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Fashions of the Aesthetic Movement: A Cult of Beauty and Victorian Counterculture

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Loose flowing hair,and a soft dress typified Aesthetic dress.

Loose flowing hair,and a soft dress typified Aesthetic dress.

The Aesthetic Movement was a counterculture of artists and writers in mid-Victorian England who quietly rose against what they saw as the dehumanization of the Industrial Age.

Aesthetic fashion cast off the stiffly tailored garments of Victorian styles to embrace softer, more comfortable clothing based on the historic costume of medieval times. The Aesthetics viewed corsets and the rigidity of the day as unattractive and artificial. It was, in essence, a fashion revolution.

This Cult of Beauty, where fashion designers sought more natural styles and objected to mass production and the loss of individual craftsmanship may be compared to the hippie movements of the 1960s. The beliefs of the Aesthetics influenced later Art Nouveau and the Craft Movement.

Historical Background of the Aesthetic Movement

London's Great Exposition of 1851 was an early form of the World's Fairs that appeared until the middle of the 20th century. The Great Exposition featured aspects of the Industrial Revolution, highlighting steam power, industry, and mass production.

A small group of artists, writers, and intellectuals in England believed that the loss of cottage industry and individually crafted goods would not benefit society.

They saw the prim and proper Victorian society as rigid and the obsession with a false respectability as foolish.

As a result, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, created by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais favored a less restrictive culture that relied on handcrafted goods, and clothing based on the styles of the late Middle Ages. Medieval garments were simple, elegant, and beautiful. The fabrics were colored with natural dyes.

Beauty for the sake of beauty was their motto. Art was meant to be beautiful and not necessarily reflect political or moral attitudes.

The paintings of Rossetti exemplify the look of the Aesthetic Movement. Models differed from the feminine ideal of the day—the delicate, small featured prim, and proper blonde. Women, depicted in Aesthetic art were tall and strong featured, with long flowing red or brunette hair.

Instead of the stiff, formal portraiture of Victorian England, Aesthetic portraiture depicted women in languid repose with dreamy or sorrowful expressions.

Tea gown designed by Martiano Fortuny.

Tea gown designed by Martiano Fortuny.

The Aesthetic Movement in Fashion

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood preferred the natural lines and clothing of medieval European costume and displayed those clothing designs in their art. The wives, daughters, and other women involved in the movement wore the medieval-inspired garments at home and in public. The look included several elements of an organic type of style:

  • Aesthetic dress offered more freedom of movement than did the typical fashions of Victorian England.
  • Instead of stiff bodices, the women wore long, flowing dresses with soft pleats, folds, and smocking. (Victorian women wore tight, restrictive corsets to underscore the fashionable hourglass figure)
  • The Aesthetics rejected the stiff corsets of the day.
  • Dresses often featured a small train.
  • Sleeves were set at the normal shoulder edge in opposition to the Victorian dropped shoulder, which restricted arm movement.
  • Sleeves were often puffed at the shoulder and gathered along the arm.
  • Dresses offered few embellishments, unlike the heavily trimmed, ruffled, or braided edges often seen in mid-19th-century clothing. Some embroidery featured natural floral themes. The lily and sunflower were repeated motifs of the movement.
  • Dyes were natural, vegetable dyes. The Aesthetics hated the new, manufactured aniline dyes.
  • Colors were muted, natural tones of brown, terra cotta, russet red, cobalt, or indigo blue, and sage or moss green.
  • The Watteau back dress featured a large pleat at the upper back that cascaded down to the floor, then caught up at the hemline.
  • The tea gown, a popular garment that Victorian women wore when entertaining at home, was based on Aesthetic style.
  • Few accessories were worn. Jewelry was simple, with amber as a popular element. Eastern-inspired jewelry was popular as well.
The man in the top hat at the right is Oscar Wilde. The woman in white beside him is Lillie Langtry. The woman on the right in pink Is wearing a Watteau back dress.

The man in the top hat at the right is Oscar Wilde. The woman in white beside him is Lillie Langtry. The woman on the right in pink Is wearing a Watteau back dress.

Jane Morris—the dark hair, strong features, and simple cobalt blue dress Are typical motifs of the Aesthetic Movement.

Jane Morris—the dark hair, strong features, and simple cobalt blue dress Are typical motifs of the Aesthetic Movement.

Elizabeth Siddel modeled for "Ophelia" in this 1851 painting by Millais.

Elizabeth Siddel modeled for "Ophelia" in this 1851 painting by Millais.

Icons of the Aesthetic Movement

Christina Rossetti, the sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a poet. She was painted by her brother with the loose, generous hair and flowing robes of the Aesthetics.

Jane Morris, a muse and artist's model, was born into poor circumstances. Her work as a painter's model rose her social standing, and she eventually married William Morris. Jane was the polar opposite of Victorian feminine ideals in that she was poor, tall, and dark.

Elizabeth Siddal was a milliner who became an artist's model and an artist in her own right. Her long, elegant neck, large expressive eyes, and abundance of red hair made her the quintessential Aesthetic woman. She posed for the artist Millais's famous painting Ophelia while lying in a tub of cold water and came down with a severe case of pneumonia. Thin and sickly for most of her life, Elizabeth Siddal married Rossetti.

Lillie Langtry, the famous actress and internationally known beauty was depicted in Aesthetic dress.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the artist whose painting epitomized the look of the Aesthetics in creations like La Ghirlandata in 1877, and Beata Beatrix in 1863.

Oscar Wilde, the famously gifted writer who gave us The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a plot woven around Aesthetic decadence. Wilde's long hair, languid manner, velvet jacket, and velvet knee-breeches were widely recognized as male components of Aesthetic dress.

John Ruskin was an art critic and social reformer who influenced the Aesthetic Movement. His lifelong interest in individual craftsmanship, social justice and his opposition to the monotony and dehumanization of the industrial era, as well as his interest in mythology, informed the ideals of the movement.

Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll, the writer of Alice in Wonderland was a gifted Oxford mathematician, logician, and photographer who photographed Dante Rossetti and involved himself in the movement.

James Abbott Whistler's iconic painting, Symphony in White #1 has been called a modern allusion to the Virgin Mary as well as an allegorical picture of the loss of innocence. The model's bold gaze, her innocence with erotic undertones, the simple style, and natural pose are all components of the Aesthetic style. Whistler said, of the painting that it was merely a painting of a woman dressed in white standing in front of white curtains: art for art's sake.

James Whistler's "Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl"

James Whistler's "Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl"

William Morris

William Morris was an artist, textile designer, and founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1862, his firm (founded with Rossetti's help), Morris, Marshal, Faulkner, and Company took a stance against the artifice of the mass production and industrialization of the modern age.

Morris felt a deep appreciation of the fine crafts that were individually produced in the late Middle Ages by skilled craftsmen. The textile mills of the mid 19th century England destroyed the importance of skilled weavers, relying on poorly paid unskilled workers who toiled in often deplorable conditions.

Morris objected to the use of the new aniline dyes which, by mid-century, replaced the old, organic dyes that had been produced using vegetable matter and minerals. The new aniline dyes were, he felt, hideous and gaudy. While the older dyes faded to more subtle hues, aniline-dyed fabrics changed into "abominable hues."

By the 1870s, it was difficult to obtain the older, organic dyes, but his persistence led to a small, limited production of fabrics in the old methods. His firm employed the talents of skilled weavers and used organic dyes to produce beautiful, though expensive fabrics for fashion as well as for interior design.

Printed fabric by William Morris.

Printed fabric by William Morris.

Liberty's of London

Arthur Lasenby Liberty worked for Farmer and Roger's Shawl Emporium on Regent Street in London. His suggestion to open a department that offered oriental style goods met with great success. Opening his own store, called the East India House in 1875, he introduced imported fabrics, trims, and accessories, and drew the patronage of the art crowd, including George Frederick Watts, James Whistler, and Frederick Leighton. Liberty produced fabrics more suitable to the English climate inspired by oriental and medieval designs.

The store, now called Liberty, remains a shopping destination in London to this day.

End of the Aesthetic Movement

The Aesthetic Movement was often parodied and ridiculed by the media. Critics made fun of the messy-haired, red-heads so often portrayed in Aesthetic art as well as the hedonistic cult of beauty so beloved of the movement.

Several members of the group were criticized for their Catholic sympathies at a time when British society was anti-Catholic. The Oxford Movement, aligned with the Pre-Raphaelites, believed that the Anglican Church was too secular and yearned for a return to the beautiful rituals of the past. The Christian Social Union angered certain segments of British society by calling for just wages and improved industrial working conditions.

Like many radical movements, the ideals of the Aesthetics began to move toward the mainstream. Oscar Wilde went on a United States lecture tour speaking to urban sophisticates and cowboys alike on the Cult of Beauty. By the 1880s, the Cult of Beauty had gained momentum in popular culture, including a magazine devoted to the ideals of the movement (Dress: the Jennes Miller Magazine).

The Aesthetic Movement was no longer a revolutionary concept but inspired fashion designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including Martiano Fortuny, Paul Poiret, and led to Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

"Beata Beatrix" by Rossetti (Model Elizabeth Siddal)

"Beata Beatrix" by Rossetti (Model Elizabeth Siddal)

"Woman Weaving" by John William Waterhouse celebrates individual crafts and the beauty of the Middle Ages.

"Woman Weaving" by John William Waterhouse celebrates individual crafts and the beauty of the Middle Ages.

All pictures thanks to Wikimedia Commons

Material Consulted:

The Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; Edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library of Daily Life

William Morris - Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain by Charles Harvey and Jon Press; St. Martin's Press 1991


The Victorian Web

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History - Metropolitan Museum of Art; 19th Century European Textile Production; Melinda Watt; 2000

© 2011 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 06, 2020:

Hi Kathleen Briggs - I am not showing your question as it contains personal information. There should be plenty of places to find Bohemian style clothing in NYC. Shop at thrift or vintage stores. Look for used theatrical costumes. The Theater Development Fund runs warehouse sales twice a year in Astoria Queens. If you want new garments, Gudrun Sjoden on Green Street in Soho offers colorful boho clothing and they even use women of a certain age as models!

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on December 07, 2015:

Heyy - The beautiful Delphos gown by Fortuny was a tea gown and was referred to as such by Emily Burbank in her 1917 book entitled "Women as Decoration." Emily Post claimed that a tea gown was something "between a wrapper and a ball dress made of gorgeous material and goes on easily."

A tea gown could be put on with no assistance and featured soft flowing lines, worn without a corset. Expert descriptions of tea gowns include the Delphos for it's long straight lines of artfully pleated satin.

I prefer the older style tea gown with lots of fluff and lace. Thanks for reading!

Heyy on November 20, 2015:

I wouldn't call the gown made by Fortuny, a tea gown. It should be a Delphos gown.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on May 10, 2011:

Hi, Sally - thank you so much. I like to read how fashion is connected to the real world - events, the economy etc. The idea that the Aesthetics wanted a return to individual craftsmanship really impressed me. Plus, I love the look of medieval clothing. Of course this hub is less about art than about the clothing that went with the movement. But I love the art too. Even though a lot of the paintings were more like illustrations.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on May 09, 2011:

Your Hub brought on a few "Aha!" moments as I found myself swept back to my college years, when I studied art history. You may be interested to know that the Aesthetic Movement was somewhat disdained by some of my professors, who considered it intellectually barren and, well, mostly frivolous, a pointless jog off the main road of the study of "serious" art. After reading your Hub, it occurred to me, for the first time, that these revered teachers of mine were perhaps just as limited in their vision as the critics and journalists at the time of the Movement.

What a joy to read your series of fashion Hubs. I have gained surprising insights from all of them, and especially from this one!

As did Eiddwen, I pushed all buttons. :)