Pavonia by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1858-59) Private Collection c/o Christie

Ruffling soft bristles, a balmy breeze sends swaying strands of golden ochre, mustard yellow and sapphire blue; peacock feathers delicately fan out, framing the face of Nanna Risi. Captured in oil on canvas by Frederic Leighton, she looks past you. Her sleeves – reminiscent of clean sheets blowing on the line and Margiela’s duvet coat of 1999 – billow and crease. Standing before Pavonia, visitors to The Cult of Beauty begin their exploration of exquisite colours and richly decadent textures. As the streets of London swell and sweat in the summer heat, soothe your senses and discover the artists who paved the way for fashion, both as a lifestyle movement and a series of trends this season.

Fashion is often accused of frivolity; it is extravagant and irrelevant in the eyes of those who cannot see the importance of beauty. Yet, the ability and desire to elevate beauty to a cultural necessity stems from the Aesthetic Movement of 1860-1900. As Sir Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, says: “Art as important for its own sake, beauty to be valued for itself alone – the ideas proposed by the Aesthetic Movement are current again today.” Characterised in part by a celebration of saturated hues and Japonisme, the current prevalence of the Aesthetes’ style can be seen in this season’s embrace of colour and Orientalism.

Aestheticism was born out of the desire for a new beauty that could challenge and overcome the prevalence of the Victorian establishment, with its stale patterns of thought and rules of propriety and morality. This search for beauty extended beyond the canvas of art and into sculpture, literature, architecture, fashion and interiors. It was the first movement to inspire a lifestyle. The lives and works of the main exponents of Aestheticism can be seen within the walls of the V&A. The names to know this season are: William Morris; James McNeill Whistler; Frederic Leighton; Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Edward Burne-Jones and Oscar Wilde.

Be it by dressing a flame haired beauty in a forest green gown or combining a delicate array of pinks – fuschia, rose and carnation – it is the Aesthetes’ use of colour that mesmerises the viewer. Intense and vibrant, their jewel tones seep out of their paintings and artfully adorn the women of this season. The flaming orange swathes of fabric that drape over the figures in Midsummer by Albert Moore can also be seen in the collections of Damir Doma, Costume National and Prada.

The current resurgence in Japanese fashion, both on the catwalk and in museums, can be traced back to when British Aesthetes first fell for the distinctive style of the East in the 1860’s. With a new appreciation of materials, techniques, forms and colours, they sought to revive handcrafted values that had been lost to the industrial revolution. This mindset mirrors this season’s embrace of ancient crafts like macramé, extending the similarities between then and now past those in colour and cut. Yet, it is most in the celebration of exoticism and sensuality that the Japanese influence can be seen in the creations of today, such as those by Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

The Aesthetic Movement led the way for future artists and creators to question, seek and produce that which was beautiful for their time, rather as designers do each season. Whilst the pace of change may have quickened, the ultimate outcome remains the same – the birth of items that can be appreciated best with the eyes of those who are lucky enough to witness them.

The Cult of Beauty
Current – 17th July 2011

Victoria & Albert Museum
London SW7

Words by Julia O’Doherty

The Sluggard by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1885) Royal Academy of Arts, London

Armchair by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1884-6) © V&A Images


Costume National, Damir Doma, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, gucci, James McNeil Whistler, louis vuitton, Oscar Wilde, Prada, V&A, William Morris,