Aesthetic Fashion and “The Cult of Beauty”

Sometimes, when walking through an exhibit an object will stop you dead in your tracks – it’s visual impact interrupting any previous thought you might have had. Such is the case with the 1885 Liberty & Co dress currently on display in the Legion of Honor as a part of their current exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900 (on view through June 17, 2012).

Liberty & Co. Ltd., dress Striped washing silk lined with cotton, c. 1885, V & A

This dress – in a gallery which houses all seven of the items of dress for the exhibit – is sculptural, simple and elegant. It’s a part of the Victoria & Albert’s permanent collection and the fabric is manipulated to resemble high art, to my mind references both painting and sculpture. The fabric seems to move like liquid and it’s no surprise to learn that the gown was designed by a sculptor (Sir Hamo Thornycroft) for his wife. Being a Liberty & Co. dress, the fabric is really the focal point and the artist has done a wonderful job of displaying this delicate, cotton-lined silk to it’s best advantage.

For more on their story, including letters between the two about this dress, see the V & A website here.

The rest of the show is equally impressive, and the exhibition catalog describes the styles utilized by the Aesthetic Movement (Japonism, Neo-Classisism, and Pre-Raphaelite), it provides insights on the artists, designers, makers and writers of the era – from William Morris to Liberty & Co, to Oscar Wilde, Whistler, Gowin and Bearsley. It includes painting, furniture, decorative arts (a fair number of tea pots, ceramics, a beautiful punched fireplace, even wall-paper and textile designs), illustrations, books and other works on paper as well as examples of fashion and adornment. It is, in fact, comprehensive.

I fell in love with the dress on the left: Thomas Armstrong, "The Hay Field" Oil on Canvas, 1869, V & A.

Though fashionable dress and textile designs are scattered through-out the catalog (and exhibition) – two small sections focus on dress and jewelry-placing them within the greater context of the artists and art-forms of the movement.

Click here to purchase the exhibition catalog.

The first is an essay by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Textiles and Fashion at the V & A, “Women’s Dress” and though short – it notes that the leaders of the Aesthetic movement (Edwin Godwin, William Morris, Walter Crane and Oscar Wilde) all argued in favor of “the beauty of the natural body and that a woman’s clothes should reflect her form and respect its physiology.”

She notes that “in the 1870s women wishing to dress artistically were recommended to look for inspiration in paintings, particularly those by the Pre-Raphaelite artists, and in books about period costume wher they would find attractive sleeve details and decorative combinations of colours and fabrics.”

If you can’t make it to see the exhibition in person in San Francisco, the catalog is highly illustrated and well-written – utilizing the V & A’s knowledgeable curators. I ended up both seeing the exhibit and getting the catalog – the lure of that one dress was too irresistible to pass up.


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