Gesamtkunstwerk and Gender
Two issues that converged to focus designers on the clothing of women were the Gesamtkunstwerk and the idea of separate spheres. A Gesamtkunstwerk is a work of art that combines several media to create a single (often powerful effect). The term was developed to discuss Opera, in which acting, music, stage sets, costumes, etc. are combined to rouse emotion. At the turn of the twentieth century many Art Nouveau architects began to plan specific interiors, down to the door knobs, carpets, and dinner service, for the buildings they designed. These Gesamtkunstwerks interior motivated several architects to design dresses; Kolomon Moser (See Austria page), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (he designed uniforms for the Willow Tea Room), Richard Riemerschmid, and Henry van de Velde are among those who designed not only furnishings, but also clothing to match their interiors.
Henry van de Velde was perhaps the first designer to extend the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal to clothing. In 1896, he and his new wife, Marie Sèthe, moved into Bloemenwerf, a house that Henry had designed both inside and out. Each room was organized around a controlling visual motif. It was this integrated interior that prompted van de Velde to first design clothing. While he claimed that he designed Maria’s clothing in order to banish offensive fashion from their moral and healthy home,1 visual evidence indicates that the dresses were specifically conceived to match the interiors he had designed. Perhaps the most famous image of Artistic Dress is the photograph of a reception dress by van de Velde , in which the decoration of the dress echoes that of the paintings directly behind the model. The swelling lines on the back of the bodice and the lines of the deep folds also echo those of the piece of furniture on which she rests her left hand. According to van de Velde's chronology, the decoration of the dress appears to be based on the preexisting forms of the décor of Bloemenwerf.
It is telling that male architects did not design clothes for men that matched an interior. Instead, they embraced the dominant male fashions, even in the homes they designed for themselves. Thus, Van de Velde wore a well-tailored English suit in Bloemenwerf (fig. 57). This may be explained by the doctrine of separate spheres.
Throughout the nineteenth century, men were associated with public life (professional and political) while women were closely linked to the home. The phrase “Angel of the Hearth,” a reference to the sacred role a women played as manager of the home, had been coined by the middle of the century. The phrase evokes the ideal nineteenth-century woman, one who ran an efficient and pleasant household that served as her husband’s refuge from the turmoil of public life. Contemporary media consistently prescribed this role to women with visual and literary representations, and an increasing number of women’s magazines offered advice on how to achieve the ideal. One common topic of such magazines and a number of advice books was home décor. A Victorian wife was urged to decorate her husband’s refuge with a multitude of evocative objects from diverse places and periods. Another major occupation of the wife was to please her husband by decorating herself. Many authors combined the two topics and conflated interior décor and clothing advice. The angel of the house was often counseled to match her wardrobe to the decoration of the home. This coordination of clothing and décor served as visual signal of her close relation to the home.2
Art Nouveau architects radically altered the relationship of the woman of the house to the décor of the house. Art Nouveau interiors were often under the complete control of a male artist. While artists usurped the mistress of the home’s control over the interior, they maintained her visual relation to that décor. Many incorporated flesh and blood women into their decorative schemes by designing clothing that visually coordinated the women who wore it with the interior décor. Most architects began their forays into clothing design by designing dresses that matched their wife to the interior of their home. (See pages 58-59).
On rare occasions, an architect declared his authorship of a building by dressing his wife to match his creation. For instance, for the grand opening of the Munich Kammerspiel in 1901 Richard Riemerschmid designed a rose and cream gown for his wife. The colors of the dress derive from the decoration of the foyer of the theater, as does the pleating, which echoes the linear motifs of the building. Henry van de Velde outdid Riemerschmid when he designed dresses for both his wife and the wife of his Patron, Karl Earnst Osthaus for the grand opening of the Hagen Folkwangmuseum. Interesingly, letters between both Karl and Gertrud Osthaus and Henry and Maria van de Velde indicate that there was resistance on Gertrud’s part. The initial idea was that Gertrud and Maria would wear identical dresses. Gertrud apparently refused. Presumably, the women wore coordinating but distinct gowns, each of which matched with the décor of the museum. (No visual reference to Maria’s dress survives.)
It is important to note that only a small percentage of Artistic Dresses were designed to be worn in a specific interior. Yet, these are the best known examples. The male architects that designed them have received far more attention than the majority of Artistic Dress designers who were both women and applied artists.
1 “In a décor like that of the Bloemenwerf, the presence of a women dressed by some haute couture firm would have been an insult. I do not remember any occasion in which my wife and I had to suffer a stain on the healthy and honest atmosphere of morality which was ours.” Henry van de Velde quoted in Radu Stern, Against Fashion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 13.