A Pre-Raphaelite Reverie

My avid, life-long research into medieval studies, especially when it comes to manuscripts, is distinctly tied to my fascination for the revival of its tales and artistry through the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which spanned the 1850s to the late 19th century.  The term “Pre-Raphaelite” is associated with the much wider and long-lived “Brotherhood” of English painters, poets, and art critics that included both men and women in its ranks and influenced architecture, music, and literature, as well.  They developed a particular taste instead for medieval and early Renaissance art made ‘pre’, meaning before, Raphael, focusing on working from direct observation with dazzling, sparkling colors and incredible attention to detail.   It is full of romantic idealism, old-style stories, and classically draped damsels in distress…perfect for a princess at heart!

My particular favorites are the pensive, realistically styled images in the latter half of Pre-Raphaelite art, particularly those of medieval characters or fictional fairytale damsels produced by Brotherhood members such as Rossetti and his followers William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Evelyn De Morgan.  The women in such art always have hair and clothing that are total romantic perfection while the men are yearning, staunch, and heroic…I’ve been entranced since my childhood.  In a recent post, my sewing was inspired by the classical, flowing, Grecian style of Disney’s Meg from the 1997 animated film “Hercules”.  Here I am continuing that idealism with posting the making of a dreamy, draping 1940s era “Goddess gown” with matching bolero and jewelry, all inspired by the medieval inspiration behind the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

How did I link paleographic manuscript studies to both an art form and fashionable clothing?  Well, just like Pre-Raphaelite art, my outfit has a blend of the medieval with the elements of other eras tied into one.  The floral printed silk of my dress and the canvas print of my bolero are veritable copies of the beautifully scientific style of accurately painting nature as can be seen both on the pages of late medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as a tapestry of Burne-Jones.  It was often in the page margins or borders of illuminations that such texts (primarily early 15th century) used flowers and insects so as to heighten and add depth of meaning by their symbolism.  

This is no less the case with Pre-Raphaelite artistry where such a lush amount of detailed flora and insect fauna was frequently added in abundance (especially on tapestries).  Doing so was not just to add beauty, although that is often the extra benefit.  Both this 19th century art form and medieval manuscripts used the visibility of nature to aid and enhance our understanding of ancient stories and the people of the past.  Every moth, every fruited berry, and every flower had a symbolism, a meaning that added to the message of the art, sometimes even hinting at whether well-intentioned or full of irony.  Our modern times have forgotten much of the rich underlying meanings to such beautiful creations, and I say we need to relearn this knowledge!

So why channel this classical idealism through a 1940s gown?  I wanted to emulate Madame Eta Hentz, a designer born in Budapest and educated in Hungary who immigrated to the United States around 1923.  She presented her distinctive masterpiece collection of Grecian themed gowns in circa 1943.  Please click on over with the provided links to see Ms. Hentz’s “Athena gown”, her black and gold “Clytemnestra gown”, her “Iconica” pleated dress, her “Walls of Troy” butter yellow gown, and her unnamed but strongly classical evening gown, one in ivory and a version in black – all from the same Grecian collection at the MET museum.  They are flowing, draping, asymmetric creations resembling either an ancient chlamys, a Roman palla, a column in the Pantheon, or a pleated Fortuny toga. Such a beautifully simplistic style of dressing has been around since the beginnings of civilization, but I love how the late 40’s and 50’s Hollywood puts its own subtle high-fashion spin on such a garment.  Yes, there have been many other designers from many other eras who have created according to ancient inspiration.  Yet, 1940s gowns are already elegant to begin with, and to combine such a trait with the references to the classical past gives a very winning result I had to try for myself.

Furthermore, the post-WWII (40’s into 50’s) boom of Biblical, early Christianity, and ancient history related films also resulted in the popularity of the sensual, sultry “goddess gown”.  In 1949, the year after the pattern I used for my gown, Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah, a picture that became the biggest hit of that year.  This was one of the very first big epic films made using the latest technology that ushered in the height of the Biblical silver screen drama so prevalent thereafter in the 1950’s. 

Even before the popular quasi-religious films of the mid-century, however, Grecian style gowns were a go-to choice for either elegant evening wear or a classical themed costume in Hollywood at that time.  In 1947, the year before the pattern I used for my gown, the famous Rita Haworth was seen in a sexy, one shouldered goddess gown for playing the part of a Grecian Muse in the popular musical film “Down to Earth”.  Also in 1947, for a Christmas dinner party, the actress Gale Storm graced the screen during the movie “It Happened on 5th Avenue” with an asymmetric goddess gown.  Next to the works of Eta Hentz, this goddess dress heavily influenced my own version.  Similar to the one shoulder strap which mimics a climbing vine on Gale Storm’s evening dress, I incorporated me-made leaf jewelry as a compliment to my outfit.  The accessories I crafted to match are a further nod to the sneaky Pre-Raphaelite inspiration of my outfit besides being a very classical touch.  More on this further down in the post!   

A goddess gown is usually a one-shoulder dress that is made from a quality fabric that drapes gracefully, simple in lines and inspired by the togas of old.  It is so effortless, so ageless in style, and it’s wonderfully flattering for all!  I went with a sheer floral silk underlined with an opaque rayon for my version to turn my goddess gown dreamily feminine rather than just architectural, after the stylizations of Waterhouse and Rossetti.  The bolero is like a condensed minuscule version of the printed silk, and turns the dress into a refined look, with a bit of added interest, while also not disturbing the aesthetic.  My bright green jewelry and vintage green suede heels freshen up the tone, saving it from being too dark.  However, the black background for both pieces to this outfit keeps it moody and somber, just like a Pre-Raphaelite painting.  We happily tuned into that for the photo shoot location.  What could be more melodramatic than old building ruins around a pond with giant lily pads (just like John William Waterhouse’s painting “Ophelia by the pond” from 1894) or gliding into a weeping willow tree at dusk?!  I’m living a dream.  

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  2 yards of sheer 100% silk chiffon, digitally printed. Fully lined in 2 yards of all rayon crepe for the dress. The short bolero jacket is an amazing Rifle Paper Company 100% cotton duck (from Spool and Spindle as part of my prize from the 2018 “Designin’ December” challenge) fully lined in a sage green polyester.

PATTERN:  Butterick #5136, a year 2007 reprint of an original 1948 pattern

NOTIONS:  lots of thread and one zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress took close to 30 hours to make, while the bolero only took 3 hours.  Both were finished in October 2019.

THE INSIDES:  The bolero is fully lined, so there are no seam allowances showing at all!  The entire dress and its rayon lining (which is separate, free flowing) are both finished in French seams.

TOTAL COST:  The silk on discount and was ordered direct from Hong Kong through a shop no longer in business.  The rayon crepe and the poly lining for the bolero are as good as free as they were leftover from past projects and came out of my stash. The bolero fabric was free, but I had to pay the shipping.  So, between the silk, the jewelry I made, and the shipping cost to the bolero fabric, my total cost was about $40.

Of course (knowing me) I slightly adapted the design (of the dress) to accommodate the border print of the silk, but other than that I made this entire outfit as-is out of the envelope…and it is to be highly recommended.  Some vintage reprints have strange amounts of ease or finish different than the cover image, but not this one.  It was indeed easy to make, as it says, too.  It’s only because working with a silk or a rayon crepe is never easy that my version was more challenging.  The bolero’s most challenging part was being precise with the stitching (and then trimming) the curvy seams around all the edges. 

The one slight change I made to the dress can be seen when I walk away.  I think the contrast panel train I added is a beautiful touch!  I had to add a gored godet to the center back of my dress’ skirt because working with two yards of border print material wasn’t enough to go around the bottom hem.  The one selvedge to the silk had the floral border I used along the hem while its opposite selvedge had a dense line of paisley ‘almonds’.  I used this paisley along the other selvedge for the back skirt godet add-in, and drafted its godet point to start where the center back zipper ends and curve out past the hem to be a train. 

Here’s a close-up of the right side seam bodice gathers.

The bodice was cut out of the material in front of the paisley selvedge where the underlying print is more spread out with only a few random bugs and flowers.  I actually had to seam together several smaller pieces of rayon to make my remnants work for lining this dress, but as it is inside underneath the silk, the odd excess seams are unnoticeable.  This was such close call of a project!

As it turned out, the heavy rayon lining sort of pulls the dress down on the one open-shouldered side, and I half think that adding boning as well an inner grosgrain ribbon waistband would’ve been a worthwhile idea to improve upon the bodice.  It is just fine without such ‘improvements’ too, though.  A structured bodice would bring this dress closer to the silhouette of a 1950s era dress and deviate the dress away from the soft, flowing overall appearance I was aiming for originally.  It’s often good to leave what’s well enough alone.  At least I did made sure to sew seam tape into my stitching along the top neck edge and into the dual skinny shoulder straps so these spots don’t stretch out of shape at all.  As I’m my own garments’ maker, I’m naturally going to be hard on myself.  I realize this much.  Any small ‘faults’ cannot in the least make me love this outfit any less.

The bolero’s fabric was a happy find that just happened to match because, I’ll admit, it was only made as an afterthought.  When first creating the dress, I discounted the hope of finishing a complete set as I had no idea what would be a good pairing.  Would a solid color bolero overwhelm?  Would a black one underwhelm?  I was at a loss.  What would remotely ‘match’ the printed silk enough to seamlessly blend in with the dress?  Upon browsing the “Spool and Spindle” site after receiving my “Designin’ Designer” gift, I was looking through the Rifle Paper Co. fabrics (something nice I would never buy on my own).  I happened to see a fabric print so similar to the silk goddess dress already made and jumped out of my seat.  Serendipity had decided for me a matching bolero was on the table!  Luckily, I only needed half of a yard for the bolero.  Rifle Paper Co. fabrics are pricey and my certificate voucher just covered it.  Yay!  I loved putting my prize fabric towards a very special outfit like this.

Beautiful seams, amazing details, and clever construction are all packed into this little jacket.  A backwards closing bolero comes across as very unusual to me, first of all.  I added two shiny, faceted black buttons to close this behind my back neck with hand-stitched chain loops.  The back opening lets the dress just barely peek from underneath.  As if these features aren’t cool enough, there is that slight cowl neck front neckline fold, the front hem curve notch, and those perfectly curved cut-on cap sleeves which all totally vie for my “favorite garment feature ever” title!  What makes this little jacket even better (if that’s possible) is the fact that it is slightly longer than most boleros, and actually comes down to the waistline, so it pairs with other things in my wardrobe, such as my black Burda pants (posted here)…among other things!  Not that I ever wholly mind a one-way-to-wear-it outfit, but multi-use sewing is such a wonderful payback.

My handmade jewelry includes a full bracelet, earrings, and necklace set.  The necklace is the main piece.  It was two sets of enameled leaf ‘charms’ from the “Gilded Age Timeline by Bead Treasures”, a Hobby Lobby line of vintage and Steampunk inspired jewelry supplies.  They were on deep clearance, probably due to having the date of 2013.  Each pack made a chain of 7 inches, and I knew the base of my neck (measuring around tightly) is 15 inches…this would be a close call.  The lobster clasp and loop closure, as well as the front ring that combines both leaf chains, added another 1 ½ inches so I ended up with a perfect length for a closely fitting necklace.  The two leaf chains fan away from one another yet meet in the middle front and back of my neck, so my necklace ends up looking like a Grecian or Roman coronet. 

In medieval imagery, a laurel leaves symbolize peace, tranquility, and the power of a promise.  A simple internet search has shown me that 15 inch enameled leaf necklaces were not only existent but also popular, primarily in the 40’s and 50’s, so I was onto something era appropriate anyway, it seems!

As there weren’t any more of the necklace leaves to be had, I improvised to make something similar to complete the jewelry set.  I chose green glass teardrop beads in the same deep but bright green color as the enameling on the necklace leaves.  I made the bracelet and earrings reference the necklace by interweaving small metal leaf beads above each glass teardrop.  I rather love the look of how this jewelry set turned out.  There’s nothing quite like an outfit that is all handmade, excepting the shoes (and underwear), of course, ha! 

This is a project into which I put a lot of thought and meaning, since not only have medieval subjects been a lifelong interest but I am also much more artistic on paper than I let on through this blog.  Perhaps that’s what helped my outfit to be just as dreamy and romantic as the inspiration behind it, though.  I could have expounded upon several points in detail but I reigned myself in to keep on topic! I only hope I conveyed some of my thoughts, inspiration, and construction notes in a clear and intriguing manner enough to maybe even interest you in finding a channel for your own goddess gown. 

It really does take a lot of effort to come up with a completely me-made outfit and also make it look just like what was dreamed up in one’s own head.  That is perhaps the hardest part to sewing up something based off an exciting idea…to have what you end up with be just as you had hoped.  It doesn’t always happen that way for me, yet even still, I always make sure to be proud of what I made and even enjoy the surprises along the way.  Not here, though – it’s all that and more!  You know, the definition of a “reverie” – as used in my title – is “a pleasant state of abstracted meditation or fanciful musing; to be lost in a fantastic, visionary, or impractical idea.”  I see that it is said reveries often never come to fruition, being often negatively labeled as only a daydream.  Bah.  Anyone who believes that has never sewn.  To be able to swish and glide around in this 1940s set the same way as I had hoped to be able to as I saw it in my mind’s eye is a fantastic thing.  Make that reverie work out in real life for you – it’s worth it!

2 thoughts on “A Pre-Raphaelite Reverie

  1. omg that dress is STUNNING…! And love the Bolero 🙂 Really interesting article you’ve written here. Medieval illumination and illustrations were some of the things that inspired me to draw when I was a kid, and looking at all the incredible art that was created back then still inspires me now. It’s mind boggling to think of the amount of time and effort it took to complete them. And under less-than-the-best lighting…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, and your compliments! ❤
      I appreciate your enjoying reading my post, especially the medieval parts I talked about. I agree that illustrations from then are so enthralling and curious, and its so wonderful to hear that they inspired you to draw! You are right to remember that they were mostly done in bad lighting, too. I forget that part often! I personally love the way they found inventive but sometimes crude yet always appealing ways to show people's movements and expressions.

      Like

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