Swagged and Poufed
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.