Dress, circa 1837, American. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund.
At the top of the 19th century, the Enlightenment and a series of revolutions had just turned the Western world on its head. Growing popular interest in reason, democracy, and archeology engendered an explosion of Neoclassicism. As early as the 1760s, Neoclassicism opposed French Rococo style in favor of the simple, symmetrical aesthetics of ancient Greece and Rome. The movement continued in some form all the way into the 1820s. Women’s fashion referenced classical antiquity as well, much as architecture and the decorative arts did. Fashionable dress embodied refined simplicity. Sheer white muslin evening dresses mimicked marble statues. Narrow, columnar silhouettes neglected to note the waist. Indeed, the waistline rose to just under the bust, at times creating a bodice less than three inches long. This was later deemed the Empire waist, a reference to the First French Empire.
The Romantic era essentially reversed the effects of Neoclassicism on fashion. Spanning approximately from 1815 to 1840, Romanticism was a schism from Enlightenment thinking. The Romantic spirit valued emotion over reason and imagination over analysis. In art, this was presented through the misty, mysterious landscapes painted by artists like J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. In literature, it was manifested through thrilling fantasy, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and historic fiction like the Waverley novels by Walter Scott. Like the Neoclassicists, Romantics were inspired by aesthetics of the past. But rather than idealizing classical antiquity, they lovingly looked back on medieval, Renaissance, and baroque Europe. In fashion, Romantic influences from different centuries resulted in eclectic sartorial amalgamations.
During the short period when Neoclassicism and Romanticism co-existed, Romantic influence was as easily detected as a drop of ink in water. Under its influence, the fashionable feminine silhouette underwent major transformations. Romantic sleeve shapes evolved out of straight cuts into puffs, then demi-gigots, then massive full gigots, and then low, sunken balloons. Skirts inflated from a tall column to a wide, rounded arch. And quite notably, the waist was rediscovered. The waistline gradually fell from the empire position to the natural waist by the 1830s, and then settled into a low point by the 1840s. Strong, structured undergarments were increasingly relied on to support the artifice.
Such silhouettes were not unprecedented—they were all inspired by historic dress ranging from the 13th to 17th centuries. In a very clear example, by 1815 small neck ruffles appeared on chemisettes as a direct reference to the early Elizabethan Era. Around the same time, the Renaissance technique of slashing and puffing was referenced on the sleeves of evening dresses and ball gowns. On fashionable dresses from the 1820s and 1830s, it is common to see trimmings and hem sculptures inspired by 17th century Van Dyke points. The seemingly ubiquitous 1830s gigot sleeves were inspired by the 16th and 17th centuries. Even the comparatively modest styles of the 1840s relied on the historicism of 17th century Bertha collars and elongated V-shaped waistlines.
The Romantic departure from Neoclassicism was also made obvious through the color and print of fashionable dress fabrics. It would be false to claim that all pre-Romantic fashionable dress was white, as everyday morning and day dress was commonly made in printed cottons with dark grounds. However, sheer, white Indian muslin was undoubtedly the most fashionable fabric of the first decade of the 19th century. While white did not entirely vanish as a popular dress color, its arid simplicity was not suitable for the broad imagination of Romanticism. By the 1830s, bright blues, reds, and yellows were welcomed. Yet, more popular colors were quite a bit more drab: olive, sage, tan, “dead leaf,” “clay-stone,” and other earth tones. Fashion seemed to favor colors and figures found in nature or the landscape paintings of Romantic artists.
Historicism was another prominent influence on Romantic era dress textiles. Much as silhouettes were inspired by various styles of the past, so were dress fabrics. In many cases, direct inspiration was taken from the silk moirés, brocades, and meandering florals of the 18th century. In fact, it was not uncommon for Romantic era dresses to be made with repurposed 18th century fabrics—as was the case with a circa 1820 dress in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was perhaps the greatest betrayal to Neoclassicism.
In 2016, the Wadsworth Atheneum presented Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy, the first exhibition dedicated to the influence of Romanticism on women’s fashion. Its curator, Lynne Z. Bassett, who had dreamed of doing such a show for at least fifteen years, used paintings, prints, and decorative arts to further contextualize the Romantic influence on dress. In her conclusion, Bassett asserted that Romanticism remains with us, both in fashion and culture. Although the exhibition focused primarily on fashion between 1810 and 1860, Bassett wrote that “clothing fashions have expressed revivals of Romantic design so frequently it is impossible to say that the Romantic aesthetic ever actually ended. Rather, it just continues to ebb and flow.”
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