Archives for posts with tag: beauty


Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2, Tate Britain, London   UK

An exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings just opened in Turin (Italy) , which promises to investigate the movement’s “utopia of beauty”. is very excited as this has been a favorite topic since 1984, when the Tate Gallery in London staged a major exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Seeing it was a powerful and deeply impacting experience. The dress, beauty and politics of the women involved in the PR movement became the topic of my degree dissertation. However, I then moved on to other dress and textile obsessions. Until today.

In this and the following posts,  I wish to muse over a few ‘issues’ that have come buzzing back to me after all these years.

As a dress historian I am naturally often concerned with the concept of beauty. Why and when is a person considered beautiful or not so? All eras have their canons of beauty. In terms of PR beauty standards, what is interesting is that they were not actually the same as those of contemporary Victorian society. In other words what the PR Brotherhood deemed ‘beautiful’ was not aligned with the  ‘ideal’ beauty represented in fashion magazines of the time.

giornale moda 1840s

Fashion magazine, 1840s

The work of these (initially, in 1848) young artists, reveals a deep understanding of Italian Renaissance aesthetics, a great concern with women,  and a desire to look for beauty in the unusual. They were shying away from the banal, the mass-produced, that anonymous beauty found in fashion magazines, which we can easily relate to today.

If we can ascertain a difference between the real and the represented we may be able to understand what PR beauty was all about. Photography comes to our aid as we now try to understand what these women, the models, looked like in real life.

J.M.Cameron,foto Marie Spartali as Hypatia,1867

Julia Margaret Cameron, photo of actress Marie Spartali, 1867

If we compare the above photo of actress Marie Spartali with a portrait made shortly after by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, we begin to see how he (as unchallenged leader of the group) had devised a ‘style’, a way of beautifying his female subjects to fit in with his specific ideals of beauty. By the end of the 1850s he had devised a set of facial connotations that came to represent PR beauty. He curled the upper lip of his female sitters and elongated their neck, while tilting the head slightly to one side.

VIC120692093  01

D.G.Rossetti, Marie Spartali, 1869c

It becomes even more evident in the numerous works executed by him featuring the model  Jane Morris. In fact, although Jane could be the instigator of this ‘type’… as we can see she really did have a long neck and full, curly lips.

Dante G.Rossetti, Jane Morris seduta, V&A

D.G. Rossetti, photo of Jane Morris, 1865, Victoria and Albert museum London UK

D.G.Rossetti, Jane Morris,,pc

D.G. Rossetti, sketch of Jane Morris, p.c.

If we explore their professional and personal relationship, we discover that D.G. Rossetti had actually been deeply struck by Jane on first seeing her (he was walking in Oxford with artist William Morris). For Rossetti it was love at first sight, she embodied all the aesthetic ideals he’d absorbed from Italian Renaissance artists. But Jane ended up marrying William Morris in 1859. Rossetti became a close friend and she modeled for him very often, revealing what seems to become an aesthetic obsession, if not a full-fledged love affair.

By the 1860s all of Rossetti’s sitters seem to receive the ‘PR beauty treatment’.

Fanny Cornforth photo 1863

Photo of Fanny Cornforth, model and long term lover of D.G. Rossetti  from 1858 onwards

Monna Vanna 1866 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882

D.G. Rossetti, Monna Vanna, 1866 (model F.Cornforth), Tate Britain, London UK

In the end it may just be that the famous Rossetti lips were those of Jane Morris. The one who ‘got away’. His true love.


high class lady feet unwrapped  High class chinese lady, early 20th C

Without pretending to be an expert on China, chinese culture or history,  in this post I want to muse over some stuff that has grabbed the attention of


 yes an uncomfortable topic. Understanding why they did it is the least of the problems. How they did it is simply horrific – the bones being purposely broken and then the foot tightly  bound in strips of cloth to make it set into a new “desired” shape….not only the pain suffered but also the psychological violence of it takes my breath away. By ritualizing the event and by mystifying the results into the sphere of beauty and desire, girls were bashed and moulded into their adult identity.

In the picture above, the aristocratic woman looks like a china (!) doll with the layers of make-up that hide any expression from her face. The photo was obviously taken after the end of the bound-feet epoch. She sits and displays her naked feet, her toes have grown into the soles creating a little point at the front of the foot. Westerners especially were begining to investigate these obscure chinese traditions and making photographic reportages. Even older women agreed to show their feet, some accepting to become objects of study by the modern western medical world. Hence the x-ray below

769px-Bound_feet_(X-ray) 1890-1923 bound feet x-ray late 19th century China

Of course nobody (except the victim) ever looked at or touched the disfigured feet. Women would wear beautifully crafted little shoes in colourful embroidered silk to hide them. 

bound feet shoes, Queensland museum silk bound feet shoes, Queensland Museum, Australia

So if this was the accepted practice, when, why and how did it end?

A change in attitude was heralded by a woman, a surprizing fact in itself. No feminist revolution but one extremely powerful female who actively ruled China behind a silk screen for the second half of the 19th Century

Dowager-Empress Cixi late 19thC Empress Dowager Cixi, China, late 19th C.

To know more about her and the extent of her power look out for this book to be published October 2013:

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Jung Chang, the author of hugely successful “Wild Swans” brings more chinese history out of academia for us all to enjoy.

I am certailny looking foward to reading it!