Costumes in Art

Before the invention of photography or even fashion plates the differences between fashion and art were rather blurred. Works of masters like Titian, Dürer, Holbein or Rubens serve today as beautiful pieces of art but also as a great source for historical reconstruction to costumers and reconstructors.

Many of them took so much care about details that almost every stitch can be distinguished on the clothes of their models. Then it was art, but as soon as first fashion magazines appeared, the artists who took so much care about their models’ clothes had to suffer their work being proclaimed as “kitsch”. That was especially the case of, for instance, James Tissot, a great analyser of late Victorian fashion, but also the author of allegorical works with an enormous talent.

Today, we can be grateful to all those artists who obviously admired clothes, texture of textiles and cuts as much as they admired their models’ faces because without their works, what could have we known today about historical clothing before the invention of photography? Here, I will introduce you to some of these artists and their special contribution to the costuming and history of clothing.

Costumes in Art


The main difference between fashion plates and works of art is obvious right from the start. Fashion plates, namely, just like today’s photos of designers’ collections, had the role of dictating the movements and changes in fashion. On the other hand, works of art like paintings and engravings were “mirrors” either of everyday life or of a courtly glamour, but in any case they were a copy of something that was worn and by no means did they change fashion.

However, there is possibly a single moment in history of arts and clothing when artists were those who dictated the fashion. It was marginal, yet it is also interesting because for the first time in history of fashion there appeared a kind of people who decided to dress themselves up differently. Today, we certainly feel as if we managed to achieve that everyone is free to dress him or herself the way he or she wants.

Although you would still be called crazy if you would go to supermarket in a crinoline, the truth is that such a diversity of styles as we have them now were hardly possible before. Ok, and when was that “before” meant to be? Certainly, before the Aesthetic Movement.

The Movement itself was at its highest at the end of 19th century and it collided with Decadence and Art Noveau. But the roots of it can be found – if we would really want to dig very deep – in Romanticism and, if we would like to be more precise, Preraphaelites are to be blamed for it all! Namely, Preraphaelites were artists who first came out of the circle of PreRaphaelitic Brotherhood, whose best known members were Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910).

Preraphaelites opposed academism and uniformity of arts by that time and wanted art to reach a more profound and meaningful level. Ironically, as these ideas developed into Aesthetic Movement, they came back to a complete l’art-pour-l’artism. Preraphaelites dealt with two seemingly opposed topics: social and escapistic. Today, when Preraphaelitism is mentioned, we mostly think of the latter. It is connected to Celtic and national revival, to a newly discovered interest for Arthurian legends, Renaissance art and literature, mysticism and exploration of by that time obscure and exotic countries and landscapes.

The one to be directly connected to Aestheticism is D. G. Rossetti. He was, generally speaking, by all rules a bad painter and a bad historian. Still, when Preraphaelites are mentioned, his works are first to be remembered and he indeed has left a rich treasury of beautiful works of art. His most obvious influence on fashion started after he has met William Morris.

In the most obvious way, they dictated the fashion with their interior decorating company that was founded by the two of them along with Edward Burne-Jones. Morris was the man of business while Rossetti and Burne-Jones were those to make designs for wallpapers, furniture and tapestries. Those dark, heavy wallpapers with flower motifs that are such a stereotype of a Victorian interior are product of this dynamic trio.

Jane Morris

There is a more intriguing part. Namely, Morris had a beautiful wife, Jane Burden. Even before getting married with Morris, she was a model to all three of the artists. Morris soon found out he sucked as a painter. Burne-Jones was not that impressed by her appearance.

But for Rossetti she became and stayed an artistic obsession to the end of his life. Not too much is known about her, certainly not enough. Art historians are still trying to figure out if there was something more than her outer look that made more than one artist to get impressed by her. Even Henry James wrote praises about her. Something must have been hidden under that black bush of curly hair. At least for one thing she was marked as a self-assured woman.

She was one of the followers of Rational Dress Movement. In 1850’s and 60’s many women weren’t too much in raptures for having to wear corsets and hoops. Some of them finally decided not to wear them. Jane Morris was one of those women. It’s not that she was wearing some specially strange clothes. She wore dresses that were much like those dictated by fashion, only that the size of a waistband was adjusted to her natural waist and not the tightlaced one.

Fashionable women were outraged, but men, especially those in artistic circles, seemed to be amused by this. Rossetti preferred natural body line to the laced one. The images on his mystic, sensual paintings are respectively dressed in flowing, silky dresses that hardly depict any period clothing, but resemble much of Renaissance, medieval and Greek clothing.

With exception of some other models, like Alexa Wielding, in his later phase most of his allegorical and fantastic paintings were portraits of Jane Morris. Surely the most haunting image of her is the one from the painting called Proserpina. The interest for that work was very big and Rossetti made about ten copies of it, making it the most popular of his works during his lifetime. A head lowered to hands joined around a pomegranate fruit, figure slightly bent as a sign of a rather psychical than physical burden, abundant wavy hair, pouted lips and a silk dress falling down the body and revealing the natural shape – instantly that image became a blueprint of appearance for every “self-assured”, “artistic” and, of course, eccentric lady.


By that time you could guess an artistic man since his uniform consisted of his grandfather’s suit (the more oldfashioned the better), short cloak instead of a coat, soft-brimmed hat and a long hair. But women, even if they were “different” enough for them to want to look so, didn’t really have a social blessing for such things. Somehow, though, from 1870’s on, it was fashionable even for women to show their interest and especially intellect for aesthetic matters.

Although the first aim of this new fashion was to be completely anti-fashionable, this style soon turned into uniformity, too, and many women who only wanted to seem as if belonging to this intellectual élite adopted it. So, basically, aesthetic women wanted to look like Jane Morris on that painting. They would wear a dress that would be a stunning mixture of everything and yet could hardly be depicted in proper words except that it in no way should have had any kind of artifical support or “figure improver” underneath.

They curled their hair à la Jane and walked around slightly bent, something you could easily achieve by holding your hands together somewhere underneath your belly and acting as if they were weights. Aesthetic lady Punch, British satyrical magazine, welcomed this strange new lot with a series of caricatures and humouristic cartoons. They mocked with Aesthetics’ segregation from the rest of “minor” society, with their appearance, pompous speech and special taste for everything bizzare. Indeed, being unfashionable suddenly turned into a fashion among those who felt self-assured enough to oppose the common mind. And sense. This “antifashion” lasted somewhere from mid 1870’s all the way to the beginning of World War I.

Obviously, nobody had much interest in this show during war times. Decadents were still to be found in early 1920’s, although their popularity was slowly dying out with the depression of global economy. Also, Aesthetics and Decadents were tightly connected with movements in art like Art Nouveau that promoted stylised and flowing curves like those of ivy creepers, motifs like peacock feathers and Japanese art.

After the World War I the art, especially architecture, turned toward more simple, geometric forms and frivolity of Aestheticism was completely “out”. My aesthetic Gustav Klimt Top The above mentioned fashion was widespread in British eccentric high class, since Rossetti’s works were best known on their common ground and also the other artists, like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, who later on turned aestheticism into decadence, kept it flourishing in London salons. But by no means does it mean that Aestheticism was something strictly concerning Britain.

Paris was also one of the centers of Art Nouveau, which was in German countries better known as Jugendstil. One of the best known artists of Jugendstil was Viennesse painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). He had an immense talent but, to academics’ disappointment, he soon abandoned commisioned portraying and started developing his own unique style. He was using geometric patterns interwoven with flowing curves to depict everything that covered or surrounded human body. Or, better to say, female body. During his career as a painter, he was dealing with man’s body only if he was forced to. But all the grace he saved then for beautiful portraits of his female friends, customers, models and lovers.

His geometric fantasies, often adoned with thin pieces of real gold (that’s why most of his paintings are today a real pain for printing and reproduction), were very often used as patterns on dresses he would put on his models. These ideas collided with the business of innovative dress-designer and Klimt’s companion Emilie Flöge. At the end of 19th and the first decade of 20th century rich ladies in Vienna also wanted to belong to the new society of “different”, if by nothing else, then by the dresses they wore. Emilie Flöge had a designer’s house and it turned extremely succesful after Klimt started designing patterns for her dresses.

The most popular at that time were geometric shapes in black, white and gold, worn on dresses that completely lacked any shape. Klimt himself preferred wearing casual overall dresses to men’s suits. It was a usual working clothes for most painters, to prevent their normal clothes from getting dirty, but Emilie improved this with a bit of imaginative patterns and turned that into Klimt’s favourite everyday clothes. Still, you have to take in mind that woman looking like a walking pop-art picture is not so typical fashion for the time of first cars and can-can dancers. Both of these “trends” – Aesthetic in Britain and Secessionist in Austria – were avant-garde and followed only by very rich and very eccentric people, even though eccentricity was at that time matter of fashion.

Since I’ve already mentioned Preraphaelites, I shouldn’t leave all the praises to Rossetti. He and his companion, Jane Morris, certainly did inspire many Aesthetic women in their clothing, but there are many other painters of this circle that had a special “dress-sensibility”.

There were many Preraphaelite artists who adopted the social aspect of that movement and from them we have some nice studies on Victorian fashion. However, this was also the aspect that didn’t live for too long – certainly not after 1860’s, while the other, the escapistic one, reached even into 1920’s. However, the golden age of Preraphaelitism could be outlined with 1848 as the year of foundation of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and 1898 as the death of Edward Burne-Jones.

John Everett Millais

Millais was with no doubt the most talented member of the preraphaelitic circle. However, he was bad in using this talent for the right causes. His preraphaelitic works were rather pathetic than idealistic and he soon got lost in painting images for advertisements and commisioned portraits. He was easily influenced and the biggest impact on his work was made by John Ruskin, the poet, painter and, in first years, the supporter of preraphaelitic movement. He was so influenced by Ruskin that he adopted many of his views, opinions, love for nature and finally his wife. Millais did make several fantastical images, but he was one of the Preraphaelites to give most works to the social side and this is possibly the best thing for costume lovers.

Social also means contemporary and presenting contemporary (Victorian) society with Millais’ talent results with many beautiful images where texture of textiles is especially emphasized. His sense for details, especially on clothes, can be compared only with that of Ingres. It is easy to notice every fold on skirts and guess the type of textile. When being non-contemporary, Millais preferred being historical than fantastical and his studies of historical costumes are equaly astonishing.

William Holman Hunt

Holman Hunt was a bit different, even when dealing with social themes within preraphaelitic circle. Namely, he didn’t like them and avoided them as much as possible. Even though he made several paintings with this topic, like Awakening Conscience, it is obvious that what he dreaded the most was Victorian fashion.

He especially liked depicting women, but they were respectfully dressed in casual clothes – peasant rags, half-transparent tunics or Middle Eastern dresses. His power of transferring textures to the canvas was equal to Millais’, although his interests were completely different. His immense talent is obvious on images such as Isabella and the Pot of Basil where the heroine’s silky skin is so obvious and lively through a sheer gauze tunic. Hunt was especially fond of Holy Land’s heritage.

He made several pilgrimages to the Middle East with Jerusalem as his target and from there he brought back to England images of olive-tanned Jesus more reliable than of any idealised icons of Western world. He also brought insights into a different fashion, where light textiles and garments were popular. Although he was deeply religious, he disliked the uniformity of Victorian fashion and toyed with spectators’ intuition by presenting light clothes that glorified the body and, moreover, the freedom of the body.