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1883 Fashion and Fads

Throughout its history, the Royal Academy Annual Exhibition has been a favourite destination for London’s fashionable elite. The opportunity to engage in social and sartorial discourse at one of the season’s crowning events has consistently produced a meeting of art and artifice unparalleled at any equivalent gathering, distinctive in its cosmopolitan character. Displayed at the Annual Exhibition of 1883, William Powell Frith’s Private View at the Royal Academy memorialised the fashionable crowd of the Annual Exhibition that had taken place only two years previously (Fig. 1). Painting arguably could not move as fast as fashion, but in 1883, a depiction of the Exhibition of 1881 still felt like very recent history; the events of two years prior would have been stored in the memories of many regular visitors to the Annual Exhibition.

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Marking the highpoint in one of the capital’s periodic fashion fads, Frith’s satirical recording of the 1881 opening reception captures a clash of metropolitan values: between those adherents of the Aesthetic movement for whom the sensual draw of beauty signified an end in itself, and the guardians of a more conservative morality, whose views were based upon ethical judgement and rational critique. It reinforces the suggestion that the Academy was an arena of display not only for art, but also for the artists, critics, and visitors who came to view the Exhibition.

The Private View at the Royal Academy 1881 provides a unique historical record of art criticism and social evolution in process. It is a role-call of England’s late Victorian opinion-setters. Anthony Trollope, William Gladstone, John Tenniel, Henry Irving, George A. Sala, George Du Maurier, Lord Leighton, and John Everett Millais are among the dignitaries in morning suits and top hats, who form a sober and slightly discomforted audience for both the year’s paintings, and, more pointedly, the group of elaborately attired women and children, among them Lillie Langtry and Ellen Terry, who attend on the subversive utterances of their high-priest, Oscar Wilde. Frith’s own position on the worth of modish judgement was usefully recorded in his autobiography, where he underscored the painting’s purpose as a means “to hit at the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art.”1

Certainly, by the early 1880s, a taste for Aesthetic dressing among London’s artistic and bohemian fringes had sufficiently infiltrated fashionable circles and popular consciousness to draw wide fascination and ridicule. In February 1881, F.C. Burnand’s Aesthetic farce The Colonel opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre, to be followed in April by W.S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan’s more celebrated Patience at the Opera Comique. Both productions went to some lengths to capture an authentic sense of artistic clothing and interior design, inspired by Mrs Haweis’ influential books The Art of Dress of 1878 and The Art of Decoration of 1881, and by the Punch caricatures of Kensington pretentions produced by George du Maurier. For Patience, as for The Colonel, recognisable accoutrements of the craze such as Liberty fabrics featured in costumes and furnishings, and the store’s “artistic silks” were advertised prominently in the programme. Its much-admired “Umritza” cashmere, first introduced in 1879, seems almost to have been designed with Patience and Royal Academy openings in mind. Its colour ranges, described by a journalist for the society fashion magazine The Queen, are also remarkably close to the tones chosen for the Aesthetic dresses in Frith’s painting:

There are tints that call to mind French and English mustards, sage-greens, willow-greens, greens that look like curry and greens that are remarkable on lichen-coloured walls, and also on marshy vegetation—all of which will be welcomed by those who indulge in artistic dress or in decorative revivals.2

Frith’s depiction of Oscar Wilde’s clothing is, perhaps, more difficult to read than the dress of his female acolytes, betraying as it does that mix of “the preposterous with the pragmatic” that so enraged his critics.3 While he falls short of representing the quilted smoking jacket, knee breeches, stockings, and patent dress pumps captured in Napoleon Sarony’s famous 1882 studio portrait (produced for Wilde’s lecture tour of the United States), the long hair, pink cravat, and orchid button hole provide provocation enough, sported here in deliberate contrast to the top hat and tailored morning coat of convention.

Regardless of the acuity of his sartorial observations, Frith’s success in critiquing fashionable folly and the Aesthetic craze is, however, compromised. The satire is somehow blunted by the artist’s interest and investment in the subject matter. He was himself a keen collector and observer of contemporary and historical women’s dress, whose earlier works had often informed the development of quintessentially nostalgic English fashion styles, such as the “Dolly Varden” costume of the early 1870s.4 That he should have chosen to mock a trend whose intention was to reform the constricting and vulgar tendencies of high French fashions through recourse to looser fit, natural, and historicist fabric, colours and prints, and an appeal to emotion and character, rather than an imposed and ephemeral concept of taste, is strange. But some historians have attributed his dyspeptic approach to age and a certain senior exasperation with the vanities of the world. 5 This was, after all, a man who advised his daughters to dress in monochrome shades at private views, “black because it was unobtrusive and white because it would not interfere with the colour on the walls.”6

In 1881, black or white dress would indeed have formed an effective foil, both for the subtle autumnal tones of the best paintings in the show (which included Frith’s own For Better or Worse, Benjamin W. Leader’s February Fill Dyke, and Frederic Leighton’s Elisha Raising the Son of the Shulamite), and for the outré sartorial choices of the Aesthetic crowd. But there was no escaping the implications of the quotation from The Winter’s Tale that the Academicians chose to front the printed programme. Wilde’s bid to turn the natural order of art on its head was in the ascendant:

Nature is made better by no mean,
But nature makes the man; so o’er that art
Which you say adds to nature is an art
That nature makes …
The art itself is nature.7
  1. W.P. Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1887–1888), Vol. 2, 256.↩︎

  2. Alison Adburgham, Liberty’s: A Biography of a Shop (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975), 31.↩︎

  3. C. Gere and L. Hoskins, The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior (London: Lund Humphries, 2000), 88.↩︎

  4. E. Ehrman, “Frith and Fashion”, in M. Bills and V. Knight (eds), William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 115–116.↩︎

  5. Ehrman, “Frith and Fashion”, 128.↩︎

  6. J.E. Panton, Leaves From A Life (London: E. Nash, 1908), 172.↩︎

  7. The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. The One Hundred and Thirteenth (London: W. Clowes & Sons, 1881).↩︎

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Explore the 1883 catalogue