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.
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.
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.
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?