At the root of this rebellion were a small number men and women known as the Pre-Raphaelite circle, who championed flowing fabrics and unconventionally loose waistlines.This was not just a fashion statement. The Pre-Raphaelites used clothing as a means to question the very position of women in their society; and so the women in their paintings and photographs remain iconic figures of subversion, even today.

The Pre-Raphaelite muses

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair

Working class girl Elizabeth Siddall was not your traditional Victorian woman. She began her career as a milliner before becoming a poet, artist and artists’ model within the Pre-Raphaelite group. This eventually led to her marriage to Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The other women within Siddall’s social group aspired to the frills and crinolines (structured petticoats) of the rich, as seen in Lady Clementina Hawarden’s photograph of her daughter Isabella Grace c.1861–1862. Siddall, however, defined her own style, often making dresses out of plain fabrics and the simple shapes associated with women’s work wear. She did not wear a corset.

Despite Siddall’s rejection of beauty norms, Rossetti’s sketches show her as elegantly feminine, as she undergoes daily activities such as painting, plaiting her hair or reading. With her long, loosely styled coiffure and collarless dresses, she is a picture of effortless grace. Perhaps in part thanks to Siddall, this style soon became a popular fashion within their group. Inspired by classical, Renaissance, eighteenth century and oriental sources, other artists and muses such as the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and actress Ellen Terry, adopted this style. 

Another muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s was Jane Morris, the wife of his friend and mentee William Morris. Rossetti’s admiration for Jane was shared by photographer John R. Parsons, and in 1865 the pair took a series of photographs of her in Rossetti’s house and garden in Cheyne Walk, London. She wears a corseted dress with wide sleeves, the crinolines removed so that the silk drapes and folds, and a simple collar to emphasise Jane’s exposed neck.

John R. Parsons Mrs William Morris posed by Rossetti 1865 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

John R. Parsons Mrs William Morris posed by Rossetti 1865 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

John R. Parsons Jane Morris, posed by Rossetti 1865

John R. Parsons Jane Morris, posed by Rossetti 1865 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

Parson’s camera recorded Jane’s distinct appearance. Her dark colouring, strong brow and chin, and long hands were at odds with conventional ideals of female beauty. Her individual look was accentuated by the casual postures directed by Rossetti. The painter then went on to create a series of chalk-drawings and oil-paintings from these photographs, including Mariana 1870.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Mariana 1870 Oil on canvas Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum Collection

Dante Gabriel Rossetti Mariana 1870 Oil on canvas Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum Collection

‘Aesthetic’ artistic dress

John Cimon Warburg The Japanese Parasol after 1909, printed 2016 Photograph, facsimile on lightbox from autochrome, Royal Photographic Society / National Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Librar

John Cimon Warburg The Japanese Parasol after 1909, printed 2016 Photograph, facsimile on lightbox from autochrome, Royal Photographic Society / National Media Museum / Science and Society Picture Library 

Textile designer and socialist activist, William Morris’s 1861 Arts and Crafts movement triggered an influx of alternative fashions encouraging natural decoration, materials and skills. As these styles became more frequently seen in public, the artists, designers and writers behind the trends became known as the aesthetic movement.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ‘Three Figures: Pink and Grey’ 1868–78
James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Three Figures: Pink and Grey 1868–78

Whistler commissioned this pale dress for Francis Leyland, the wife of his patron. The dress was specifically designed to harmonise with the Japonist interiors he had designed for their home. 

‘Healthy’ artistic dress

The introduction of these unconventional fashion trends to Victorian life became associated with progressive values and woman’s rights. This was due to the fact the clothes stood for more than style, they were a symbol of a new, freer lifestyle which promoted more agency for the women that wore them. 

In 1893, artists and designers began the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union. The Union included George Frederic Watts, Walter Crane, Louise Jopling and Liberty Company founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who was responsible for circulating aesthetic designs through the Liberty stores.

Thomas Armstrong The Hay Field 1869

Thomas Armstrong The Hay Field 1869 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With images like this, the Union promoted aesthetic dress as ‘healthier’. Liberty’s tea gowns and evening gowns appealed to those who wished to identify themselves as the ‘new woman’, and so, greatly widened the fashion market, offering woman a progressive new identity.

Book tickets for Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the modern age at Tate Britain 11 May – 25 September 2016 

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