Sunday, 1 June 2014


The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Art. Quite simply, the challenge is to make something inspired by a work of art. You can see the completed challenges here and here.

I didn’t take part in this challenge, mainly because I don’t have the skills to make either of the dresses which the challenge brought to mind. The second dress I would like to make simply because I like it, but the first dress I would like to recreate in order to Right A Great Wrong.

It’s a long(ish) story: The first house I bought was in Port Sunlight village, on the Wirral. Port Sunlight is a model village, built in the late nineteenth century by William Hesketh Lever to house the workers at his Sunlight soap factory. Like most model villages, Port Sunlight had a number of facilities for the education and leisure of its inhabitants. As well as a church and a school there was an open air swimming pool, a library, a theatre, a temperance hotel and a hospital. The village even has its own art gallery; the Lady Lever, opened in 1922.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery

Having an art gallery right on your doorstep means that you are never short of the means to while away an afternoon, and I was a frequent visitor when I lived there. It helped that the gallery leans heavily towards late Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, which I have always liked.

While I wandered happily around works by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt there was one painting which always drove me to distraction; The Black Brunswicker by Millais.

The Black Brunswicker, John Everett Millais, 1860

Painted in 1860, it portrays an imaginary scene on the eve of the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The young cavalry officer of the title (the Black Brunswickers were a troop raised by the Duke of Brunswick) is departing to the battle while his lover, or possibly wife - her left hand is tantalisingly partly concealed - tries to prevent him from leaving. Her pet dog also begs the (probably doomed; the Black Brunswickers suffered heavy losses in the battle) officer to stay.

Although the dog is a typically Victorian sentimental touch, it wasn’t that which bothered me. It wasn’t even the fact that the dress is far more 1860 than 1815. It was the skirt. What is going on with that skirt?

From the vertical lines it’s obvious that the skirt consists of several pieces of fabric sewn together. So far, so normal. There are also heavy horizontal fold marks across the fabric. This seems oddly out of place in the situation; surely the young woman’s lady’s maid would have ironed such a grand dress before her mistress wore it? However the thing which really made me wince (and still does) is the fact that the folds do not line up across the seams. Even if the dress had been kept folded up, and was worn without pressing it first, the folds should go straight across the skirt. But they don't.

I've highlighted the worst offenders

It’s not as though Millais couldn’t paint satin. In Lorenzo and Isabella, painted in 1848-9, Isabella’s satin sleeve is beautifully depicted, right down to the narrow hem.

Lorenzo and Isabella (detail)

So what went wrong eleven years later?

Some years ago, I went to a lecture on costume in pre-Raphaelite painting. Chatting to the lecturer afterwards, I mentioned The Black Bruswicker and its troublesome skirt. She replied that she’d never noticed this (clearly not a dressmaker!), but now that I had pointed it out, it was obvious. She did however have a theory. By 1860 Millais was married, and his wife Effie made a number of costumes for his paintings. The lecturer thought that Millais may have bought the finely detailed bodice of the dress as a prop, and that Effie had quickly sewn together the skirt from a length of folded fabric.

Bodice detail

So, if I ever get to know enough about mid-Victorian costume to recreate it, high on my to-do list will be a Black Brunswicker dress with a decent skirt!

No such problems with my second dress, which is also in a Millais painting. There are no annoying folds, and the style is firmly of the date when was painted; 1879.

Louise Jopling, John Everett Millais, 1879

Louise Jopling was a remarkable woman; a painter, writer and suffragette, who supported herself and her family through her painting when her first marriage collapsed. Millais was godfather to her son Lindsay, and painted this portrait as a present for his godson.

Louise Jopling

Millais’ early paintings show incredible attention to detail, in the pre-Raphaelite tradition.

Ivy detail from A Huguenot, 1851-2

By 1879 however he had a far looser style. The embroidered flowers on the dress are represented with just a few brush strokes, and it’s impossible to discern how the black and red ruffle at the neckline is constructed.

Bodice detail

Making this dress would involve a lot of guesswork. But it's still a gorgeous dress.

Finally an image, also by Millais, which I rediscovered while researching this post. Who hasn’t felt like this at the end of a long day’s sewing?

Mariana, 1850-51


  1. I may have an answer regarding the folds, I have heard, and alas I can't remember the source, that the folds represent the garment is literally brand new. You will see it in CDVs of the 1860s, including those of Queen Victoria. Ladies selected fabric, it was made up into skirts with no washing or ironing. The underlying messages was that the lady could afford New dresses, so the creases became a status symbol of a sort. Don't know if this is true, but it's an interesting idea

    1. I'd never come across this idea, but it makes a lot of sense. The Victorians seem to have had myriad ways of expressing social status, many of which are lost to us now. Thank you so much for sharing Kura.