Theme of Month: Artistic and Aesthetic Dress

In light of The Costume Society’s upcoming July conference, Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement, the terms (in this instance) of the month are Aesthetic/Artistic dress.

art nouveau 1898

E.582-1953. F. Champenois. Mucha, Alphonse. Colour lithograph. c1898. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

These two words are used interchangeably, and can be applied, as stated by Aileen Ribeiro in her text Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914 ‘to a shifting group of people,’ living in the 19th century, who shared ideas in regards to art and its relationship to dress and taste.[1] The terms are described by Valerie Cumming, C.W Cunnington and P.E Cunnington in The Dictionary of Fashion History as:

  • Artistic Movement: 1848-1900 – the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of painters founded in 1948 by Holman Hunt, Milais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti […]. This alternative style, one of the first successful movements antithetical to fashion, continued and evolved, and was caricatured and satirized, but the ideas of comfort and timeless elegance influenced designers such as Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny in the 20th century.’[2]
  • Aesthetic Movement: 1870s to early 20th century – ‘an attempt to revive in modified the “artistic” dress of the 14th century. Encouraged and espoused by those associated with the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists […] it took the form of high-waisted, flowing garments using natural dyes with patterned materials […]. Liberty & Co Ltd provided fabrics and also produced a catalogue of dresses which captured the quasi-medieval, classical lines which suited those with such tastes.’[3]

Individuals aligned to the Artistic movement, were concerned with simplifying dress, by referring to historical periods for fashion inspiration, which they considered more ‘aesthetically pleasing than the costly, elaborate styles of couture and its limitations’ on the body.[4] Both the Artistic and Aesthetic movements demonstrated a rejection of popular, mainstream fashion and consumption, in favour of ideals associated with natural beauty and taste, although the Aesthetic movement focused more on beauty, rather than associating with much wider political and social reform in contrast to the Artistic movement.

Aesthetic and Artistic dress flourished in reaction to the growing economy of high fashion and increasing culture of consumption, as promoted during the mid-half of the 19th century at large international exhibitions, such as the Great Exhibition held in London during 1951.[5] According to The Tate in the post “How the Pre-Raphaelites Changed the Face of Fashion,’:

At the root of this rebellion were a small number men and women known as the Pre-Raphaelite circle, who championed flowing fabrics and unconventionally loose waistlines. This was not just a fashion statement. The Pre-Raphaelites used clothing as a means to question the very position of women in their society; and so the women in their paintings and photographs remain iconic figures of subversion, even today.[6]

jane morris photograph

820-1942. Photograph of Jane Morris, posed by Rossetti, Parsons. John R. c1865. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Aesthetic and Artistic dress was limited to bohemian and artistic circles; for those who had the agency to reject social norms, and the leisure time which allowed these individuals to wear such garments within the home or studio. Many of those who advocated Artistic/Aesthetic dress, were artists themselves, married, or muses within the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements, such as embroiderer Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris, and Elizabeth Siddal, artist and poet, and wife of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Artistic and Aesthetic dress was not absorbed into mainstream fashion. Such styles of dress, were often subject to satire by social commentators.

liberty and co aesthetic dress

T.17-1985. Dress. Liberty & Co Ltd. Pongee silk with smocking and machine-made lace, brass hooks and silk eyes, silk twill and boned, lined with cotton, trimmed and embroidered. c1895. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Dress worn by those within the Aesthetic and Artistic circles, were characterised by their reference to medieval and Renaissance costume, using Pre-Raphaelite paintings as a source of inspiration.[7] The Artistic and Aesthetic movements promoted gowns that allowed women improved movement and comfortability. Wearers opted for looser-fitting gowns in contrast to tight-laced garments. These garments emphasised the ‘natural shape of the body,’ rather than creating a forcibly constructed silhouette through the use of corsetry, although it is worth nothing that some of these looser gowns were often still boned to provide some support, an example of this belonging to the Hull Museum Collection.[8] Dresses from the Victoria & Albert collection in London consist of floor-length, flowing gowns, with soft pleating, many purchased from Liberty & Co. Ltd in London, which opened a dress department in 1884 under the guidance of the designer E.W. Goodwin, himself a member of the aesthetic movement.[9]

liberty dress aesthetic movement

T.202-1962. Tea gown. Liberty and Co. Ltd. Silk velvet, embroidered with silk, metal, lined with silk. c1895-1900. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Ideas that looser gowns were beneficial to the health of the wearer, were transferred and later advocated by those later involved in Dress Reform. Necklines and sleeves often played on historical styles; one example from the V&A collection is loosely based on medieval dress, with a long tabard. Other square necklines indicate references from the 18th century, and invoke an ideal of simplicity.[10]

1905 dress

CIRC.638&A-1964. Dress. Forma. c1905. Crêpe, embroidered velvet in mercerised embroidery cottons, lined with silk. Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, London.

Dress was notably produced in muted colours, representing a shift to more natural textiles and dyes. Synthetic, aniline dyes that produced bright, garish colours during the 19th century, were snubbed, in favour of more subtle colours. Instead, ‘materials such as silk and velvet dyed in softer natural colours like sage green, amber and terracotta,’ were preferred.[11] Decoration, if any, was limited to motifs of nature, such as embroidered flowers and ferns.

1892 art nouveau dress

T.31&A-1987. Dress. Ribbed wool, pleated silk satin, velvet edged with braiding, and with boning. c1892-1895. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

By the 1900s, the Aesthetic and Artistic style was out of favour, replaced by the Art Nouveau movement, which shared similar artistic ideals.[12] Dress reformists shared collective ideals with the two movements, with designers such as Lucile and Poiret continuing the discussion on reformed dress when they began to design women’s clothing during the early twentieth century.


[1]Aileen Riberio, Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914 (London: Yale University Press, 2017) 406.

[2]Valerie Cumming, C.W Cunnington and P.E Cunnington, The Dictionary of Fashion History, 2ndEd (London: Berg, 2010) 13.

[3]Cumming, Cunnington and Cunnington, The Dictionary of Fashion History, 4.

[4]Riberio, Clothing Art, 406.

[5]Riberio, Clothing Art, 406.

[6]Tate, ‘How the Pre-Raphaelites Changed the Face of Fashion,’ Tate Blog, [2016].

[7]Riberio, Clothing Art, 406.

[8]Riberio, Clothing Art, 426.



[11]‘Artistic Flair – Aesthetic Dress of the 1880s,’ Hull Museum Collections. [n.d].

[12]Artistic Flair – Aesthetic Dress of the 1880s,’ Hull Museum Collections. [n.d].



‘Artistic Flair – Aesthetic Dress of the 1880s,’ Hull Museum Collections. [n.d].

Cumming, Valerie, Cunnington, C.W, and P.E Cunnington. The Dictionary of Fashion History, 2nd Ed. London: Berg, 2010. Print.

Riberio, Aileen. Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914. London: Yale University Press, 2017. Print.

Tate, ‘How the Pre-Raphaelites Changed the Face of Fashion,’ Tate Blog, [2016].

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