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These days, “vintage-inspired” looks abound, drawing inspiration from the 1920s through the 1970s. Unlike vintage clothing — which until raccoon coats gentrified the hand-me-down in the 1920s was known simply as “secondhand” — these items are newly made reproductions of pieces we assume were worn by women of the past. With them, explicitly or not, comes judgment.
It’s a common refrain among the vintage set: Women were “so much classier,” “so much sexier,” so much better back in the day. Retro-inspired clothier Unique Vintage celebrates “eras when fashion was known for its ladylike flair.” Holly Foster, Miss Vintage UK 2015, voiced the unspoken thoughts of many when she admonished her more modern counterparts to “dress like a lady.” It’s not just niche infighting; the broader internet gets in on it, too. HuffPost offers “7 Ways Your Grandmother Dressed Better Than You.” “They had style back then,” opines ViralNova, “at least compared to today’s Miley Cyrus-esque attire.” The gestalt is clear: Good taste and feminine beauty have irreparably devolved.
It’s funny, then, to find these complaints foreshadowed over a century ago. Enter “aesthetic dress”: the sartorial arm of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Though often lumped in with the contemporary dress reform movement, aesthetic dressers — a fashionable cadre of Romantic painters and their muses — were concerned less with motility than with beauty. As the Greenwich Village beatniks to midcentury materialism, as Instagram pinups to today’s unsubtle sexuality, devotees of aesthetic dress resisted their day’s sartorial zeitgeist.
By the 1860s, the Industrial Revolution had prompted nostalgic backlash in many areas of life. NJ Stevenson wrote in Fashion: A Visual History:
While the late 19th century was a time of excess and exuberance, there were those aligned to the alternative arts movement who wanted to express their aversion to the contemporary commercialism. … Modern fashion was seen as ugly, vulgar, and restrictive.
Romantics disillusioned with the crassness of industry formed a “cult of beauty” dedicated, as the poet Théophile Gautier put it, to “art for art’s sake.” The aesthetes filled their homes with friezes and draperies, with colors and textures evoking the Middle Ages and the exotic Orient — times and climes renowned for simpler, slower living. Mass production was out; Luddite sensibilities and handicraft revivals were in.
The aforementioned Brotherhood put their ideals to canvas, lovingly rendering pre-industrial pastures and Venusian women to fill them. The Pre-Raphaelite woman, rendered in oils or manifest as muse or mistress, cut a more Romantic figure than Victorian sensibilities allowed. With hair unbound and corset unlaced, she embodied the “simpler time” her admirers sought to recapture.
It’s hard to say whether the aesthetes’ lives imitated their art or vice versa. Either way, the paintings of Waterhouse, Rossetti, and company enjoyed comfortable symbiosis with artistic women of the 1870s and ’80s. Inspired by medieval forebears, they wore looser, simpler dresses in luxurious fabrics. Colors were muted and earthy; trim was sparing. The aniline dyes of the industrial age enabled a broader, brighter range of color than previously possible, but Romantic artist William Morris scoffed at their “abominable hues.” His textile design firm, founded in 1862, employed weavers and dyers trained in the old ways. Arthur Lasenby Liberty followed suit in 1875. Today called Liberty’s of London, his East India House brought oriental textiles to the curious British populace. A decade later, Liberty began producing gowns inspired by the whimsies of pre-modern life. Rosina Lippi writes:
In its catalogs the Liberty Company offered artistic dresses which were modified to follow the conventions of modern life, but shared design elements with classical Greek clothing as reinterpreted during the Empire and Renaissance periods. The Liberty gowns were given appropriate names such as “Jacqueline”, a velvet and silk crepe gown fashioned after a French fifteenth-century gown for indoor use, or “Josephine”, an Empire-style (high-waisted) evening dress and they worked well with Liberty’s soft and very drapable fabrics. Liberty gowns were well publicized and available in their own Paris shop and other stores throughout Europe as well as New York.
Unlike today’s vintage enthusiasts, many of whom dress head to toe in a single era’s togs and take pride in accuracy, aesthetic dressers strove for conceptual rather than literal reproduction. “[H]istoric periods were plundered,” writes Oriole Cullen, “with a myriad of styles indiscriminately thrown together under the term ‘aesthetic’; Greek tunics, medieval sleeves, and Elizabethan ruffs became popular adornments for fashionable dress.” Indeed, aesthetes’ devotions were less to the richness of history than to the social implications of “old-timey” dress. A retro aesthetic was less about looking “period accurate,” whatever that might have entailed, and much more about embracing a fashionable counterculture. Being the sort of person who would wear a Liberty meant more than actually wearing it.
This became increasingly apparent as aesthetic styles entered the mainstream. The euphemism treadmill comes for us all; it’s perhaps inevitable that time will soften even the most barbed countercultural attire into “edgy chic.” Indeed, today’s clothiers shamelessly co-opt anti-consumerist aesthetics. In the 1960s hippies wore flower crowns in the name of peace, love, and getting back to nature; in 2018 you can buy plastic iterations for a buck fifty.
As aesthetic dress flourished and its profile rose, the fashions adopted in explicit protest of materialist mores began to be mass-produced. High fashion, as ever, plundered low. Just as the aesthetes themselves appropriated and recontextualized historical dress, the vagaries of mass production did the same to them.
Medieval-inspired gowns appeared on women with little or no connection to the mores of simple living — and, in fact, on women who embraced just the opposite. Those who adopted the veneer of aesthetic dress without regard for its principles were treated to similar taunts as those directed at today’s hipsters. One wonders if George du Maurier’s teapot-enthralled couple might today have put a bird on it.
It was through this bowdlerization of a bowdlerization that, ironically, dress reform caught on in earnest. Liberty’s Orientalia laid fertile ground for the early 20th century’s tunics and harem pants. Once looser silhouettes had entered the mainstream, women didn’t give them up easily. Corsets would take another generation to shed, but skirts began shrinking and infrastructure softened. The late 1890s saw the invention of “sportswear,” slimmer costumes for a more active lifestyle; the next few years brought Fortuny, Vionnet, and prewar drapery. Their intentions were reactionary, but the aesthetes, those professional nostalgists, wound up launching the 20th century’s most enduring fashion revolution. We wouldn’t have Paul Poiret or Coco Chanel without the boundaries broken by Romantic proto-cosplayers. Without those longings for a life long gone, women might well lack the attire for modernity.
Did they get it right? Of course not. We hardly do better today — “vintage-inspired” clothiers blur decades and designs such that only a caricature is left. Compare, for example, ModCloth’s “30s party dresses” with surviving examples thereof. Purists have every right to sneer. I don’t, though. Historical recreation, in my view, is inherently transformative; its best and most thoughtful iterations understand that. Reenactors speak of the authenticity/immersion distinction: fiddling with the details versus capturing a gestalt. Each has its place. A slavish reproduction of the past might doom us to repeat it, but a broader remembrance will help us build the future.