THE TWO DECADES OF THE AESTHETIC MOVEMENT witnessed the emergence of shifting gender boundaries. Most historians of women’s history have catalogued these shifts for women as the widening of the domestic sphere to include moral and social reform projects, the women’s exercise movement, entrance into higher education, and a tentative excursion into the professions. Studies of more radical feminist, temperance, and suffrage leaders also encase women’s reform ideology within the rubric of a moral domesticity widened to encompass the public sphere.
At this time, some women used their bodies and their dress as public art forms not only to defy the moral implications of domesticity but to assume cultural agency in their society at large. By creating herself as both performing public self and individual work of art, the aesthetic woman changed traditional concepts of the female as artistic object to the female as artistic subject.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Lady Lilith 1866
Influenced by the philosophies of John Ruskin and William Morris (textiles useful work vs. useless toil), and then by the Henry Cole circle involved with the English exhibition tradition at the South Kensington museums (more specifically, by the exhibits of British handicrafts at the 1876 Centennial Exposition), this impetus for reform was labeled the Aesthetic Movement and heralded by critics in the United States as a new American art “craze. ”
The umbrella philosophy of Aestheticism maintained that the goals of life were “truth” and “beauty,” which should permeate every aspect of daily living, a reversal of earlier Romantic notions of art as a separate, transcendent aesthetic sphere indicative of the influence of the new “art for art’s sake” philosophy of Walter Pater and James McNeill Whistler.
Art education for women, communal workshops and studios, the artistic salons of women such as Helena de Kay, and commercial artistic ventures spearheaded by women exemplify the importance of the Aesthetic Movement for American women, both domestically and professionally
To these taste makers, aesthetic costume was not an anti-fashion statement, as was dress reform at mid-century, but was perceived as an individual expression of art and beauty. Fashion, for instance, was seen as “being . .. as direct an outcome of the love of beauty as schools of sculpture and painting.” Costume was the “legitimate province of the artist,” noted aesthetic critics. “To dress well is to make a picture of one’s self . .. to express beauty in every line of the dress, in the selection of color, and in every detail. . . as if the soul of the individual was revealed.
Self-expression and social drama were part of both the emergence of artistic costume and the transformation of the Victorian parlor into a theatrical environment
Aesthetic dress was compiled from a variety of sources and was not a careful replica of a past model with historically correct data.” Likewise, the aesthetic room might include a Turkish rug, a Japanese vase, a Gothic chair, and a reproduction of a Greek statue. Contemporaries were aware of the eclectic and symbiotic nature of dress and decor.
As appearance became an art form like architecture, clothing became part of the new public theatricality of the rising consumer culture of the 1870s and 1880s.
This acknowledged sense of an individual art form suggests that the adoption of aesthetic styles was a countercultural move, a significant break from the conventional French fashion commonly associated with Victorian culture (and a counter to historians who stress the conformity and anonymity associated with nineteenth-century women’s dress).
The aesthetic dress was derived from the wrapper, an earlier form of garment that was usually worn indoors, also known as the dressing gown or peignoir. The wrapper was a one-piece dress, adjustable and loose down the front, with many variations. By the 1880s, the tea gown emerged as the most closely fitted form of the wrapper. Generally worn in the afternoon, the tea gown was made of formal, elaborate materials and skimmed the uncorseted body. The “Marquise” style of tea gown was featured in Demorest’s, a fashion magazine.
The Mother Hubbard dress was another popular loose garment (“a round-yoke wrapper”), with a yoke of gathered material that fell to the floor. Because of their lack of corsets, wrappers and tea gowns suggested intimacy and indeed were designated for the rituals of the private domestic world
Traditionally, such loose, one-piece costumes had been associated with the female worlds of sickness, maternity, or old age. By the 1880s, these forms had evolved into fashion statements but only within the confines of the Victorian parlor.
The aesthetic dress was an offshoot of the uncorseted wrapper, often with a puffed shoulder and loose sleeve that made use of elaborate fabrics in aesthetic colors (sage and Venetian green, brick red, blue-green, yellow, and dove gray). Medieval and Renaissance motifs such as a cuff, long train, or high collar marked each garment as individual, a melange of historical detail. The aesthetic dress was not in any specific category, nor were there patterns available in the fashion press for women to purchase for home sewing. Most dresses at this time were home sewn by housewives or seamstresses from mail-order patterns, for it was not until 1900 that most articles of women’s clothing were on the market ready-to-wear.
The singular characteristic of aesthetic dress was that it was worn in public, in essence bringing an intimate garment into public view under the auspices of artistic innovation.
The Bohemian Club in San Francisco remarked in their 1880s annals on the “slender young Bohemians, clad in economical bathing suits.” The visibility of the homosexual or the “invert” was contiguous with the Aesthetic Movement, as sexologists (led by Karl Ulrichs, a German, who had coined the congenital theory of homosexuality) used sexuality to define male identity. Feminine style, in both fashion and physical movement, was the nineteenth-century caricature of this “invert,” andOscar Wilde, the “Apostle of Aestheticism,” became a celebrity in America during his 1882 lecture tour, due in part to his effeminate persona.
As aesthetic women abandoned the corseted dress for a loose-robed garment, so Wilde moved into marginal (and feminine) modes of fashion, creating himself, like the aesthetic woman who was part of the “assemble of the drawing-room,” as an objet d’art in aesthetic space.
The Aesthetic Movement, which had set a distinct profile on the 1870s and 1880s in America, ceased after two decades, silencing the aesthetic woman’s assault on the Cult of True Womanhood. Gone, too, was the aesthetic ideology that had elevated “beauty” in everyday life, celebrated individual artistic production for both men and women, and extolled women as artist/subjects and men as artistic objects. Silenced as well was a possible alternative to the canons of aesthetic modernism.