Artistic Dress as Applied Art
It’s quite difficult to believe that Artistic Dress would have developed without the renewed interest in the applied arts that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Beginning with Britain in 1838, governments of industrialized nations noted the need for designers and consumers of new products. Design schools, often called art and design schools, were set up in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries. Most designers of Artistic Dress were alumni of these schools who worked as applied arts, designing furniture, interiors, graphics, or various products and their work on these projects are often crediting with prompting their interest in Artistic Dress. (See Gesamtkunstwerk under Gender Section for further information on this topic.) Often clothing was described as merely the latest field in which conscientious artists corrected recent design errors, among them
Henry van de Velde, “Dress seemed infinitely far from art [four or five years ago], and we had accepted the idea that the gap that lies between them would never be bridged. We were wrong. To bring them together, we just had to apply thesame logic we used to reform other fields of the applied arts. It is only recently that artists have become aware of their real task. They have recognized that limiting beauty to painting or monumental sculpture neglects vast fields, as varied and fertile as life itself. Consequently, their aim was to ennoble craft by reviving the meaning it had in the past. ... the modern renaissance of the applied arts began with architecture, before being extended to furniture and to everything that touches ordinary, decorative objects. Finally, it has approached its last conquest—that of dress.” These artists, who stressed Artistic Dress as one facet of the flowering applied arts (often referred to as art nouveau) focused on garments as works of art. Like their other design work, function played an important role, but so too did design principles.
A common criticism of the work of people who stressed the art aspect of Artistic Dress was that they used dresses as blank slates on which to apply designs from former projects. It was said of Alfred Mohrbutter (who worked closely with van de Velde on exhibits and publications): “...the intoxicated lines of the modern applied arts, which in his work sprout into the most opulent blossoms, run free around the hem of skirts and bodices. The form of the female body, both in its generalities and individuality, are all the same to him; the skirt is a carpet, on whose surface pattern he realizes his pure linear ideas in appliqué.” There were certainly cases in which artists merely applied decoration to pre-existing dress forms, this was not the case in the work of van de Velde, Mohrbutter, and other applied artists who stressed the importance of design principles in their writings about Artistic Dress.
A brief formal analysis of the Reception Dress by Henry van de Velde (c. 1901) reveals that the structure of the dress and mechanics of the body beneath guided the design of the linear decoration.
Van de Velde used soutache (appliquéed cord) as decoration on this and many other of his dresses. Soutache is essentially line as the cord essentially forms a path from one point to another. The first thing one notices is that these lines flow, thus the designs that are made appear organic. This is fitting for clothing the body, which is also organic. Lines formed by piping at the edges of the individual pieces of fabric used to construct the dress make the overall structure of the garment more obvious.
The placement of the linear decoration is also important. At the hem of the skirt, on the back of the bodice, and at the cuffs the soutache acts as an outline, highlighting the termination of the garment. Thus, it makes the structure of the dress more obvious. Furthermore the individual units of soutache are confined to specific areas. In fact, in no case does the cord run over a seam, it is completely contained by the individual pieces of fabric used to construct the dress and thus emphasizes the construction of the garment much like the piping.
Repetition also plays an important role in the construction of the dress. The design in the appliqué of the central back panel is repeated in the lines formed by the pleats of the skirt. The appliqué on the back of the bodice is a reverse of the verticals of the skirt pleat below. The shape narrows, swells, then narrows again, and at the top flows more freely outward. The skirt pleats gather directly below the appliqué, swell outward over the buttocks, narrow and then swell wide. Presumably, when the figure walked the train would echo the action of the ornament that appears above it.
The use of the formal elements in the dress conform quite closely to what Van de Velde described the underlying principles of his dress design in 1900: “One also has to design dress according to general tectonic principles. In this field, our creations should express a logical structure that clearly shows both the goal and the means used in their fabrication.” In addition to structure, he stressed the nature of the materials and how that material is shaped. For a dress, structure is essentially how the fabric is pieced and sewn together. “In designing dress, it is easier to show the component parts than to hide the way in which a piece of clothing is made. … What I expect from visible seams is honesty in bringing out how a dress was made, and I would like to broaden this approach as much as possible.” He also believed that ornament was necessary. “This [the visual stress on dress construction] will give rise to appropriate ornamentation of dress and will condition its very existence. The effect of decoration will thus be to emphasize the way in which the dress is made; at the same time, it will provide space for the expression of intrinsic organic life, either in abstract forms or in naturalistic motifs.” For van de Velde the best ornament was abstract; it arose from its “own inner necessity,” and it “submitted to precise rules conditioned by the form of the garment,” which were “the free play of the relationships, articulations and movement of all parts of the body that the dress covers but should not hide.” He contrasted the logical ornament of good Artistic Dress design with fashionable dress. “In the field of women’s clothing, the same errors have led to these extremely illogical constructions that, lacking any visible structure, superimpose on all sorts of bodies a cloud of bows and flounces and small pleats. They alter the body, transforming it into a formless mass of flesh, concealing limbs and joints, and completely hiding the beauty of the human figure."