Part of the William Morris centenary, 'Simply Stunning' is an exploration of the history of Aesthetic Dress and provides an opportunity to reconsider the relevance of this style to Modern and Postmodern fashion. Accepted as an influential if contentious vogue in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Aesthetic Dress was a catalyst to the direction women's fashion would take in the 20th century. The artistic and intellectual attitudes underpinning Aesthetic Dress may be seen to have informed the work of radical designers such as Poiret (1879-1944), Fortuny (1871-1949), Vionnet (1876-1975) and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons (b.1942), each developing an innovative approach to styling fabric on the female body through an eclectic blend of contemporary attitude and historical reference. Aesthetic Dress grew out of a radical, yet bourgeois, artistic milieu inspired by the prevailing Victorian fabrication and appropriation of Classical Greek, Medieval and 'Oriental' cultures and the contemporary Arts and Crafts Movement. Of no less importance to British cultural life and to images of women at this time was the campaign for universal suffrage; it is worth remembering that British women didn't gain the vote until 1928.
As this exhibition and catalogue show, Aesthetic Dress had various showcases each creating a particular nuance of stylistic language - from that perpetuated through Liberty's, which we might now view as picturesque classical-oriental hybrid, to a more individual look akin to modern street style. But Aesthetic Dress was first defined in the clothes of the 'stunners' who modelled for the Pre-Raphaelites: unconventional and striking women like Jane Morris, Elizabeth Siddal and Joanna Hifferman. Aesthetic Dress becomes chic amongst the literary and artistic beau monde - including male devotees, most infamously Oscar Wilde. Its anti-fashion, and thus anti-High Society, implications - 'loose gowns' were acquainted with 'loose morals' - inspired du Maurier's famous satirisation of the 'Aesthetes' in Punch from 1873-1882 and Gilbert and Sullivan's smash hit Patience.
Aesthetic Dress was also worn by several of the sitters in Julia-Margaret Cameron's portraits and it is especially in these works made in the experimental medium of photography that it may be perceived as a prototype for avant-garde fashion. The rejection of crippling corsets and binding sleeves in favour of comfortable tailoring that allowed the wearer to wield a tennis racket or embrace a child, together with an assertive use of fabric, was the antithesis of the ultra-feminine norm of the doll-like figurine swathed in pale, stiff fabrics trimmed with yards of lace and topped with an impossible hat. The fetish for an 18 inch waist moved Mr Punch to declare the promotion of a 'natural waist' as nothing less than dangerous. The rediscovery and acceptance of the real female form, and thus its power, was therefore an expression of both sartorial and social independence.
While fashion is by its very nature a manipulation of the (female) form into the latest 'ideal', 20th century designers such as Vionnet and Kawakubo share the attitudes of Aesthetic Dress pioneers. Their designs pare down and redefine notions of the 'feminine', creating clothing which acknowledges how women feel and function, as well as look, without imitating the vocabulary of the 'male'. Aesthetic Dress and its contemporary equivalent is very much about the people who wear the clothes: Elizabeth Siddal imbued her dress with her personality and her clothes were an expression of her individualism and an agent for her ideas. Contemporary designers' choice of 'creative' people rather than supermodels similarly extends the language of their clothes.
The legacy of Aesthetic Dress is fashion that remains on the border between popular and high fashion, clothing that embraces an intellectual as well as aesthetic expression using the medium of fashion and the image of the 'fashionable' itself as the agent of change.