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  • Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, 1850-1930
  • Roy R. Behrens
Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, 1850-1930 by Radu Stern. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2004. 205 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN 0-262-19493-7.

Near the close of the 19th century, the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibited his stained-glass window designs (produced by Tiffany and Company) in Paris at the famous L'Art Nouveau gallery, the interior of which had been designed by Belgian architect and designer Henry van de Velde. At some point, Toulouse-Lautrec was invited to visit Bloemenwerf (near Brussels), the home that van de Velde designed, both inside and out in, 1895. However, when the diminutive but proper French artist arrived, he was apparently greatly offended because Mrs. van de Velde greeted him dressed in what appeared to be her housecoat (or dressing gown), a sign, he thought, of disrespect. As it turns out, she was wearing not a housecoat but a simple, loose-fitting garment designed by her husband, who insisted that his wife (while at home) should dress in a way that reflected the building's architectural style, a belief that was widely referred to in Europe and the U.S.A. as Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art). As this book reminds us, the person who launched this link between clothing and architecture was probably William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, as he was most likely the one who designed the loose-fitting corsetless gowns that were worn by his own wife, Jane Morris (consistent with the spirit of Red House, their innovative home). Following that example, van de Velde designed outfits for the wife of one of his patrons; Frank Lloyd Wright created dresses for his own wife and the wives of two architectural clients; Wassily Kandinsky made outfits for a woman companion; Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser designed clothing ensembles; and of course there is the well-known example of Gustav Klimt, who designed one-of-a-kind "art dresses" (called Kunsterkleid ) in collaboration with his companion, Viennese clothing designer Emilie Floge. By the turn of the century, a German essayist could claim that the time was fast approaching when "shows of women's clothing will take their place among art exhibitions," with the result that it may be exhibited "next to paintings and sculptures."

Illustrated by more than 100 photographs and drawings (many in full-color), Against Fashion is an interesting history of the development of an attitude that flourished during the eight decades between 1850 and 1930. The first third is devoted to an essay on clothing as "anti-fashion," detailing contributions by the Wiener Werk-statte, Futurism, Russian Constructivism, the Omega Workshops and others. The remaining portion is an insightful anthology of 30 historical writings about clothing and art by Oscar Wilde, Hoffmann, van de Velde, Giacomo Balla, Varvara Stepanova, Sonia Delaunay and various others. Of particular interest is a pioneering essay (dated 1868) by British architect E.W. Godwin on the importance of clothing design and its relationship to architecture and archaeology. "As Architecture is the art and science of building," wrote Godwin (a friend of Wilde and James A.M. Whistler), "so Dress is the art and science of clothing." [End Page 73]

Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0362, U.S.A. E-mail: <>.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review.)



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