Archives for posts with tag: William Morris


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.



Peacocks and their feathers have been working their magic on fashion for centuries. Different cultures have attributed special meanings to this bird; often connected to immortality. Peacocks are able to eat poisonous plants and survive hence they, or their feathers, are often used to symbolize resurrection. The fact that they shed their impressive long feathers each year  only to grow back fresh, bright and beautiful ones, makes them the perfect symbol for renewal.

In western culture peacocks are also associated with men who consider themselves particularly well dressed or good-looking and who like to show off. “Pavoneggiarsi” (to display oneself in front of others in italian. Comes from the word “pavone” which means peacock). It is of course only the male peacock who has the spectacularly feathered tail and who displays it when he thinks it necessary…

Rex Silver, Peacock Feather textile for Liberty, 1900c

Rex Silver for Liberty, Peacock feather textile design, 1900c

Peacock fashion frenzy seems to begin at the time of the Pre-Raphaelite and the Arts and Crafts movement  in England in the second half of the nineteenth Century.

William Morris in his textile designs and his wife Jane Morris in her embroideries and tapestries often use the peacock motif. By 1900 it becomes THE textile design (see above) that best represents the Liberty culture of those years. And it is still synonymous of the company today.


Liberty case, 2013

Peacocks – as symbol and as motif – becomes hugely popular in the first decades of the 20th Century. They appear in and on fashionable clothing too

Weeks, evening dress peacockfeathers, 1910, Met NY

Maison Weeks, silk evening dress, 1910c, Metropolitan museum of art, New York, USA

Lalique, pendant, gold, enamel, pearl, diamonds,1901, Met NY

R. Lalique, pendant jewel with peacocks, 1901, Metropolitan museum of art, New York, USA

In more recent times peacocks are still going strong – there seems to be a fashion subcultural trend there somewhere

PeacockDress_McQueen 2008-9

Alexander McQueen, peacock dress, A/W 2008-09

and lastly one of the most expensive wedding gowns ever made – just to confirm the POWER OF THE PEACOCK lives on!

Vera Wang,peacock-feathers-wedding-dress-china-2009, cosst over a million dollars

Vera Wang, peacock wedding dress, 2009 at bridal Fair in China