The Ladies' Tea Guild

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pre-Raphaelite dress as modified Reform Dress.

Morris and Burne-Jones families. ca. 1874.
Pre-Raphaelite dress generally took two forms: modified contemporary fashion, or historically-inspired styles.  If choosing modified contemporary fashion, gowns would be styled according to the dictates of Reform Dress or "Rational Costume," which advocated comfort and freedom of movement, fabric breathability, and natural fibers and colors in an effort to promote greater health. 

Mrs. Mary Haweis, an American reformer, wrote that dress is an art object in itself; she argued that no “imbecile ornament” should be worn, because it is artificial, and came up with Seven Dress Rules:

1. retain the human form under all circumstances.
2. allow the human form to determine the folds and trimmings.
3. see that the proportions of the dress obey the proportions of the body.
4. allow the dress to reasonably express the character of the wearer.
5. consider the fitness of times and seasons.
6. avoid discomfort, and weight sufficient to cramp and disable either really or apparently.
7. avoid colors too pure, or brilliant enough to overpower the features of the face.

In following these dictates, Pre-Raphaelite dresses had high jewel necklines, loose Bishop style sleeves that were set into the bodice at the shoulder line (instead of dropped on to the top of the arm as in contemporary fashion), loosely-fitted or un-fitted waistlines (because the dress was worn without a corset underneath), with long, full skirts worn without hoops, bustle, or multiple petticoats so that they fell in heavy folds and swept the ground.  They were untrimmed except with “Medieval” embroidery, large free-form embroidered sunflowers, daffodils or other organic forms, or smocking, functional buttons or belts, or perhaps a single ruffle near the hem, in contrast to the ruffled, ribboned, lace-covered, fringed, and otherwise heavily-decorated mainstream fashion.

"The Blue Silk Dress" by D.G. Rossetti.  1868.
Pre-Raphaelite women's gowns were made of wool, Liberty silks, or velvet fabrics in old-fashioned (because they came from the old natural dyes instead of the new chemical dyes), faded, earthy, “antique” colors like sage green, indigo and soft blues, salmon and muted reds, terracotta, soft browns and amber-gold.  Fabrics could be hand-painted or hand-printed, as well as solid color, but lacked the elaborate multi-color patterns popular at the time.  These fabrics gave an impression of quaintness and luxury, but not garish opulence. 

Shoes appear to be almost entirely flat or with low heels, but the length of the gowns' hems makes it almost impossible to see what the rest of the shoes or slippers looked like!  Instead of multiple pieces of jewelry, the Pre-Raphaelite women confined themselves to a single strand of beads, especially natural amber, or Oriental-inspired pieces.  Single pendants, or maybe a pair of plain gold bracelets, or a single "artistic" brooch were worn in many period photographs.  Pre-Raphaelite women also were not shown in the fashionable bonnets and caps of the day, although certain "antique" forms -- like the Conquistador helmet -- were adapted for bonnets and hats, as shown in some contemporary illustrations.  They appear most often with only flowers in their hair, or perhaps a delicate metal circlet over the forehead, decorated with natural forms like a wreath. 

"Picking Apple Blossoms" by Millais. 1856.
Instead of glossy curls, waves and braids pinned into elaborate hairdos, Pre-Raphaelite women often wore their hair down, crimped, frizzed or curled into thick waves with lots of volume, or loosely pinned back into a simple bun at the back of the head, preserving the volume around the face.  Detractors often described their look as “windswept” and “untidy” but it was meant to be “wild” and “natural.”  We can understand Anne of Green Gables’ affinity for the Pre-Raphaelites when we realize that many of the “ideal beauties” who appeared in their artworks had red hair, which was yet another diversion from mainstream fashion.
To be continued ...
"La Ghirlandata" by D. G. Rossetti.

For more information:
“The Aesthetic Dress Movement: Fashion History of Aesthetics” by Pauline Weston Thomas for
“Morgan Le Fay”
The Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource
“Pre-Raphaelite Ideals and Artistic Dress” by Consuelo Marie Rockliff-Stein 
“Artistic Flair – Aesthetic Dress of the 1880s”
“Aesthetic Dress” Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia
Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850 – 1920: Politics, Health, and Art by Patricia A. Cunningham.

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)