Nora Ellen Carleson, 2018 Summer Fashion Archives Intern
What do you think of when you hear “Art Nouveau”? Sinuous lines of French furniture and interiors? Stunning jewelry made of glass and gemstones worn by elite actresses like Sarah Bernhardt? Poster art? World’s Fairs and the Moulin Rouge? Tiffany glass?
For most, traditional forms of art and decorative arts spring to mind. However, Art Nouveau, and the fashions associated with the style, helped dress gain its formal acceptance into the world of decorative arts and design at the turn of the twentieth century.
The “Art Nouveau” style, literally meaning “New Art” was known by different names through the world, including “Glasgow Style” (Scotland), “Jugendstil”(Germany), “Stile floreale” (Italy), and “Sezessionstil” (Austria and Hungary). Art Nouveau is generally considered to have been most popular from about 1890-1914. Though more of a style, as it often lacked an ideology, Art Nouveau stemmed from two different art and design movements, The Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movements. Significantly, while the adaptation of the style changed in different regions and throughout the decades it was popular, it embraced various motifs and elements of the movements which inspired it. While it is easy to over simplify the style, Art Nouveau can be characterized by the use of natural forms, flowing and sinuous whiplash style lines, the use of symbolism and the female form, and a taste for the exotic in material, form, and technique.
Often, in history books, women’s Art Nouveau fashions are relegated to just the so-called “artistic dress,” which was comprised of corset-less gowns and tea dresses looking to artist smocks and historical robe-like fashions. However, these dresses were not acceptable for the average woman, as they were too controversial. Instead, women who favored Art Nouveau often incorporated distinct elements of the style into their otherwise contemporary popular fashions. This can be seen clearly in a dinner dress from 1894 in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society Fashion Archives (1978.95.63a,b).
Ladies Dinner Dress, unknown maker, E. Craig Importers (label), European, c.1894, silk velvet, silk brocade, silk satin, silk taffeta, jet, glass, silk floss, metal, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Kent Groff in memory of Mrs. A Curtis Bogert, 1978.95.63a,b.
The dinner dress in the collection of MdHS is a two-piece outfit comprised of a long sleeve and high neck bodice and a full-length A-line, oblong skirt with a slight bustle and small train. The ensemble is made of chartreuse silk velvet, black silk brocade with a dandelion pattern, bright yellow silk satin, black silk taffeta, jet beads, black glass, silk floss, and metal hooks. Though the piece looks dramatic with its large puffed sleeves, ruffles, and bright colors, it’s a wonderful example of a popular mid-1890's silhouette with distinct Art Nouveau features.
Worn by Mrs. E.V. Anderson of Baltimore and purchased from E. Craig Importers, 46 E. 20th Street, New York, New York, this piece speaks to Art Nouveau styling in its color scheme, as the yellow and chartreuse green were popular colors used in glass, jewelry, fashion, and interiors during the period.
Moreover, the dandelion patterned brocade used on the skirt and under the bodice’s large ruffs is a natural design motif seen in a multitude of forms in many different Art Nouveau works of art.
Ladies Dinner Dress (dandelion silk brocade skirt detail), unknown maker, E. Craig Importers (label), European, c.1894, silk velvet, silk brocade, silk satin, silk taffeta, jet, glass, silk floss, metal, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Kent Groff in memory of Mrs. A Curtis Bogert, 1978.95.63.b.
Ladies Dinner Dress (dandelion silk brocade under sleeve ruff detail), unknown maker, E. Craig Importers (label), European, c.1894, silk velvet, silk brocade, silk satin, silk taffeta, jet, glass, silk floss, metal, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Kent Groff in memory of Mrs. A Curtis Bogert, 1978.95.63a.
Dandelions, like dragonflies, butterflies, sunflowers, sheaths of wheat, Queen Anne’s lace, lilies, irises, peacock feathers, and orchids, among others, were all common natural motifs used in Art Nouveau decorative arts. Often women would accent their dresses with Art Nouveau jewelry, as well. Though made a decade after the MdHS dinner dress, the hair ornament by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seen below, echoes the type of jewelry that could have been worn to match this dress. These natural motifs remained popular throughout the Art Nouveau period.
Hair Ornament, Louis Comfort Tiffany, New York, c.1904, gold, silver, platinum, black opals, boulder opals, demantoid, garnets, rubies, enamel, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/2046, 2002.620.
Throughout the 1890's and first two decades of the 1900's, haute couture designers in England and France such as Poiret, Worth, Doucet, Paquin, Lucille, Redfern, and others brought elements of the Art Nouveau style into their fashion. As their designs became popular and they displayed their creations at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1889 & 1900 Paris World’s Fairs, dress became accepted as an art form and the designer as an artist, winning prizes and drawing crowds. While the 1894 Art Nouveau dinner dress in the MdHS collection does not boast a haute couture label, the quality of the craftsmanship along with the label of an elite New York Importer located at the heart of New York’s "Ladies’ Mile," a famous 19th century high-end shopping district, denotes the high probability that the dress had an European origin and the role it, among thousands of others, played in in giving dress its place among the decorative arts.
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