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From Victorian to Art Nouveau: Turn of The Century Chic by Paige Mckirahan

by TALKINGFASHION TEAM 28 Aug 2018 0 Comments

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, a tidal wave hit the art world that changed the composition of style across every creative medium. Art forms ranging from architecture, graphics, interior design, jewelry, and textiles became embraced and revitalized by the newest trend: Art Nouveau. The term, which means “new art” in French, represents the break away from traditional ideals of the time and signifies the birth of a new, cutting edge aesthetic that would change the art world forever.

The Victorian era, which spans from the 1830s to around 1890, is marked by Queen Victoria’s reign and preceded the Art Nouveau period. It signified a move away from the romantic styles of dress and instead, tight fitting bodices, corsets, and pleats became the “it” trends of the time. Hourglass silhouettes were highly desired and to achieve this sometimes deadly look, layers of petticoats and corsets were combined to cinch waists and create a symbol of status. Accessory wise, bonnets tended to be the headpiece of choice along with headpieces made of ornate artificial flowers. Subdued, lighter shades were typically used in all mediums and this choice aligned with the public’s perception of women to be soft and meek creatures.

The 1850s signified a move away from dome shaped skirts and petticoats and instead progressed toward tapered and flared skirts that helped exaggerate waistlines even more than before. Crinoline, which is a stiff fabric made of woven horsehair, was used to add volume to skirts; it was expensive and difficult to clean, making it hard for middle class women to fully adopt the trend. Then, hoop skirts were introduced. These skirts used cages and crinoline to create a more economical and light weight option that allowed women of all classes to sport huge, voluminous skirts. Prior to this creation, women had limited movement in their clothing as layers of petticoats made it difficult to walk and sit. This trend became so popular that two New York factories produced over 3,000 cages a day, making the cage skirt a staple of Victorian era fashion.


Crinoline Cage Skirt


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The industrial revolution brought a multitude of new technologies that transformed the world of fashion and jewelry as the sewing machine and synthetic dyes allowed clothing to be produced quickly and cheaply. Charles Worth, a Parisian clothing designer, took advantage of this and began creating costumes for European royalty in 1860. His work was so influential he is considered to the Father of Haute Couture! Later in the decade, he introduced the over skirt. This gave women another way to add fullness in the rear and it combined with the revitalization of the bustle birthed a new look entirely. Fullness was seen in the back of the of skirts rather than all the way around and narrow shoulders, tiny waists, and wide hips were on trend in a big way in the 1880s.

Victorian Dress with bustle and overskirt


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Many people did not welcome these changes though, and those who followed the Aesthetic Movement longed for simpler looks. Instead of adopting the stiff and ornate styles of dress popularized in this era, these folk wore garments that were without structure and created by hand. Synthetic dyes and sewing machines were not used and instead, pieces were hand dyed and embroidered featuring nature oriented motifs.

The jewelry of the era started off subtle and evolved with industrial and societal changes. At the beginning of the Queen’s reign, jewelry was romantic as it was when she was first engaged then married to Prince Albert. Her engagement ring was an emerald-eyed snake eating its own tail; this design, symbolizing eternal love, prompted the popularity of snake motifs in pieces of this time. Florals, gold, and glistening bright gemstones were commonly used and conveyed love, good fortune, and economic growth.  Dark mourning jewelry then became widely popularized by Queen Victoria’s decades of grief over the death of her husband (for more info on mourning jewelry, head to !!) The revival of older styles also was found in this period as travel and the exploration of ancient sites prompted imitations of Renaissance, Egyptian, and Etruscan designs to recirculate. Towards the end of the era, equestrian jewelry and the choker (which we have seen become popular time and time again), also became popularized by Victoria’s children as her taste was eclipsed by younger generations.

The Art Nouveau style truly came into its own between 1890 and 1914. In this era, clothing became a sort of decorative art rather than a boisterous and controlled representation of wealth and style; corsets and bustles were out and liberation was in. It challenged the idea of classical dress by welcoming flamboyance and breaking away from the strictness of the previous period. This was the first time gender norms were truly challenged and women were presented in everything from suits to seductive lingerie.


Champenois Imprimeur-Éditeur by Alponse Mucha, 1897. This was a piece became a sort of icon for the movement


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The look that this era brought was cutting edge and many wore it in moderation, leaving the more ornate and couture pieces for those of high status. Long, organic lines and moderate, darker colors such as mustard yellow, dark red, olive brown, violet, and blue were widely used to create asymmetrical styles. Many designs were inspired by nature (similar those in the Aesthetic Movement) and used softer fabrics such as charmeuse, chiffon, and batiste. Paul Poiret was an iconic designer of the time and he along with a multitude of other French couturiers fully immersed themselves in this art form, spreading the style thought international fashion journals such as Les Modes down to fashion magazines like The Ladies Field. The involvement of artists Vincent Van Gogh and Alphonse Mucha, glass and jewelry maker Louis Comfort Tiffany, and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley also influenced the looks of the time immensely as their iconic styles encompassed the aesthetic shift of the era.

Art Nouveau jewelry was woman centric and loved to explore nature and sexuality, which had never previously been done. Many pieces were large and splendorous, and the focus was less on material and more on design. They were widely made of enamel and used the translucent plique-à-jour enamel, which gave pieces a sort of “stained glass” look. Horn and ivory was heated, carved, and bent to create pieces and diamonds were seldom used for anything other as an accent stone. Leading designers of this period included Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique, who was a huge fan of the nature motif. As much of this jewelry was made of enamel, it means pieces in good condition are rare and highly sought after. Those that are in good condition can be worth a pretty penny; a Lalique pendent from this era sold for $212,500, more than double its highest estimate, in 2015.  

Art Nouveau pieces

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As many prominent trends are, Art Nouveau was and has been revived many times throughout history. Anna Sui is a lover of Art Nouveau and her bohemian prints are reminiscent of the movement’s colors and design. Prada dabbled in with the style in the 1960s and experiments with flowing, Nouveau inspired silhouettes. Alberta Ferretti has also been influenced by the movement on multiple occasions, most specifically in his Spring/ Summer 2013 collection and his at Pre-Fall 2016 presentation.

Anna Sui design compared to Art Nouveau print


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If you want to recreate the iconic styles of these eras, we encourage you to head over to our collection and be sure to search “Art Nouveau” or “Victorian” to see how you can begin a revival all on your own!

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