What better place to learn about Romanticism than the Wadsworth Atheneum? Founded in 1842 and named for Daniel Wadsworth, the museum is a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Its turreted towers and narrow windows give the building the effect of a medieval castle. The architecture is a far cry for the ideal of the previous generation—the Grecian or Roman neoclassic temple.
Defining Romanticism is not easy. Yet, the strains of Romanticism still resonate today. Gothic to Goth:Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy (through July 10, 2016) examines how dramatically the different themes affected art and dress from approximately 1815 to the Civil War.
Romanticism was a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment. Instead of glorifying reason, its proponents gloried in nature, explored the darkest depths of the imagination, and harked back to the medieval period, considered the most sublime period in history by critics like John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. The novels of Sir Walter Scott gave readers dramas of knights and fair maidens set in sweeping landscapes. Ironically, the Industrial Revolution was actually changing the countryside of both Great Britain and the United States. The coal fired industries and cities crowded with a new poor working class were the depressing reality.
The Romantics sought to dress like the figures from the past mixing elements from different periods of history. In the first section we see a 1820s pelisse with a jagged edging on that looks like the architectural edging of a castle. This is combined with slashing inspired by the Renaissance on the collar, a ruff around the neck and sleeves that recall paintings from the Tudor court. The gown is displayed next to an 1852 painting which shows young couple enjoying the sight of an Irish castle glowing in the early evening light. It is this combination of art and cultural items of the period with its dress that make this exhibit so memorable.
Curator Lynne Zacek Bassett has chosen five themes to tell the story of the period—historicism, religion, nature, color and “fancy” design, and emotion. The historicism section expands on the information we were given as we entered the gallery. It begins with a gown that shows the evolution from the neoclassical “empire” style. The simple cotton muslin from 1815-20 is embroidered with leaf or “paisley” motifs and features slashing on its tiny puffed sleeves. Much more elaborate is the next pairing, an 1830s silk dress with a lower waist, voluminous puffed sleeves and a fuller skirt covered in gold bullion embroidery with large paisley motifs on the border. Next to this gown is a parlor stove also embellished with similar fancy motifs.
Two paintings in this section underline the way Romantics used the fashions of the past. An Italian Renaissance work from 1574 shows a noblewoman wearing a robe with sleeves that have a puff at the shoulders and an open neckline edged in a standing ruffled collar, next to her portrait is the portrait of Mrs. John Bliss from around 1826. Mrs. Bliss’ dress could have been lifted by her dressmaker from the 1574 portrait. She is wearing the same style sleeve and collar.
Striking use of color and pattern were another characteristic of the Romantics. New dyes discovered by scientists of the Industrial Revolution allowed women to decorate themselves and their interiors with layer on layer of pattern. Magazines published patterns that enabled women to make “fancy” items themselves. People consumed turkey red calico, exquisitely embroidered aprons and pelerines, made beaded bags and fanciful caps. The clothing in the section which includes two beautiful embroidered silk aprons and a beaded bag from 1833 give us an idea of how deep this love of embellishment ran.
Religion, at least the Protestant version of it, was another major influence. The Second Great Awakening sparked emotional camp meetings across the country. Believers glorified Gothic architecture believing its arches were from the most perfect period of Christian history. The arch was also a reminder to look to the sky for the Lord’s help and was repeated over and over in the art and fashion of the day. Clothing changed again in the 1840s. The huge sleeves collapsed, the waist lowered still more, and the bodice neckline dipped to the edges of the shoulders. A fine example of the new look is a silk satin dress from the 1840s with a bodice covered in ruching and a wedding dress, pelerine, and reticule commissioned by an American missionary in Burma for her sister. The wedding dress is a sign that even the very devout loved beautiful clothing, perhaps in spite of themselves! The love of the fancy recurs in this gallery a fan edged in Gothic arches, and reticule decorated with canvas work, and a beaded watch chain amply decorated with religious symbols, the gift of a young women to her special beaux.
Closely connected to the religious fervor of the Romantics was their love of nature. There are so many examples of this in literature, the poems of Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth, all poets who claimed their poetry came to them in a rush of divine inspiration which they wrote down without editing or revising. In the United States artists, especially those of the Hudson River School, glorified the nation’s landscape with huge panoramas of the waterways and mountains set against spacious skies. Colors were supposed to combine with nature, not stand out, like the while columns of neoclassical buildings. Clothing followed these rules too. A dress in this section is one many women of the 1840s would have owned—a silk gown in a “drab” color. The olive green color would have blended in perfectly with the surrounding landscape.
Finally, the Romantics were proud of their passionate nature. This passion could delve into sentimentality which was considered a virtue, another change from the careful calculation of the preceding Age of Reason. This was the era the white wedding dress came into vogue. Queen Victoria was married in one, of course, but the color white was a symbol of purity. So a white wedding dress would emphasize the bride’s pure state as she entered matrimony. The dresses in this section are examples from the states of a woman’s life. There is a beautiful wedding dress from 1836, a rare calico maternity dress, an equally rare nursing dress with a gather panel in the front that allowed the breast to be exposed, a housedress, and finally, a mourning dress from the mid=nineteenth century. Mourning was the ultimate expression of emotion and wearing the proper mourning garb was an important part of a woman’s life. However, the ultimate expression of sentimental love and sorrow was the proliferation of hair jewelry. There are some beautiful examples here, including a bracelet of braided hair with a miniature of a young woman with flowing blonde hair festooned with a garland of flowers and a complete set—brooch, earrings, and bracelet—with tiny “acorns” that symbolize the oak tree, considered a protection from evil.
At the end of the exhibit we are reminded that the Romantic influences return even in our technocratic age. The exhibit closes with some examples from the present day, including the Steampunk and Goth movements. There is a stunning gown by Alexander McQueen from 2007. The black velvet dress has silver beading which appears to shoot across the bodice like a bolt of jagged lightning. McQueen was fascinated with the macabre and dark side of history. This dress honors an ancestor who was executed as a witch in Salem. McQueen’s successor, Sarah Burton, used the Goth theme in 2013, with a short coat that references Renaissance priest and boots that recall Puritan fathers of the seventeenth century. One of the most interesting pieces her is a “Vampire Suit” created by Jean Paul Gaultier, but styled by the owner Richard Patrick Anderson to create his own special mood.
“How did granny details become so compelling?” Vogue magazine asked in Fall 2015 as part of feature on the resurgence of Romantic fashions. Gothic to Goth shows us that The Romantic influence never really went away, and that its aesthetic is vital enough to be reinvented by generation after generation. By showing the many strains that fed Romanticism this exhibit carves out a special place in the spring/summer exhibit season. You will think about this one for a long time.
Nadine Stewart, Exhibition Reviews
Stewart is currently an adjunct professor of Fashion Studies at Montclair State University. She has a Master’s degree in Fashion and Textile Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and a BA in English Literature from Dickinson College. She has a longtime interest in millinery and milliners and is currently working on a social history of American milliners. She lives in New York City, right behind FIT! More posts by Nadine Stewart »