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Pre-Raphaelite Ideals and Artistic Dress
By Consuelo Marie Rockliff-Steiin

Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.                                      
 By:
John Ruskin
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   The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 in the Bloomsbury studio of John Everette Millais, an art student dissatisfied with the prevailing methods of teaching and producing art. Millais wanted to revitalize the style and content of English painting, which he felt had become formulaic. The other founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rosetti (painters), Thomas Woolner (sculptor), James Collinson (art student), William Michael Rosetti (the movement’s chronicler) and Frederic George Stephens (art critic).

   The original intentions of the Brotherhood were set forth, in hindsight, by William Michael Rosetti in 1895:

To have genuine ideas to express;
To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote;
And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.”

   Like many writers and architects of the day, Pre-Raphaelite painters looked back to medieval times for technical inspiration and subject matter. Although they were committed to painting nature as it was, they were also committed to endowing their work with symbolic meaning. The Brotherhood’s literary inspiration was derived from such sources as Keats, Tennyson, Patmore, and Shakespeare. They were also inspired by Thomas Malory’s version of Morte d’ Arthur, and later by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The subjects of their paintings, particularly the women, often wore a hypnotic, morbid air, which became a major influence in the aesthetic lifestyle, and the source of much criticism and parody. In fact, the mood of these subjects was imitated as often as the attire, particularly among teenaged men and women.

   Initially, Pre-Raphaelite paintings were dismissed by the public as unattractive. A major force behind the public’s eventual acceptance was the writings of art critic and theorist John Ruskin. In 1851 he published several letters in The Times in which he defended the Brotherhood, saying “Pre-Raphaelitism has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.”

   With the passage of time, a second generation of Pre-Raphaelites emerged, most notably William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who met in 1853, and who discovered the Brotherhood through the writings of Ruskin.   Eventually they both met Rosetti and were welcomed into the movement.  Burne-Jones and Morris shared a house on Red Lion Square which they filled with medieval objects, art, and manuscripts. They, together with Rosetti and others, designed and made their own furniture. Later, Morris and his wife had a home designed for them by Philip Web (Red House, in Kent), which was also decorated by committee. This pattern of mingling their artistic and personal lives would continue through much of the Pre-Raphaelite heyday.

   The Pre-Raphaelite movement flowed naturally into the Arts and Crafts movement, in which Morris was a major force. In 1888, Walter Crane, designer and illustrator, became the first president of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, and the movement was formalized as a strong reaction to industrialization and mechanization. It looked for a return to individual, quality craftsmanship, and to a world that valued designers in the same way that it valued practitioners of the fine arts. The goal was to create beautiful, well-designed goods that were available and affordable to everyone, not just to the wealthy. This ideal was hard to put into practice, as Morris found out, because the financial and temporal costs of producing handmade goods made them too expensive for universal availability.

   Morris, as a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, led the eventual trend away from medievalism towards more contemporary decorative art. In 1861 he founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., a design firm specializing in furniture, stained glass, tiles, tapestries, wallpaper, textiles, and iron work. The Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements flowed naturally into the Aesthetic, Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements which followed. By the late 1890’s, the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements were giving way to Art Nouveau, which was later overtaken by the mass production it had sought to disown.

   The rebellion against Victorian art and design standards took place within the larger context of general dissatisfaction among Victorian intellectuals and artists. The disaffection which resulted from industrial expansion led many Victorians to idealize the romance and chivalry of medieval England. From the long view, medieval times seemed to be the antithesis of life in Victorian cities, full of soot, noise, and poverty. During the mid-nineteenth century, many people began to take on social issues with ferocity, including issues that were of particular importance to women. There was a common belief that problems such as prostitution and unwed motherhood were the result not so much of a lack of morals as of the development of urban industrialization, which had ridden roughshod over the supposed innocence of rural, agricultural life. As that rural life receded into the past, it took on the false appearance of utopia. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the same passion that fueled artistic and intellectual examination of poverty, disease, and other societal ills fueled an examination of fashion’s tyranny.

   The term “Artistic Dress” was first used by the Pre-Raphaelite painters to describe the clothing worn by their models and female acquaintances. In the 1840’s and 1850’s, the Pre-Raphaelites were among the first groups to address the aesthetic problems of Victorian fashion – the corsets, bustles, and petticoats that distorted the natural lines of the female body, and the excessive ornamentation that cluttered feminine attire. As their paintings became popular, so too did the images of women, and women’s clothing, portrayed in those paintings. The models, painted in costumes inspired by the classical Greek, medieval, and renaissance periods, wore similar clothes in real life, and thus the style was born.

   Artistic dress was eventually taken up by actresses, and by fashionable, wealthy ladies who enjoyed giving the impression that they were intimately involved in the arts. Artistic dress emphasized natural color and natural shapes. Although stressing comfort and freedom of movement, ideals put forth by non-artistic reformers, it evolved initially from the art world, through the works of William Morris, John Ruskin, and Walter Crane, who all decreed that garments should reflect the personality of the wearer, should be handmade from materials used during and before the middle ages, and should only use flowing fabrics. Morris said, “no dress can be beautiful that is stiff; drapery is essential.” Proponents of artistic dress applied the same artistic values as applied by the Pre-Raphaelites to painting: Those elements of fashion which distorted nature were unattractive for that very reason.

   It should be noted, however, that the general dress reform movement was supported by a conglomeration of many different ideological groups, including health advocates and feminists. In the early nineteenth century, concern arose about the distortion of internal organs and the circulatory problems caused by the tight lacing of corsets. Also of concern was the general inability of women and girls to get decent exercise because of petticoats, long trains, and the heavy structural paraphernalia worn under clothing. The excessive weight of the fabric carried by fashionably dressed women was a problem as well.  In response to these concerns, the Rational Dress Society was founded in 1881. Its vision was encapsulated in an article in the Society’s Gazette:

“The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to health, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.”

   Ultimately, women’s issues of comfort, health, and freedom of movement were more forceful and lasting influences on dress reform than were aesthetic issues, although dress reform, as a wider cultural phenomenon, did reject Victorian frippery, harsh aniline dye colors and stiff fabrics. Artistic dress in particular adopted soft, flowing fabrics in muted colors, called “Art Colors” by Liberty of London, called “strange, old-fashioned, and indescribable” by critics. Unlike styles derived from French fashions, artistic dress had very little embellishment, limited mostly to smocking and simple, free-style embroidery. Liberty of London provided beautiful silks and woolens for artistic clothing, and eventually carried artistic gowns in their in-store boutique, The Liberty & Co. Artistic and Historic Costume Studio, opened in 1884. Several years later Liberty & Co. challenged the supremacy of French fashion by presenting aesthetic gowns at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universalle.

   Artistic gowns, such as those sold by Liberty & Co., were never intended to be exact replicas of the clothing worn by models in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, nor were they intended to replicate clothing of the classical and medieval eras. These gowns borrowed design elements from all these sources, but were distinctly Victorian in overall effect. For instance, although they were considered daring because they were meant to be worn without corsets and bustles, many were in fact lightly boned, attesting to the power and stability of prevailing fashion trends. Originally considered appropriate only in the privacy of the home, among relatives and close friends, these dresses and wrappers eventually were worn outside the home. Initially popular among bohemian artists and intellectuals, artistic dress soon attracted a strong middle-class following, especially in the United States, where advocates such as Annie Jenness Miller, in her publication Dress, The Jenness Miller Magazine, stressed the need to apply artistic values to all aspects of life, including dress, to achieve beauty through “simplicity, unity, utility and harmony.”

   The popularity of artistic dress can be attributed to many factors, aside from the obvious benefits of comfort and freedom of movement touted by health reformers and feminists. At a time when women were avidly reading the poetry of the Romantic era, it was natural that they would be attracted to a style which, as portrayed in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, seemed to require a romantic moodiness. Women who wore artistic dress were often described as wan, untidy, and mysteriously sad, a fitting description for any romantic heroine. The relative daring of gowns made to be worn on an unaltered female form would also have had its appeal, especially for those women who were breaking out of prescribed roles in other areas of their lives – choosing to remain unmarried, joining the professions, or setting out to reform society.

   The fact that Pre-Raphaelite painting enjoys a new popularity today attests to the power of its images. In a world where ready-made fashion is most often constructed of man-made fibers, and the prevailing styles are skin tight and often unwearable for adult women, it is appealing to imagine ourselves in flowing gowns of natural colors and soft fabrics, such as those worn by Pre-Raphaelite subjects. As were the Victorians in their day, we are often overwhelmed by our own progress, disappointed by the mass production of inferior goods, and yearning for a past when beauty was as important as utility in the objects of daily life.

   In the words of the nineteenth century designer and architect E.W. Godwin:

“As architecture is the art and science of building, so Dress is the art and science of clothing. To construct and decorate a covering for the human body that shall be beautiful and healthy is as important as to build a shelter for it when so covered that shall be beautiful and healthy….Health can never be perfect so long as your eye is troubled by ugliness.”

In 1869, the writer Henry James, in a letter to his sister, wrote of William Morris’ wife Jane:

“Oh, ma chère, such a wife!  Je n’en reviens pas – she haunts me still…. It’s hard to say whether she’s a grand synthesis of all the pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made – or they a ‘keen analysis’ of her – whether she’s an original or a copy. In either case she’s a wonder. Imagine a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops (or of anything else, I should say), with a mass of crisp black hair heaped into great wavy projections on each of her temples, a thin pale face, a pair of strange sad, deep, dark Swinburnian eyes…a mouth like the ‘Oriana’ in our illustrated Tennyson, a long neck, without any collar, and in lieu thereof some dozen strings of outlandish beads. After dinner Morris read us one of his unpublished poems, from the second series of his un-‘Earthly Paradise,’ and his wife, having a bad toothache, lay on the sofa, with her handkerchief to her face. There was something very quaint and remote from our actual life, it seemed to me, in the whole scene. Morris reading in his flowing antique numbers a legend of prodigies and terrors…around us all the picturesque bric-a-brac of the apartment…in the corner this dark silent medieval woman with her medieval toothache.

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