In The Art of Beauty (1878), English writer H.R Haweis synthesises a series of previously published articles centred on the importance of beauty, dress and physical appearance. The work can be characterised as an ardent apology for the significance of dress and, simultaneously, an advice manual targeted exclusively at women that both encourages and teaches them to take pride and care in their appearance.
At the outset, Haweis announces her central argument and writes, “[t]he culture of beauty is everywhere a legitimate art.” She attempts to remedy dress and beauty’s maligned reputation as frivolous by claiming its exalted status as a dignified art form. To defend her declaration, she classifies dress as akin to other established varieties of art, such as sculpture, painting and architecture, all of which, she believes, ought to be governed by principles of form, colour, shade and proportion. She takes an evaluative approach to beauty and adheres to the Ruskinian tradition that praises truth to materials and nature. She favours clothing and accessories that accentuate, rather than falsify, the natural self. For example, she expresses vehement disdain for overly high heels that strain the spine and for stays that distort the natural lines and proportions of the figure, preventing internal organs from functioning properly.
The work is divided into four books. ‘Beauty and Dress’ focuses on proper and ideal forms of clothing, ‘Beauty and Headdress’, outlines principles governing head accessories, ‘Beauty and Surroundings’ explains the role interior décor plays in enhancing one’s appearance and, finally, ‘A Garden of Girls’, catalogues a variety of women who may appear hopeless, but whom she assures the reader can achieve beauty so long as they heed her advice.
The Art of Beauty occupies an important position within the history of dress, as it constitutes one of the first literary attempts to apply aesthetic principles to modes of self-presentation. Haweis transcends the conventional women’s magazine mandate to promote the latest fashions in Victorian England and, instead, praises clothing for its artistic truth. Her serious tone and scrupulous attention to historical detail justify her authoritative statements and render her text cogent and sophisticated.
Although Haweis’ work was published in 1878, her concerted effort to reform the way people thought about beauty and ameliorate its status remains relevant to the contemporary discourse of fashion. A plethora of publications have contributed to a rich corpus of scholarship on dress, however, the area of research is oftentimes undeservedly perceived as trivial and unworthy of scholarly inquiry. Haweis’ text, while comprehensive and argumentative, is not officially scholarly insofar as she assumes an expressly evaluative approach to dress, claiming outright that it must be classified either as good or bad depending on its adherence to certain artistic principles. Her assertion that dress and beauty is tantamount to art rests on the assessment of formal qualities alone. Despite its limitations, The Art of Beauty can be seen as paving the way for future writers to explore the importance of dress and modes of appearance. Current scholars diverge from Haweis insofar as they favour analysing the socio-political and cultural dimensions of dress, rather than solely formal qualities, yet connect with her in their endeavor to assert the value of beauty and dress.