Thursday, 19 February 2015

Review: Liberating Fashion

I have been known to strap on a corset on occasion and find them quite comfy.  On occasion. However, the thought of wearing one day in, day out might not be so fabulous, what with the displacement of internal organs and everything. Aesthetic dress it is then. So, today I went to the Watts Gallery to see their new exhibition 'Liberating Fashion: Aesthetic Dress in Victorian Portraits'...

Private View at the Royal Academy 1881 (1883) William Powell Frith
Reflecting the broadening in horizons of middle class women in the late 19th century, the freedom of dress liberated them from the clutch of the corset. Linked to the appreciation of beauty, central to the Aesthetic movement and stemming from artistic dress of the 1850s and 60s, women who aspired to aesthetic perfection could wear flowing, smocked silks, gathered only with belts or decorative stitches.

The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) (1876) James Tissot
 I'm in Portsmouth three days a week and it never looks like this.  The exhibition opens with this beautiful painting of young, glamorous women with perfect hour-glass figures whipped into foamy bustles.  The woman with the yellow bows looks like you could snap her in half. From her throat to her hips, the dress is skin tight and restricting making the woman decorative but not exactly useful.

Virginia Pattle (1849-50) G F Watts
In the 1840s, George Frederick Watts saw Virginia Pattle in the street and fell in love.  Virginia and her sisters (including Sara Prinsep, Sophia Dalrymple and Julia Margaret Cameron) had returned from India with different ideas on what to wear than the London Society they mixed with.  Whereas fashion was for bell skirts and corsets, the sisters wore flowing clothes in soft colours, together with belts and bangles.  Watts' portraits of the sisters began an idea of artistic dress, taken up by Elizabeth Siddal in the 1850s.

Rossetti's Courtship (1916) Max Beerbohm
Rossetti's many images of his beloved Lizzie during the 1850s show her dressed in home-sewn gowns with softly gathered waists and unhooped skirts. Despite Rossetti's attendance at Sara Prinsep's home Little Holland House, Lizzie's dresses were arguably entirely her own invention. Later, Jane Morris' portrait The Blue Silk Dress showed the deep silk acres hung around her uncorsetted frame.

Jane 'Jeanie' Elizabeth Nassau Senior (1857-8) G F Watts
One of the highlights for me was seeing Watts' portrait of Mrs Nassau Senior, usually housed at Wightwick Manor.  The vivid violet against the red chair and green wall are arresting, coupled with the delicacy of her face and the gold ripple of her hair. It is a love song to the beauty of fabric and everything in picture has detail and texture.

Alice in Wonderland (1879) George Dunlop Leslie
The more you look, the more references to artistic dress can be found in paintings of the period.  Alice in Wonderland has a mother wearing a fashionable gown with aesthetic detail, borrowing the style without getting its significance (rather like modern gangsta style).  As the mainstream absorbed and blunted counterculture, so the ethos of freedom, health, art behind aesthetic dress was pressed aside in favour of a new cut, a different style but still corsetted, still restricted.

Mrs Luke Ionides (1882) William Blake Richmond
 The Watts Gallery exhibition runs over two rooms and contains many beautiful paintings, together with photographs and the most beautiful silk dress from Liberty. I especially liked the Liberty adverts reproduced beside different paintings highlighting fashion accessories, such as Mrs Ionides wonderful 'waist clasp'.

Miss Anna Alma-Tadema (1883) Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Accompanying the exhibition is a lovely little catalogue, full of wonderful pictures that compliment the exhibition and provide further information on the themes. At only £12.95 it is a bargain for the amount of detail it provides, as well as reproductions of all of the paintings on display. If you can't make it down to Compton then I recommend the catalogue wholeheartedly as a beautiful book in its own right. 

'Liberating Fashion' is on at the Watts Gallery until June and further information can be found here.


  1. The Alice in Wonderland is such a lovely picture! I remember you posting it before in the early days of your blog. I must look up the artist. Regarding the fashions, currently women's clothing seems to be getting tighter and tighter - a sort of throwback to the corset era (without the corset of course!)

  2. Also, Max Beerbohm, I really must look him up. That picture is strangely comical

  3. Beerbohm did a series of comic illustrations about Rossetti and his friends. The one of Fanny Cornforth meeting Ruskin is interesting...

    Yes, I did a post on Dunlop a while ago, well remembered! His work has the clarity of Millais' early work while covering lovely, domestic scenes.

    Hmmm, I know, there are days when a corset would come in handy...

  4. I just went back and looked up your piece on George Dunlop Leslie (November. 2011). What a fantastic artist. I think you're right - he deserves to be as well known as Millais. "In the wizards garden" is another painting that has stuck with me since seeing it in your post 3 years ago. It's really quite unnerving, the girl in her brilliant red dress, her anxious expression, the dark figure of the wizard in the distance. I do like the "This is the way we wash our clothes" as well (the Bubbles look alike!)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx