If there’s a message to take away from the current exhibit The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900, soon to close at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, it’s that the colors and styles you wear do matter.
The Cult of Beauty exhibition presented a powerful display of the artists, known as Aesthetes, who impacted the middle-class’ attitudes about material culture during Victorian times. Not only were attitudes radically changed about art, architecture, and design, but also with regard to personal clothing style choices.
In fact, the time of Aestheticism coincided with the Dress Reform Movement. This movement called for Victorian women to be liberated from their corsets. But Aestheticism wasn’t a movement that merely favored women. Men’s styles were also impacted as men began to see more clothing choices available so that they could dress to express their personalities.
As a reminder that the colors and styles you wear do matter, the Aesthetes brought forward to this very day the idea that a woman’s clothes should mirror the shape of her physical body. They rejected high fashion’s uniformity and commercialism and encouraged the expression of individuality through one’s attire.
Famed retail design emporium Liberty of London even snagged Edward Godwin, known as the topmost designer of Aesthetic interiors and furnishings, to run its dress department. This further indicated that the designs of the period were meant to totally surround a person: both in the home environment and on the body.
His painting style was highly stylized, restrained by very light use of paint and small brush strokes. But he was also renowned for his tonal harmony and composition, which resulted in rather austere portraits, especially those showing his subjects in profile pose. The painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle is an excellent example of his work. The restrained use of color in the painting, the depicted surroundings, and the attire worn by the subject all reflected Whistler’s rejection of the Victorian era’s design flamboyancy.
Another crucial painting of Whistler’s, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, is a portrait of his mistress. Using this level of tonality in a painting at that time was very unusual, and it helped to make the artwork very controversial. Of course, there are numerous interpretations of the painting’s intended meaning. But those suppositions were of little importance to Whistler.
Like other Aesthetes, his works of art were created as “art for art’s sake.” But that didn’t mean that Whistler’s portraiture [and other works of art] were anything but intentional and completely composed. He was known to have fabrics and clothes specially made to meet his exacting specifications prior to painting the scenes. By doing this, Whistler was showing that the colors and styles you wear do matter.
That Whistler entitled his paintings by the crucial colors he used, and not only based on his human subject matter, serves as further proof of the critical importance he placed on color.
Today, we can appreciate having choices in clothing colors and styles that allow us to express our individuality. What was once an avant-garde concept has now become mainstream. I left the exhibit wondering this: why are people not making the most of all the choices we now have available to express our personal styles? The point of the Victorian avant-garde was to make more readily available well-designed objects of art, décor, and fashions. We are easily able to enjoy this today, but sadly, we don’t demand it for ourselves enough.
Still, the colors and styles you wear do matter. You may not be the subject of an oil portrait, but chances are good you wind up in photos posted on Facebook and elsewhere. And, when your friends and fans view your photo, they may wonder what your intended meaning is based on the way you style yourself. Just look at these paintings of Whistler’s, and you’ll be hard pressed to look without wonder about what the subjects are thinking, or what’s going on in their lives. Believe me, people are treating you exactly the same way.
Joseph Rosenfeld helps successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs transform their self-confidence by improving their personal style. Get Joseph’s free report that helps you know which “7 Ways Your Image Is Leading to Low Performance” at josephrosenfeld.com.