and Textiles Reframed ‘At Home’ event – a respectable gathering of dress historians from all over the globe – if anyone had heard of a ‘buffet dress’. The response was a resounding no, with one exception of someone from Australia who said it had been a popular beach dress recently. So where does this come from?

Foodie Fashion

This is not the first time in fashion history that a woman’s desire for comfort – and food – has been linked to dress typologies. Tea Gowns were born for just such a purpose. Many dress historians state the Tea Gown became a ‘thing’ in the 1870s, according to popular press. However, its origins are a bit older and murkier than that, inspired by the beauty of highly collectable Chinese robes and Japanese kimnonos, and alongside the Artistic Dress of circles such as the Pattle Sisters. Watts’ Portrait of Sophia Dalrymple (1851) certainly depicts a precursor to a Tea Gown, its loose, unstructured form designed to be worn privately, perhaps during the ‘At Homes’ hosted by Sarah (Pattle) Prinsep’s at Little Holland House in Holland Park, London.

G.F. Watts, Sophia Dalrymple, 1851-53, oil on canvas, 198 x 78.7 cm. Collection: Watts Gallery, Compton [COMWG.200].

Equally, the dress James McNeil Whistler designed for Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink, Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland has been referred to as an example of an early tea gown – though I have questioned whether this dress, in the end, was even ‘real’ (as in, was it assembled in a manner that was robust enough to be worn out in the world, or was it an ensemble of fabric made for modelling?).

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133

Certainly by the end of the 19th century, the tea gown was a popular form of dress amongst those that afford it, as evidenced by examples from Liberty’s catalogues:

Liberty ‘Valeria’ Gown, from Liberty & Co, “Liberty” Art (dress) Fabrics & Personal Specialities.1886; National Art Library, V&A.
Liberty ‘Francesca’ Gown, 1902. from Liberty & Co. Ltd., “Liberty” Costumes, Spring and Summer Designs, 1902; National Art Library, V&A.

Although the Tea Gown continues to be a term for a kind of ‘afternoon’ dress into the 20th century, these earlier draped assemblages were closely linked to the Victorian design movement known as Aestheticism. It was a holistic approach to design, a way of living and life really, that centred on the simple premise that surrounding oneself with beautiful things, including wearing beautiful clothes, showed that one was a beautiful person. On the surface, this sounds rather frivolous, but it was actually a much more nuanced philosophy that such aesthetics were a reflection of one’s interior self – their very soul, in fact. These lofty ideals will be the focus of a different post – I promise! – but to keep on topic, the Tea Gown, simply stated, is the comfortable and beautiful garment one might don for entertaining at home, notably when having companions over for tea. There are numerous extant examples in public collections – particularly as the House of Worth began producing them especially for the American market at the end of the 19th century. Here is a very small Pinterest board with just a few examples:

LATE EDIT: I completely missed that my wonderful friend & colleague Abby Cox did a whole fab video on tea gowns, featuring one from her own collection, a couple months ago! Please take some time to look at this, it’s great stuff!

So if a Tea Gown was a comfortable dress to be worn at home while enjoying one’s tea; the Buffet dress is the comfortable garment to be worn out into the world after you’ve eaten ALL THE THINGS, if the internet and Sewing Bee are to be believed. A search for ‘buffet dress’ now returns a bazillion hits, but one of the the earliest posts I found is from January 2019, which talks about it as if it is already a trend: a loose flowy dress perfect for hiding the hideous pounds one gained on Christmas cheese and chocolate. Because of course, whether being festive or weathering a pandemic, women must always HIDE even a few pounds of weight gain, right?

Buffet Dress by – WEDNESDAY DRESS, Ditsy floral printed oversized ankle length dress with gathered detailing, dropped shoulders, a round neck line, pleated knot tie cuff and lantern sleeves. With pockets. Shown here with Hampton boots.

I don’t mean to be a hypocrite – as a fat woman who grew up in the 70s/80s, I have long been a proponent of roomy clothes. In fact, too loose, too baggy – stuff that might ‘hide’ my shape, but fairly shouts that I’m not happy with my body. I am nearing 50 years on the planet, and only recently have I started to embrace clothes that fit me. But before I digress too far into my own personal history of being uncomfortable in my body, a popular pastime for pretty much every woman alive, my love of ‘flowy’ dresses isn’t solely down to my desire to conceal my form. Equally at play is the the desire for comfort, and the beauty of the fall of fabric. And that’s perhaps why I fell in love with Artistic Dress, particularly in the form of a Tea Gown. The irony of my attraction to food-themed garments is not lost on me, especially as I sit in a cafe writing this while side-eyeing the scones. How nice would it be, though, if we could simply embrace these beautiful dresses for love of form and design, rather than because they hide our curves?

I’ve more to say but as I feel this post is already ‘past its prime’, here is an article on Buffet Dresses from the Telegraph dated 4 July 2021. Given that I started writing this post in April, I’ll take this as a cautionary tale to not let things sit until they go stale – who likes staleness in their teas or buffets after all?

Bonus: if this post made you hungry, please check our my recipes, especially my lovely wonderful scones!

Now Showing: Artistic Dress, Watts & Morris

Unknown (possibly H.T. Prinsep), Sarah Prinsep and G.F. Watts, ca. 1850s. Copy photograph from an Emery Walker negative. National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 953/8].
Unknown (possibly H.T. Prinsep), Sarah Prinsep and G.F. Watts, ca. 1850s. Copy photograph from an Emery Walker negative. National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 953/8].

Two rather exciting exhibits related to Artistic Dress have just opened in the London area: Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits at the Watts Gallery; and Yinke Shonibare MBE: The William Morris Family Album at the William Morris Gallery. As I am currently ensconced across the pond, I cannot yet review these exhibits, but am very excited to see them. But today I was pointed to posts on each of these that I feel reflect some of the problems in discussing, and understanding, Artistic Dress.

A moment, while I adjust my soapbox.

One of the larger issues I wrestle with in my research, which I’ve mentioned in this blog before, is the way in which ‘Artistic’ and ‘Aesthetic’ are used interchangeably in both Victorian literature and discussions since. In some ways this might be a semantic debate not worth tackling, but I actually find the problem interesting because it reveals that alternative sartorial practices amongst artistic circles were much more diverse than is often thought. This is one of the reasons why I have deliberately chosen to give primacy to the term Artistic Dress in my research, as I feel it reflects a broader approach to these fashions. It includes Aestheticism, but also some of the socio-political aspects of Reform dress. It also encompasses earlier styles that have been referred to as ‘Pre-Raphaelite Dress’ (I’ve written a little about this here); and later styles that gave way to the freer fashions of the early 20th century. Artistic Dress encompassed a range of approaches to fashion, and in my opinion, individuals that were proponents Aesthetic Dress in particular seemed to be very concerned with crafting a look that was not just reflective of creative sensibilities, but also made to be seen, in public.

It is for this reason that I struggle with positioning Jane Morris as a scion of Aesthetic Dress, as this brief post by the William Morris Gallery implies when it says:

Jane and the other women of the Aesthetic Movement established a new style of dress that made the unconventional fashionable and paved the way for women’s bodies finally being released from restrictive clothing.

John Parsons, Jane Morris posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 7 July 1865. Albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative, 253 x 200 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum [820-1942].
John Parsons, Jane Morris posed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 7 July 1865. Albumen print from wet collodion-on-glass negative, 253 x 200 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum [820-1942].

This is not the first account to lay credit to Morris; one of the Tudor house photos (above), taken by Parsons and styled by Rossetti, in fact illustrates the entry for ‘Aesthetic Dress’ in the Berg Companion to Fashion. The problem here is that close examination reveals that the two dresses she wears in these photos are not radical new modes of fashion: one is modelling costume, the other is a standard Victorian dress. Both are worn without supportive undergarments, likely for the purposes of Rossetti’s creative delectation. To hold them up as examples of Morris’ day-to-day dress in 1865 is a rather large presumption. In fact, the accounts of her being seen ‘guiltless of hoops’ (as Henry James put it) in this period (1860s) occur when she is in the semi-private space of her home, or in friend’s studios. I do not mean to suggest that she did not dress in an artistic fashion, rather that holding her up as the trendsetter is problematic. Further, Morris was not in a social position to influence widespread changes in fashion – unlike the Pattle sisters, whom Watts so elegantly recorded and whose portraits are at the heart of the Liberating Fashion exhibition. Outside of that one suggestion, however, I have no qualms with the above Morris Gallery post and am incredibly excited to see Shonibare’s interpretations of the Morris Family Album. I am a huge fan of his work.

Yinka Shonibare MBE, 'The William Morris Family Album', 2015 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and The Church of England Record Centre. Commissioned by William Morris Gallery. Image © Mark Blower
Yinka Shonibare MBE, ‘The William Morris Family Album’, 2015 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and The Church of England Record Centre. Commissioned by William Morris Gallery. Image © Mark Blower

Similarly, Richard Dorment’s review of the Watts Gallery exhibition reflects established views on perceptions of Aesthetic Dress, alongside some surprisingly harsh criticisms of the women who wore them. Dorment, who has curated and co-authored excellent projects on Whistler, is someone well-versed in the canon of Aestheticism. I am less certain of how in-depth his research was in terms of dress, but one of his images in fact links back to this blog (*cough cough*); and he does in fact provide keen insight into Frith’s A Private View that is derived from the artist’s own comments in his Reminiscences (1888):

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. [1]

(I’m being very self-referential in this post, but you can read more about Frith’s painting and Aesthetic Dress here.)

'A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881' by William Powell Frith, 1882-83 (exhibited 1883). Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.
‘A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881’ by William Powell Frith, 1882-83 (exhibited 1883). Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dorment’s review frequently conjures the old standby artiste of which no discussion of Aestheticism would be complete – our Jimmy Whistler. Now, at the risk of offending my own dear mentor (and his co-author) Margaret F. MacDonald, I confess that I’m getting slightly weary at the gravitational positioning of Whistler in every discussion of Aesthetic Dress. Because, in truth, although fashion is incredibly important to his work, and although he is central to Aestheticism in England for a time, only a handful of his works portray Aesthetic Dress.

2. G.F. Watts, Sophia Dalrymple, 1851-53, oil on canvas, 198 x 78.7 cm. Collection: Watts Gallery, Compton [COMWG.200].
G.F. Watts, Sophia Dalrymple, 1851-53, oil on canvas, 198 x 78.7 cm. Collection: Watts Gallery, Compton [COMWG.200].

Dorment refers to the best example, my personal favourite Mrs Leyland. But for him to comment, at the end of the review, that ‘the omission of Whistler is unforgivable’, I have to slightly cringe. Because it would have been quite a challenge for the Watts Gallery to get either Mrs Leyland or any of the White Girls for what is essentially a small exhibit (though I admit the latter would have made a lovely comparison with Sophia Dalrymple).

Dorment also claims that ‘Adherents of rational dress for women like the painter GF Watts were concerned not with enhancing female beauty but with promoting women’s health by advocating clothing that allowed their bodies to move freely’[sic]; and that ‘Watts’s interest in dress reform has little to do with fashion and still less with art for art’s sake.’ I suppose he means that Watts isn’t concerned with mainstream fashion, and that in his concern with what seems natural in beauty Dorment rightfully aligns with Ruskin and Morris – and I would add Godwin to that list as well. But Watts certainly does place emphasis on issues of beauty in relation to fashion and reform in his writings on dress. In fact, it is this combination of issues on the need for beauty in reform dress that ultimately gives rise to the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union. Watts essay on women’s dress in the second issue of their journal Aglaia makes the concern with fashion, beauty and art very clear. Focused on the matter of taste – a central topic for Aestheticism – he states:

…any arrangement that diminishes or disturbs the effect of the upright spring of the neck from the level shoulders, more beautiful than anything else in the world, and unlike anything else in the world…there can be no greater sign of defective taste.

…That lines are beautiful in proportion to their capacity for variety, and the interest greater by the display of light and shade; that length of line gives height and distinction to the human figure, are principles which should never be ignored by any who would cultivate the delightful art of dressing with good taste. [2]

One can easily imagine the dresses of Sophia Dalrymple and her sisters, worn nearly 50 years earlier, in this description. Yet Watts painted not just women in various forms of loose clothing, as in the Pattle pictures, but also rendered society ladies dressed in very fashionable gowns that had come under the influence of Aestheticism. A good example of this is his 1877 portrait of Blanche, Lady Lindsay, playing the violin in a gown that, although in colour and trim is certainly styled Aesthetically, is also cut to be worn with a corset, and the catching up of the fabric in the rear has been made to resemble a bustle. In this way she could express her artistic sensibilities while not straying too far from the fashionable silhouette of the day.

G.F. Watts, 'Portrait of Blanche, Lady Lindsay'. Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 85.1 cm, 43 1/2 x 33 1/2 in. Private Collection.
G.F. Watts, ‘Portrait of Blanche, Lady Lindsay’. Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 85.1 cm, 43 1/2 x 33 1/2 in. Private Collection.

Issues of taste as expressed through fashion are at the core of these images. Dorment also comments on taste in his review, pointing out that ‘Then, as now, it wasn’t the fashion designs that were the problem but the (lack of) taste of the people who actually wore the clothes they saw in fashion periodicals.’ Not having seen the exhibition, I’m not entirely sure what painting Dorment is referring in his criticism of  this work:

As for poor drippy Miss Anna Alma-Tadema, got up by her sadly misinformed father (the artist, Sir Lawrence) as a Grecian maid, you can laugh, you can cry – but have to admit that she looks awful.

I don’t think it is, and dearly hope it isn’t, the lovely portrait of the sixteen-year-old Anna wearing an Artistic Dress with a rather bohemian-looking necklace of seashells. Her look is radically ahead of its time, evoking a style that the Bloomsbury group might sport in another two decades.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Anna Alma Tadema, oil on canvas, 1883, Royal Academy of Arts
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Anna Alma Tadema, oil on canvas, 1883, Royal Academy of Arts

Both Dorment’s and the William Morris Gallery’s commentaries speak to the ongoing discrepancies in understanding what Artistic and/or Aesthetic Dress was, and what it wasn’t. Again, not having seen the exhibition, I cannot speak to the story it does or doesn’t tell in regards to Aesthetic Dress, but I’m very glad that the topic is getting further attention. Both exhibits are sure to highlight the importance of and innovative approach to sartorial practice for Victorian artists, showing once again that they deserve a place amongst the annals of the avant-garde.

[1] William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1888), 441.

[2] G.F. Watts, ‘Women’s Dress’, Aglaia, Vol. 2 (Spring 1894), 24-25.

Floppy but Manly

James Craig Annan, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, ca. 1893. Modern bromide print, 200 x 151 mm, 7 7/8 x 6 in. National Portrait Gallery, Purchased 1984 [NPG x132515]
James Craig Annan, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, ca. 1893. Modern bromide print, 200 x 151 mm, 7 7/8 x 6 in.
National Portrait Gallery, Purchased 1984 [NPG x132515]
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!

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.

Women in White

1. Frederic Leighton, Pavonia, oil on canvas, Rome/London, 1858-59, Private Collection c/o Christie’s. Image source:

I was remiss in posting last month! Luckily, the thought-provoking Kirsty Walker has made a call to art detectives today at her blog The Kissed Mouth, which has inspired this post.

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.

2. G.F. Watts, Sophia Dalrymple, 1851-53, oil on canvas, 198 x 78.7 cm. Collection: Watts Gallery, Compton (COMWG.200).

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].[1]

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.[2]

3. James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, 1862, oil on canvas, 213 x 108cm. Collection: The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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!’[3]

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.

4. James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm. Collection: Tate Britain, Bequeathed by Arthur Studd, 1919 (NO3418).

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.[4] 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.’[5] 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 texture used 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.[6]

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.

5. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1868, oil on canvas, 37 1/2 x 32 in. Bancroft Collection, Delaware Museum of Art.

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’[7] 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.

6. James McNeill Whistler, The Artist in his Studio, 1865/66, oil on paper mounted on panel, 62.9 x 46.4 cm (24 3/4 x 18 1/4 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection (1912.141).

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.

7. Dress, 1864, bleached tartalan muslin with matching sash. Collection: The Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Misses Braman (47.83.1ab). Image source: Catalogue of the exhibition Whistler, Women and Fashion (see link in text below).

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.

[1] 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.

[2] Mary Botham Howitt and Margaret Howitt, Mary Howitt: Volume 2: An Autobiography (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ibid.