Swagged and Poufed: The Upholstered Body in the Late 19th-Century and Today
In 1890, designer William Morris quipped that women were “upholstered like arm chairs.” Buried under folds, ruching, tassels, and fringe, they were on the verge of becoming fixtures in their own drawing rooms. The confections on view in Swagged and Poufed illustrate the luxury of material and eccentricities of form typical of the late 19th century and reveal their continued influence in contemporary designs by Kenzo Takada, Gianfranco Ferré for Dior, and Maison Martin Margiela.
Support for Swagged and Poufed: The Upholstered Body in the Late 19th Century and Today is provided in part by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1890, English designer and activist William Morris quipped that most women dressed as though they were “upholstered like arm-chairs.” Under layers of folds, ruching, tassels, and fringe, fashionable women found themselves nearly buried amid cascades of rich and weighty fabric, on the verge of becoming fixtures in their own drawing rooms. Likewise, a popular French publication had announced in 1868 that “The upholsterer is at the same time the tailor and the milliner of the room.” The distinction between dressing one’s home and dressing the female body threatened to become almost nonexistent.
The elaborate late-19th-century fashions on view in this gallery, accompanied by contemporaneous illustrations of modish interiors, exemplify the luxury of material, eccentricities of form, and layering of historical and cross-cultural references typical of the period. They also provide a new framework for interpreting more recent garments that similarly blur the boundary between upholstery and fashion. In this context, opulent late-Victorian garments and avant-garde contemporary ensembles share an artifice that does not often come to light, allowing us to note innovation in historic pieces and tradition in the new.