Conference, Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  August 19, 2019

‘Pre-Raphelites and the Arts and Craft Movement’ conference 2019

by Katy Canales

Birmingham with its historic links to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement was the fitting setting for the Costume Society’s annual conference; the theme of which was ‘Pre-Raphealite brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement’. The conference drew a stellar line up of speakers who held from across UK and North America. They spoke across a range of fascinating topics that explored the movement’s origins, context, inspirations, characters, global reach and legacy. Spanning three days, the conference included a tour of the Birmingham museum, two days of talks, awards, dinners, and the Annual General Meeting.

The first day of talks was split into three sessions. Session one kicked off with Kate Fisher, Masters candidate at NY University and Long Island University presenting on ‘Aesthetic dress and the Future Countess of Carlisle’. According to Fisher, Florence Howard, the aforementioned future countess of Carlisle, was a radicle proponent for ditching the constraints of contemporary fashions like corsets, crinolines and petticoats. She assiduously curated her own style, adopting the features of medieval clothing, such as the square neckline, high shoulder seems, high waist, Watteau pleat back whilst using sumptuous contemporary materials. Kate Fisher used a range of primary resources to benchmark Florence’s emerging style, including, most notably, the receding hairline of Florence’s husband George! This talk established Florence alongside leading figures, Jane Morris and Julia Margaret Cameron in the vanguard of dress reformers. These individuals through example, challenged the dress restrictions that were socially imposed on women at that time.

Lou Taylor, emeritus professor at Brighton University delivered a paper on ‘Lady Rushbury’s ‘Simple Life’ Dress’ 1909-1910’. Taylor introduced the English ‘Simple Life’ as a natural descendant of the 19th century aesthetic dress. Designed and worn during the first two decades of the 20th century, Lou Taylor drew parallels with the ethics of the wearers and makers of the ‘Simple Life’ dress and that of its precursors in the Arts and Crafts movement. In her paper, Taylor argued that Lady Rushbury’s dress, circa 1916, was created at a time of deep class and economic divisions and at a difficult time for the country’s working-class population and that it served as a stylistic rebuke of Paris fashions and the excess of London’s high society. The talk identified special additional characteristics of the English ‘Simple Life’ dress, that these dresses were made from hand-spun materials, they were designed, created and worn by the maker or their close family or friends and that the dresses were heavily influenced by May Morris and Mary Newhill.

The second session concluded with the presentation of the 2019 Patterns of Performance and the Patterns of Fashion awards. This year’s awards were judged and presented by Michelle Clapham, the celebrated costume designer. The finalists’ work and their sketch books were on display for conference guests to explore. The students demonstrated high level of research, technical ability and creativity, making it a difficult decision for Michelle, but this year’s winners were Clara Gelston and Carrie-Ann Stein.

Keynote speaker Anna Buruma opened the second session, treating delegates to a fascinating glimpse inside the Liberty archive. Using examples from across the archive, Anna charted the influences of Grecian, Roman and medieval clothing on the store’s relaxed-fit, draped dresses. Liberty coupled imported silks from across Asia with traditional western smocking and embroidery techniques to create sumptuous and comfortable dresses for its lucky customers.

The first of the third session’s three speakers was Valerie Wilson whose paper ‘Many Hands Make: craft skills in Irish costume and embroidery 1880 - 1925’, explored the influence of William and May Morris’s designs on the Celtic Revival. She beautifully Illustrated the unique and significant symbiosis in Ireland of music and dance with Arts and Crafts. In her paper she charted the use of traditional non-toxic dyes, medieval inspirations as well as embroidery, Celtic knots, illuminated manuscripts and lace making techniques in the work of the Gaelic League and Wilson singled out works by Lily Yeats, Evelyn Gleeson, Bridget O’ Quinn and the Fun Emer guild.

The penultimate paper of the day was titled Azadeh Monzavi’s ‘The Keepsake by Kate Elizabeth Bunce: A Pre-Raphaelite Allegory Cloaked Aesthetically in Arts and Crafts Symbols’. Bunce was a graduate from the Birmingham School of Art and her painting ‘The Keepsake’ ca. 1889-1901 is indicative of Arts and Crafts motifs as well as its stylistic traits. Bunce’s ‘The Keepsake’ draws its title and inspiration from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem. This artwork can be read as a celebration of medieval composition, colour-palette, pastimes, dress, and even its medium (egg tempera) but it also challenges traditional gender roles. In this talk Monzavi cleverly drew our attention across the shallow and claustrophobic pictorial space to focus on the dominance of painting’s female figures. In particular the figures’ clothing and accessories, which were adorned with embroidered regal griffins and were representative of female empowerment and a product of their creativity.

The day concluded on a high with ‘The influence of Pre-Raphaelite Dress on the ‘Art dresses’ of Emilie Floge and Gustave Klimt’ given by Araminta Pain. Pain drew links between the medieval clothing and the jewel-like, stained glass background of John Everett Millais’s oil painting ‘Mariana’ 1851 and those painted of Floge by Klimt. Like the dresses of the Arts and Crafts movement, Floge’s dresses dispensed with restrictive corsets and instead had a relaxed fit with loose, free moving sleeves. Emilie’s dresses however moved beyond the decorative embellishments of the British Arts and Crafts movement and instead created playful, juxtaposed planes of highly decorative graphic and floral patterns. It is these opulent patterns devised by Floge which feature in Klimt’s paintings and help to make them so dazzling to the eyes.

The guests at this conference were immersed into the political, social, creative and progressive world of the Art and Crafts movement and were able to track through these remarkable talks its continuing global legacy.

  • Patterns of Fashion
  • Countess of Carlisle slide - Kate Fisher
  • Simple life embroidery- Lou Taylor
  • Emilie Floge slide - Araminta Pain