A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881
This painting is the work of William Powell Frith, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1883. It depicts a group of distinguished Victorians visiting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1881, just after the death of the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
On the left the figures are dressed in Victorian high fashion; on the right they wear artistic or aesthetic dress.
The room is Gallery III, the largest and most imposing room at Burlington House.
Frith worked on the painting through much of 1881 and 1882. He later said in My Autobiography and Reminiscences, published in 1887, that “Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him.”
Artistic Dress was a fashion movement circa 1850-1900 that rejected highly structured and heavily trimmed Victorian trends in favor of beautiful materials and simplicity of design. It arguably developed in Britain in the early 1850s, influenced by artistic circles such as the Pre-Raphaelites, and Dress Reform movements. It subsequently developed into more specific categories such as Aesthetic Dress and Kunstlerkleid on the continent.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were conscious archaizers, emulating the work of the “old masters” and choosing romantic, medieval subjects. They dressed their models in long flowing gowns loosely inspired by styles of the Middle Ages. These styles were then adopted by the painters’ wives and models for everyday dress.
Dresses were loosely fitted and comparatively plain, often with long puffed sleeves; they were made from fabric in muted colors derived from natural dyes, and could be ornamented with embroidery in the art needlework style. Artistic dress was an extreme contrast to the tight corsets, hoop skirts and bustles, bright synthetic aniline dyes, and lavish ornamentation seen in the mainstream fashion of the period.
In the 1860s, artistic dress became popular in intellectual circles and among artists for its natural beauty; it also reinforced their social ideals of quality materials, respect for the work of the hands, and the purity of medieval design.
Aesthetic dress of the 1880s and 1890s carries on many of the external characteristics of Artistic dress (rejection of tight lacing, simplicity of line, and emphasis on beautiful fabrics), even though, at its core, Aestheticism rejected the moral and social goals of the Victorian dress reform that was its precursor. The Aesthetes’ belief that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure was a direct rejection of the reverence for simplicity and handwork propounded by William Morris.
Aesthetic dress encompasses a range of modes, from the Japonaise gowns and Kate Greenaway-inspired children’s smocks of Liberty & Co. to the velvet jackets and knee breeches of Oscar Wilde’s “aesthetic lecturing costume” for his speaking tour of America in 1882.