The following article, "Fashion History of the Asethetic Dress Movement," was written by Pauline Weston Thomas for www.fashion-era.com.
In the mid-Victorian era 1870-1880 a group of talented artists, poets, writers and some actors were known as the Aesthetes. The painter and designer William Morris and architect Voysey designed houses together. They were fastidious about every detail from wallpaper and furniture, to window and fireplace proportions and choice of curtains.
William Morris designed textiles and embroideries and produced them through his company Morris and Co. Many of his original flowing organic designs are still used by Sanderson and Co. (Recently Sanderson's designs was bought out.) Today although the colouration is more suited to modern living.
The Aesthetic movement which they led was a revulsion to what they saw as ugly machine made products of the Industrial Revolution and to certain artefacts seen at the Great Exhibition of 1851. This ranged from a distaste felt for the ugliness of false veneers to the crudeness of aniline dyes and the over working of Victorian imagery. They ignored the fact that those on low incomes wanted to be able to have cheap goods that imitated upper class elegance and which could only be made by cheap mass methods.
Aesthetic dress may also have been a revulsion to the over use of the sewing machine which allowed excessive embellishment of dresses simply because it could achieve over trimming more easily.
The Aesthetes were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne Jones who idealized medieval life in imaginary ethereal scenes. The women in the painting appeared to wear no corsetry and the freedom and naturalness of this was admired by the Aesthetes. To blend and suit these surroundings it was felt that some reform in style of dress was needed and among artistic people it was known as Aesthetic dress.
Aesthetic dress was a protest against the contemporary fashion for bustles in various forms and restrictive corsets. In fashion history terms only a very small section of the community ever wore it initially, but it did spread to middle class intellectuals, to artistic and literary people. Aesthetic dress was made of wool or Liberty silk or velvet fabrics.
Aesthetic fashions were cut looser and was unstructured in the style of medieval or Renaissance garments with larger sleeves. The dress appeared loose compared with figure hugging fashion garments of the era. Loose waited corset free women were considered to have loose morals and it did not help that many of the Aesthetic women were thought slightly Bohemian and beyond the normal social conventions and morals of the time.
The typical fashionable aesthetic lady would have red flowing hair often henna enhanced, a pale face, green eyes and wore heelless shoes. This model of aestheticism was frequently ridiculed in Punch cartoons where the wearer might be shown with her hair brushed into her eyes. The idea of red hair itself was ridiculed as red hair was thought of as social assassination.
Often the Aesthetic dresses were embellished with large sunflowers, daffodils or other organic forms worked in free form art embroidery, peasant decoration or smocking. The subtle colours were earthy and found in nature. Natural softer vegetable dyes produced half tints of indigo, salmon, sage-green, terracotta, amber gold. Most of all Aesthetics liked the colours to look old and faded, strange, antique or even vaguely exotic as peacock blue might be.
The power of the Aesthetic movement upon the textile trade of Britain was fundamental in getting manufacturers to change attitudes about how they used the new materials such as the initially crudely toned aniline dyes. Even so an image of bold colour was generally the norm in the 1890s.
Oscar Wilde was linked with the Aesthetic movement. He liked to wear a velvet jacket, flowing tie, a wide-awake hat and in the early days of the movement often wore much ridiculed breeches. Wilde knew the value of speaking through appearance as he made satirical references to this in his plays and in a lecture on dress. He believed that flowing robes of classical lines and practical Turkish style trousers would be the better garb for both sexes.