Sunflowers and Aesthetic Decadence: An Embroidered White Cotton Wrapper, 1880

Sunflowers and Aesthetic Decadence: An Embroidered White Cotton Wrapper, 1880

Against modernity and beholden to it, the Aesthetic movement of the late 19th century rebelled against the machine age and the “ugliness” of contemporary Victorian life. The movement privileged art for art’s sake, seeking to beautify all things, and plundered history for inspiration. Preeminent aesthete Oscar Wilde is known to have said, “What is beautiful looks always new and always delightful, and can no more become old-fashioned than a flower can.”[1] Indeed, his pronouncements on fashions and design influenced clothing trends throughout Europe and the United States.

Lot 89, from the Mary D. Doering Archive, is an exquisite example of Aesthetic sensibilities in fashionable women’s dress. Embroidered with stylized yellow sunflowers and vines on white cotton twill, this wrapper (c. 1880) would likely have been worn informally as a housecoat or tea gown. It features a Watteau-pleat back which is held in place by a golden-yellow belt. This style was appropriated from the sacque dresses of the previous century, illustrated in the works of Watteau. Though this garment may have been worn with a corset, Watteau pleats were favored by Aesthetes for their ability to give a more naturalistic curve to the body. Corsets became a contested theme during this period: dominant Victorian silhouettes were shaped and molded, while aesthetes preferred styles inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity. To this, critics said, “had Venus herself been compelled by a cold climate to drape herself, we have little doubt she would have worn stays, to give her clothes the shape they lacked.”[2] The gentle slope of the Watteau back and delicate floral embroidery create a soft beauty in contrast to the more severe Victorian style.

The origin of the Aesthetes’ appropriation of the sunflower is unknown, though the motif eventually became “the floral emblem of an aesthetic sensibility.”[3] Its resplendent shade was one that had been reviled as a signifier of shame or decay: in the West, yellow had long been the victim of chromatic denigration, from its association with opium dens in the Far East, Dickensian descriptions of sallow flesh, and sexual impropriety. For this very reason, it became central to Aesthetic style, for the movement embraced that which was subversive to dominant English culture. “The very act of declaring a color as unacceptable, antisocial, and unsuitable makes it irresistible to those who consider themselves outside of conventional society, and oblivious to orthodoxy’s strictures,” writes Jonathan Faiers. “Yellow’s popular perception as the color of shame, perversity, and an artistic sensibility so refined as to be ‘unhealthy,’ meant that toward the close of the nineteenth century the color entered into an epistemic contract (as did the color green) with what would latterly become known as the Aesthetic Movement, simultaneously linked to and identifying yellow as a color beyond the pale.”[4] Green and yellow became so linked to the Aesthetic  sensibility that upon the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, known as the movement’s “home,” it was mocked with the line, “Greenery, yallery Grosvenor Gallery.”

In centuries prior, however, these shades had been associated with “Venus, felicity, and pleasure,” and so the sunflower’s vibrant hue made it a fitting symbol for the Aesthetes’ decadence.[5] It, along with the lily, was a favorite of Wilde’s: “It is because these two lovely flowers are in England the two most perfect models of design, the most naturally adapted for decorative art—the gaudy leonine beauty of the one and the precious loveliness of the other giving to the artist the most entire and perfect joy.”[6] His assertion of its simple beauty and perfection by design point to the sunflower’s popularity in textiles and interior decoration. Aesthetic philosophy dictated that the home, and all contained within it, should be designed completely and exquisitely. Wilde’s 1882 “House Beautiful” lecture given in Chicago proposed that dress and interior space should be harmonious. Women, as domestic creatures, were advised to dress to match their homes. A critic of contemporary fashion, Mrs. Eliza Haweis wrote in 1878 that, “A great change has come over the style of English dressing within the last, say, five years. The world of artists first started the idea of their wives and daughters dressing in harmony with [their] surroundings, and thence the grandes dames of fashion were influenced.”[7] Elements of aesthetic and artistic dress continued to enter the mainstream over the next decade, and this holistic approach to fashion and design was particularly attractive to wealthy American women. They listened attentively to Wilde’s lectures, and eagerly implemented these philosophies to display their husbands’ prosperity through the making of a beautiful home.

In this dress, the embroidered chain stitches create the ground of an intentionally anti-modern silhouette. A woman, wearing this garment to receive her guests for tea, would have fit the Aesthetic ideal, achieving harmony between dress and interior space. These yellow sunflowers in their chromatic decadence embody Wilde’s maxim that “beautiful surroundings” should not be “marred” by “gloomy dress.”[8] Hindman is thrilled to present lot 89 among three centuries of historical dress from the Mary D. Doering Archive in Luxe Holiday: A Collectors’ Collection on December 11th

[1] Wilde, Oscar, “The Philosophy of Dress,” New-York Tribune, 19 April 1885.

[2] Douglas, J., The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress (London: Henry and Company, 1895) p. 123-124.

[3] Faiers, Jonathan, “Yellow is the New Red, Or Clothing the Recession and How the Shade of Shame Became Chic,” in Colors in Fashion, eds. Jonathan Faiers and Mary Westerman Bulgarella (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) p. 95-106.

[4] Ibid.

[5] McNeil, Peter. “Fashion, Dress, and Interior Spaces," in Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Global Perspectives, eds. Joanne B. Eicher and Phyllis G. Tortora (Oxford: Berg, 2010) p. 218–225.

[6] Oscar Wilde quoted in Ransome, Arthur, Oscar Wilde, A Critical Study (London: Methuen & Co., 1923) p. 69.

[7] The Queen (24 August 1878) p. 139-140, cited in Cullen, Oriole. “Aesthetic Dress." The Berg Companion to Fashion, ed. Valerie Steele (Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010).

[8] O’Brien, K. H. F.,  “‘The House Beautiful’: A reconstruction of Oscar Wilde’s American

Lecture,” Victorian Studies 17, no. 4 (1974), p. 414.