René Lalique: The Master of Art Nouveau Jewellery

When thinking about jewellery, as I often do, my mind wanders to the nineteenth century legends. Famous jewellers such as Cartier, Fabergé and Bvlgari all rose to prominence in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. As the decades passed, each of these jewellery houses consistently reimagined the classic designs synonymous with its reputation (the panthère, the egg and the snake, respectively). However, another house also gained fame in the nineteenth century: Lalique. Founded in 1888 by René Lalique, the house created immensely popular jewellery throughout the end of the nineteenth century, as customers were drawn to Lalique’s novel approach to the relationship between the individual and nature.

Lalique had an extraordinary ability to render pieces with complimentary elements of naturalism and mysticism while also daring to create with materials no one else saw fit to use. However, though Lalique was both a jeweller and a glassmaker, his glassware technique remains far more recognized today than his jewellery. While the house still creates some jewellery, the pieces Lalique conceived in the late-nineteenth century are infinitely more iconic.

Born in 1860 in Aÿ-en-Champagne in the Marne region of France, Lalique spent his childhood in the countryside, an element of his life that inspired the naturalistic elements of his jewellery designs. He then studied at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, after which he became a freelance jewellery designer for famous houses such as Cartier, Boucheron and Gariod. By the 1880s, Lalique had catapulted to the forefront of the jewellery industry. Considered the master of the Art Nouveau style, René Lalique revolutionized jewellery design in his use of unconventional materials and the intricate patterns of his creations.


The style of Art Nouveau gained popularity in the late 1800s. Concurrently, this time period saw a rise in demand for elaborate jewellery and pieces in ‘The Garland Style,’ a technique that emphasised natural motifs and delicate, flowing lines. The graceful, sweeping designs aimed to compliment fashions of the time. Necklaces rose in favour, particularly chokers layered atop longer necklaces, such as strands of pearls, égligé pendants, or lavalieres. Brooches, corsages and tiaras were often designed to look like floral bouquets or vines of foliage.

Lalique took these trends a step further and incorporated elements of the mythical into his naturalistic designs. He frequently used motifs of the female figure, flora, and fauna in his creations; his favourite motifs included women with dragonfly wings and women’s faces imposed on varieties of flowers.

René Lalique, ‘Dragonfly-woman’ corsage ornament, c. 1897-98, Founder’s Collection, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.


René Lalique, ‘Woman’s face’ pendant, c. 1898–1900. Founder’s Collection, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

He also made use of materials previously unused in the jewellery industry, including horn, semi-precious stones, enamel, ivory and glass. Rather than using large diamonds to pull focus, as was popular at the time, Lalique preferred stones such as cornelian, tourmaline, bloodstone, chrysoberyl, coral and ivory. He designed many pieces for actress Sarah Bernhardt. In the photograph below she wears a stunning headdress with jewelled flowers on either side of a large crown. Many of the pieces he designed for Bernhardt were stage jewellery, and she eventually became one of his patrons. Lalique became known for arranging his materials in patterns that favoured originality over outright ostentation.

Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Melissinde ‘La Princesse Lointaine’ or Faraway Princess by Edmond Rostand, Theatre de la Renaissance 1895. (Photo by APIC/Getty Images).

Though he had used glass in his jewellery designs, Lalique eventually shifted his focus entirely to glass at the turn of the twentieth century, creating works in the novel, more minimalist Art Deco style. He partnered with perfumer François Coty, creating beautiful perfume bottles, before turning his attention to industrial glassware with the outbreak of World War I. Although its production of jewellery has dwindled, the house of Lalique is still renowned worldwide for its glassware.


By Genevieve Davis



Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part V

Last night saw the scintillating final installment of the week-long Fashion Interpretations Symposium. The first part of the evening was dedicated to a roundtable discussion with the creators of Archivist Addendum, ‘a publishing project exploring the nascent space between standardised fashion editorial and academic research’. To open the conversation, which focused on the questions faced by contemporary fashion publishing and the practice of sharing academic research, co-founder Jane Howard read aloud an email she had written to herself in 2003 after leaving her position as first assistant to David Bradshaw. The email, referred to by Lisa Cohen later in the evening as ‘a manifesto for our times’, detailed the problems she witnessed working within the fashion industry and potential routes to a better system. Howard has been working with Archivist Addendum’s other co-founder, writer and fashion communication lecturer Dal Chodha, for a decade. They discussed the sometimes ‘pointless’ and ‘precarious’ fashion system and how their work hopes to remedy this with a slower, more adaptable approach. Archivist Addendum will be published as a collection of papers and photographs brought together in a box, some parts bound and some loose. This content-driven approach can offer a more appropriate format for each project and a more tactile experience, reminiscent of browsing an archive, for the reader. The duo hopes that by breaking free from the established format, Archivist Addendum can play a part in dissecting and rebuilding ideas around fashion and the archive. Judith Clark noted the material juxtaposition produced by using items from the past to present a future, recalling projects introduced earlier in the week that dealt similarly with archival materials.


After the roundtable discussion, Rebecca Arnold led a reflective and emotive discussion with all contributors to the Fashion Interpretations research group. Many were quick to express their gratitude for the new and surprising connections made as well as the chance to work in collaboration with others. There was a focus on process: in particular, the welcome slowing down that occurs when taking a step back to consider medium – ‘the conduit to the content’. Finally, participants were grateful for the energy and ‘magic’ the project had generated.


To keep up with what the Fashion Interpretations group get up to next (after a well-deserved rest), follow their Instagram page @fashioninterpretations. To get your hands a copy of the inaugural Archivist Addendum when it is published in January, follow @archivistaddendum on Instagram. Recordings of the entire Fashion Interpretations Symposium can be found on The Courtauld’s Research Forum playlist on YouTube.

by Lucy Corkish

Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part IV

Last night’s Fashion Interpretations Symposium featured a masterclass with celebrated fashion illustrator Richard Haines. Haines began with a nod to fashion history, showing a selection of his favourite works by early twentieth century illustrator Christian Bérard, whose work Haines loves for its unwavering, confident lines. Particularly inspiring for Haines is the trompe l’oeil door Bérard created for the Institut Guerlain in Paris which appears from afar to be painted but is, as Haines discovered on a recent trip to Paris, comprised of small strips of grosgrain. Ruminating on this discovery, he remarked: ‘A line can be a piece of paper and a pencil, it can be charcoal, it can be Procreate, or it can be a strip of grosgrain’.

Haines continued this rumination on the concept of line, demonstrating how his hand responds differently when sketching contemporary clothing than it does when sketching archival looks from designers like Schiaparelli, of whom he is a loyal fan. When sketching the 1930s, he explained, he gravitates towards gentle, curvaceous lines. When sketching contemporary designers, like his particular favourite Christpher John Rogers, he finds that he naturally tends to use bolder, more graphic lines and emphasises the shape of a look more than its finer details. Haines also provided examples of different media in his body of work, noting the nuances of his works in pastel and charcoal and his newer works created on his iPad. ‘To me,’ he remarked, ‘there is nothing more beautiful than a drawing. But [with digital technology] we are adapting the drawing and putting it in different contexts, and that is so exciting’. He draws inspiration not just from his subject matter but from the vast array of media he is able to use to render it.


Haines then (virtually) brought in a model and led his audience through a thirty minute session of rapid-fire sketching. During this time, he provided practical illustration advice that he has garnered throughout his wide-reaching career in fashion. Haines always begins his drawings from the head down and focuses on capturing the gesture of a model’s pose quickly. In fact, he explained how he prefers to create most of his works in a short frame of time and avoids getting hung up on imperfections and fussy details–undoubtedly a factor in his drawings’ trademark liveliness. This can prove challenging when working for a commercial client, as Haines has to work in a client’s corrections without compromising the spontaneity of his style.


Most crucially, Haines believes that one should never take an eraser to their sketch. He makes confident marks on his page and, should he make a mistake, he works to change the line he is creating and manipulate it into an integral part of his drawing. Should any of us be lucky enough to be invited to sketch a fashion show like Haines, he warns us to be careful with the medium we select. Years ago when sketching at the Oscar de la Renta showroom, he knocked over a pot of India ink and nearly ruined the designer’s handiwork. He now favours a charcoal stick for these high-pressure situations. Confident lines are, of course, better left on the page than the showroom floor, but for Haines, the page seems to always provide enough room for boundless exploration.


If you sketched along with Haines, please do share your drawings under #richardhainesmasterclass, and browse the hashtag if you’d like to see others’ work! Join us tonight for the final night of the Fashion Interpretations Symposium which will be a special roundtable discussion to celebrate the launch of Archivist Addendum.

by Ruby Redstone

Madeleine Vionnet – “the architect of dressmakers”

Madeleine Vionnet transformed the way in which designers approached the female figure. Eschewing the restrictiveness and rigidity of the corset, she favoured free-flowing silhouettes which accentuated the natural curves of a woman’s body. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she revolutionised the fashion industry through her use of the bias cut, a technique of cutting on the diagonal grain of the fabric to give it a sinuous and stretchy quality. Previously confined to small and often hidden details of garment design, this cut became the defining feature of the 1930s female silhouette. Vionnet applied it to the entirety of a dress’s design, enabling the fabric to cling to women’s bodies without the support of padding, fastenings or buttons. This was a pivotal moment in dressmaking history, as it meant women could be elegant yet comfortable in their occasion wear, and appear feminine, yet be free to move around.

Model wearing Madeleine Vionnet bias cut dress, Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene for French Vogue, December 1930 (Source: @julien_morras_azpiazu on Instagram)

When Betty Kirke interviewed former employees of Vionnet’s fashion house on the Rue de Rivoli, they insisted she was a “technician” rather than a “designer”. Her bias-cut dress designs, though chic and simple in appearance, were highly complex and technical to execute. She did not sketch, but instead worked three-dimensionally on miniature dolls, cutting and pinning fabric to fit their form. She ordered fabric two yards wider than her original measurements to accommodate for extensive drapery, and left it to hang in her studio for a week to allow gravity to stretch it out to its full length. Once satisfied that the fabric was sufficiently stretched out that it would not warp over time, she re-created her designs on full-size models in the round. This corporeal approach to dress earned Vionnet the title “the architect of dressmakers”. Her mastery of the technicalities of fabric, and its potential to work with the natural curvature of the female figure, was unparalleled for decades to come.

Madeleine Vionnet working in on a dress design on a miniature doll (Credit: @andreabatilla on Instagram)

The most striking aspect of Vionnet’s designs was the freedom of movement they allowed women. Inspired by ancient Greek sculpture, Vionnet used classical style drapery and folding to create a sense of motion and lightness in her dresses. As she said in an interview for French Vogue in 1974, “I proved that fabric falling freely on a body liberated from heavy armature was beautiful in and of itself… I attempted to bring to fabric a balance that movement in -no way altered, but rather magnified.” Far-removed from the support and structure of 19th century corsetry, her dresses took on the form of a silky second skin which moved gracefully with the bodies they covered.

Bas-relief frieze dress, by Madeleine Vionnet photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene for French Vogue, 1931 (Source: @the_art_of_dress on Instagram)

In 1940 Vionnet’s label went into liquidation and her name faded quickly. However, for designers and dress historians her contribution to fashion will never be forgotten. As Azzedine Alaïa said, she was “the source of everything, the mother of us all”. Her ingenious use of the bias-cut to accentuate the natural female form changed the shape of fashion forever.

By Violet Caldecott


Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part III

Fashion Interpretations Symposium, Part III remedied Wednesday’s mid-week slump with a fascinatingly interdisciplinary approach to fashion — watercolours, mythological goddesses, and a ramshackle cowshed all featured.

The evening’s speakers included author, artist, and publisher Leanne Shapton and Judith Clark, curator and exhibition-maker.

To begin, Leanne Shapton gave us a sneak peak into her ongoing project investigating the way clothes are photographed and sold digitally. She focussed particularly on the way that amateur photography is used on online fashion sales platforms. Intriguingly, she highlighted the appeal of the carelessly shot, badly lit eBay image that seduces the buyer into believing they have found a treasure. Her current ongoing project is to create watercolour studies and paintings of these photographic eccentricities, focusing on their shapes and silhouettes as a way to understand their distinctly uncanny yet appealing aura.

Judith Clark presented her paper that analyses the relationship between word and image through Stéphanie-Félicité, Madame de Genlis’ nineteenth-century fashion illustrations labelled after goddesses Venus, Aphrodite, Minerva, and Juno. She questioned: did the words inspire the image, or vice versa? A bridge between word and image is particularly pertinent to the fashion exhibition, as Judith noted that curators are consistently looking for ‘meaningful adjacencies between objects.’ If language, she concludes, is what creates confusion between objects in a museum setting, then we must begin to consider alternative paths. Particularly of note was an audience question about Judith’s research process in the Warburg Library throughout the pandemic. She revealed that she had begun to key in bookmarks of pages, in order to artificially simulate archives that might be physically beside one another – an interesting example of the way we have to adapt to our new and wholly online experience of the world.

Finally, the evening concluded with a short film collaboration between Roman Kurzmeyer and Judith Clark, which turned the way that we think about exhibitions on its head. The Amden Atelier, a project that uses an old cattle stall in the mountains as a venue to showcase art installations lends itself to a debate about what it really means to be an ‘exhibition maker’. It requests an engagement with the site: artists and curators must specifically work with the building. This unique short film highlighted a multitude of ways we can think about the exhibition, the importance of perceptual conditions, and the ‘hyper image’.

The fascinating content we were presented with last night seemed to be incredibly pertinent to our current situation: the growing popularity of online shopping in a post-pandemic eco-conscious world, the effects looking at archives remotely has on academic research, and a case study on how particular environments relates to our experience of viewing art.

More from Fashion Interpretations Symposium tonight, with its fourth event!


By Kathryn Reed

Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part II

At last night’s Fashion Interpretations Symposium we heard from three amazing speakers: Lisa Cohen, Associate Professor of English and of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; Olga Vainshtein, Senior Researcher at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow; and Elizabeth Kutesko, Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins in London.

Lisa Cohen led with a poetic presentation on the relationship between clothing and grief. Clothing reminds us of those we have lost, a remnant of someone mourned. It can provide a sense of closeness to a loved one or a sense of catharsis through the giving away the clothes to others. Cohen first described an interview with a woman named Anne as they went through Anne’s parents’ clothing together. Reminiscing over a black bolero cardigan and a beautiful white lace dress, Cohen conveyed the sense of connection formed between people by clothing. Wearing, touching, or smelling a loved one’s clothing can trigger a kaleidoscope of memories. Cohen also touched upon her own relationship with filmmaker Jim Lyons, whose AIDS-related death she chose to speak poignantly on yesterday, which was World AIDS Day. She spoke of the bag of t-shirts he left her; a symbol of their friendship kept on her shelf for over a decade. Cohen’s personal interactions with each person she interviewed in her research brought to life the deep intimacy between clothing and relationships.

Olga Vainshtein provided an in-depth look at fashion in literature and cultural interpretations of illustration. Focusing on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1886 novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Vainshtein discussed how the illustrations of the little lord in his suit, drawn by Reginald Birch, sparked a trend in boys’ fashion. Though the novel provided few descriptions of Lord Fauntleroy’s suits, Birch was a popular illustrator and the vivid drawings were mimicked in magazines, with pictures of each outfit and the pieces required for it, so that mothers could order ready-made outfits for their sons in the latest style. The illustrations were based on Burnett’s son Vivian, and they were inspired by late-seventeenth century and early eighteenth-century court dress. Vainshtein’s presentation allowed us a peak into the way fashion and fiction interact through “cultural illusion,” demonstrating how literature has the ability to impact fashion as much as photography and film.

Elizabeth Kutesko rounded off the night with a talk on Claude and Dina Levi-Strauss’ photographs of São Paolo from 1935-37. In one image, Kutesko examined Dina Levi-Strauss’ tailored, manicured outfit that contrasted the wilderness around her as she explored Brazil, highlighting how São Paolo was poised between an agricultural past and an industrial future. She also highlighted the ways the snapshots captured the picturesque nature of the city, with modern skyscrapers and well-dressed pedestrians, while simultaneously including the “extra,” such as rubbish in the gutters. In the 1930s, São Paolo transformed into Brazil’s industrial centre, but Kutesko emphasized how the Levi-Strauss’ photographs emphasized the “unfinished” nature of the city, as light leaks and blurring mirrored its constant transformation. The concept of modernity varies from culture to culture, operating across national borders and within them. Kutesko concluded with the idea that photographs capture these moments of modernity, often immortalizing more than can be seen by a single glance.

These three speakers were unified in their emphasis on the importance of memory. Memory can be captured in photograph, touched in a piece of clothing left behind, or disseminated through a novel. Fashion, and the mediums through which it is displayed, provides pathways to explore these memories and the emotions they provoke.

Join us tonight for Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part III.

By Genevieve Davis

Fashion Interpretations Symposium – Part I

It is going to be an exciting week for fashion enthusiasts around the world! The Fashion Interpretations Symposium has officially begun and so also begins our daily recaps here of each night.

Dr. Rebecca Arnold’s discussion on Man Ray’s images for February 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar kickstarted the event, emphasising how the artist manipulated the photographic medium to blur the line between photography and illustration, respectively the most recent and the most established forms to represent fashion during the interwar years. Man Ray simultaneously saw himself as the creator of the image but also of the medium through which it would have been received. Using the technique of solarization to achieve a tone reversal effect on the black and white photograph, he would then apply a gouache to certain areas of the image to emphasise the colours. In one of the images presented, the perception of a white dress with a ghostly grey train was contrasted by the bright hues suggested by the applied splashes of colour, reflecting the descriptive text under the picture. Man Ray’s images were, to quote Dr. Arnold, ‘foregrounding the medium, drawing upon the idea of us as embodied viewers’, experiencing the image through the use of both optic and haptic sensations.

Detail of Man Ray’s picture for February 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

Elisa De Wyngaert, fashion curator at MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp, followed Dr. Arnold’s presentation, discussing her process when planning a new exhibition. She explained how, for her, the early stages of exhibition planning resemble the feeling of being a teenager decorating her walls: for a brief moment every item seems able to reach, without logistic or conservation challenges, and no budget restriction. What follows is the very slow process of “letting go”, as sometimes pieces are missing, too fragile or too expensive to loan, and the moment when the “wall of dreams” is translated to a more practical excel sheet. Elisa emphasised how the wall collage is an important part of the exhibition history: this is the moment corresponding to the teenage years of the exhibition, which is in the process of developing its identity. The “exhibition of dreams” then grows up into what we audience see. At this point, the exhibition does not belong to the curator anymore, but to everyone. Every person becomes part of the story, in the way they personally experience the exhibition.

Charles Tepperman, Associate Professor of Film Studies at The University of Calgary, concluded the presentation part of the night with “A World Dressed in Kodachrome – Fashion and Amateur Film in the mid-century”. Kodak introduced the Kodachrome film stock in 1935, becoming an amateur favourite for the way it allowed to capture formal and vernacular dress, and use colour almost as a textile in its own right. Kodachrome provided one of the first widely accessible tools to capture colour and created a true “chromatic modernity”. Amateur filmmakers such as Chicago-based Warren Thompson and Matthew Ko dressed the world in colour and motion, and their amateur films can now be considered kinetic records of how people dressed. Through their lenses, the city was transformed into a chromatic composition of streets, fabrics and styles.

As the event came to an end, I was left with a question: what are we attracted by when looking at fashion? Is it the colours it presents? Or the emotions it sparks? Is it its mix of textures, inviting us to touch the garments or imagine how they would feel on our skin? It may well be a combination of these three factors and many others relating to our subjective experience. What is clear to me, however, is that people are central to the shaping of fashion, and that the fashion object can only be fully understood in relation to people’s experience of it.

Tune in tonight for Fashion Interpretations Symposium Part II!


By Simona Mezzina

A Generational Shift: From Bouffant to Hot Comb

As a teenager growing up in London in the 2010s, it was a rite of passage to ask for hair straighteners for Christmas – at least it was for my group of friends from our Catholic all-girls school. I remember when I got my first pair of straighteners at about 14. I was overjoyed. I could get rid of the kinks in my hair, and there was no need to go around to my mate’s house to get her to straighten my hair. I could frazzle my hair away on my own terms.

Everyone had to have straight hair: no matter who you were, no matter what texture your hair was, even if it was straight already, you’d straighten it. Dead straight. No-room-for-movement straight. Not only were we at ease because we were fitting in, we’d also have hours of fun sat, splitting our split ends.

I’d look at photographs of my grandma and her friends with their bouffant hairstyles. I used to call the style ‘pie heads’ because it seemed as though they had just set something on top of their heads, covered it with hair, and put it in the oven to bake. (I wasn’t far off, to be fair.)

But I was confused. What was under there? How did it stay in place? And why on earth would they put themselves through the arduous task of defying gravity for a hairstyle that wasn’t even cool?

Grandparents and friends, Hyde Park Hotel, 1972.

Recently, my grandma and I were looking through old photographs, as we often do, and I came across this image of my grandparents with their group of Welsh friends who all moved to the South East London/Kent area in the mid-fifties. You can see each of the women’s hair is immaculate; their curls look as though they would stay completely still even through ferocious head-shaking. My grandma told me this was possible because of hair pieces and expert hairdressers, stating:

“I wore a hair piece. Everywhere you went people back combed and permed their hair. Generally, if you didn’t have natural curly hair you would have it permed to give it body and curls. I used to have a demi-perm which would last about 6-8 weeks. (My hair, if I had a full perm, would frizz so I had a weaker solution).”

Her hairdresser, friend and neighbor, Judith, would do my grandma’s hair for these special occasions (she was a lecturer at Bromley college for hairdressing, my grandma hastened to add): “Judith would buy the dark chestnut hairpiece and give my hair a rinse [with dye] – which would last about 4-6 weeks – so that it would match the piece exactly. She would wash my hair, put rollers in and put me under the dryer. At the same time, she would wash the hair piece and put it under the dryer next to me.” The idea was to give more height and volume to the style.

Grandparents, Hyde Park Hotel, 1971.

I asked my grandma the question that had been burning inside me since my teen hair days. But why? Why would you go through such a laborious process for one night?

Magazines were full of photographs of these hairstyles and suggestions on how to wear your hair: “I used to read Vanity Fair in the hairdressers to look at new styles.” Some hairdressers were major celebrities at the time and mixed with high society and theatre stars.” She urged me to look up ‘Monsieur Raymond’ AKA Mr Teasy-Weasy AKA Raymond Bessone.

Raymond Bessone was Brixton-born but adopted a faux-French accent. He was affectionately called Mr Teasy-Weasy after his trademark of ‘teasy-weasy’ curls. He opened his Mayfair salon in the 1950s and became a critically acclaimed celebrity hairstylist in Britain and the U.S. His own presentation, as seen on TV, was immaculately flamboyant. His suits were consistently decorated with dyed carnations, and his dogs had their hair dyed to match whatever Bessone dictated to be the colour of the season.

Bessone saw women’s hair as a work of art. “It must have balance and composition. Lines must mean something, with every curl adding to the whole effect.” He was concerned with creating a complete look that crowned the woman’s face. In his 1957 style called the Shangri-La, he pronounced the four main principles of hairstyling: “colour, line, youth and softness.”

His voluminous, precise styles transformed women even in the depths of South Wales, where, in the early 50s, my grandma would be sat home perming her and her sister’s hair to get the perfect bouffant.

However, my grandma noticed a shift happening around her at the end of this decade: “Mary Quant had her hair cut in a straight simple style and the times changed drastically.”

Clothes designer Mary Quant, one of the leading lights of the British fashion scene in the 1960’s, having her hair cut by another fashion icon, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, 10th November 1964. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ironically, Mary Quant’s famous hairstylist who gave her the geometric ‘wash-and-wear’ cut in 1964, Vidal Sassoon, began his training under our very own Mr Teasy-Weasy in his Mayfair salon. Sassoon revolutionised not only the look of femininity, harking back to the ‘gamine look’ found in the first part of the century, but also the process of looking after your hair. Much like Quant’s designs, Sassoon’s cut was ready-to-wear. This revolutionised hairdressing from the technique of the hairdresser, working with lines and geometric shapes to match the face and the personality of the sitter, to the routine of the customer, as it released women from the chore of getting their hair in the salon every time there was an event. They only needed to go every six weeks for a trim to upkeep their natural style.

Why has the novelty of hairstyling been lost on me? Did Sassoon’s easy-to-wear style push many of us towards easy followable trends and subsequently the standardisation of cuts? Without Sassoon, would I have been asking for a hairpiece to create the ‘teasy-weasy’ bouffant just like grandma’s rather than a pair of straighteners?

By Bethan Eleri Carrick

Christopher Reed, ‘Vidal Sassoon Obituary’, Guardian 
Jon Henly, ‘A Cut Above’, Guardian
Mary Quant, Vidal Sassoon remembered by Mary Quant
Susan J Vincent, Hair: An Illustrated History. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018)
‘Teasy Weasy’, Timeshift, BBC, 2013

Tea Gowns: At-Home Style in Victorian England

Months of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus has kept much of the world inside, limiting our social and professional interactions to computer screens and causing even the most sartorially-conscious to shed our typical trappings. Jeans, we bemoan, are far too stiff for Zooming from our living rooms, even though they once seemed fine for eight-hour office days bookended by crowded commutes. Fabulous faux-furs that once eased our winter blues? Useless now–it’s not like we’re headed anywhere that requires a coat! Many have struggled to strike a balance between the clothing that keeps us snug in our homes and wardrobes that offers us power and a sense of self in the crowded public world, a dilemma encapsulated quite neatly and comically in the pajama-trousered, dressy-bloused ensemble that became an unofficial uniform for so many working from home this year.

This predicament, however, is not wholly new. Over a century and a half ago, upper-middle class Victorian women struggled with the same set of concerns, seeking out a style of dress that struck a balance between the comfort desired for time spent mostly indoors and the formality necessary for a life that required constant socialising. Thus the tea gown was born, a garment specifically designed to bridge the gap between private and public dressing. The tea gown was worn, as the name suggests, for evening tea. It had to be comfortable enough to allow for relaxation but dressy enough that its wearer would not risk embarrassment should a caller drop by. Tea gowns were relatively simple in shape and loose at the waist, allowing them to be worn without a corset–a small act of rebellion in Victorian society. Tea gowns were, however, decorated heavily to maintain decorum and indicate status. Freed from some of the physical and societal constraints of the time period, tea gowns became a canvas upon which progressive members of the upper class could engage in stylistic experimentation.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. ‘A Useful House-Dress ; An Elaborate Tea-Gown’. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 26, 2020.

The parlour where tea was served acted as a liminal space between interior and exterior, contained within the private home but open for entertaining guests, not dissimilar to our own homes now put on view for our colleagues’ computer screens. Fashionable tea gown wearers sought to coordinate their gowns with the decor of their parlours. (Though, as Freyja Hartzell notes in ‘The Velvet Touch’, it was common practice for many Victorian women to match their ensembles to their interiors). For followers of the Aesthetic and subsequent Art Nouveau movements, this meant that tea gowns could be printed with abstract swirling motifs and rendered in rich colour palettes. Charles Frederick Worth’s tea gowns are particularly beautiful examples of this effect with their thickly piled blue velvet and shocking purples and greens that would have looked right at home against a similarly sumptuous wallpaper. Liberty, the nineteenth century mecca for all things Aesthetic, produced a wide variety of tea gowns. Oscar Wilde dubbed the store to be ‘the chosen resort of the artistic shopper’, a nod to the fact that both the homewares and the fashions for sale at Liberty would have set the store’s shoppers apart from their strict Victorian counterparts.


The tea gown also served as a means of escapism, transporting its wearers on flights of fancy far from their parlours. When Japan opened its ports to Western trade in the mid-nineteenth century, British and French designers were quick to take inspiration from the nation’s vast array of beautiful garments and textiles. Tea gowns could be inlaid with swaths of Japanese textiles or, in some cases, produced in Japan for Western customers. A tea gown from the Kyoto Costume Institute illustrates this cross-cultural exchange in its spectacular sleeves alone, a mix of heavily-puffed Victorian shoulders and Kimono-style wide cuffs. Tea gowns offered the potential not only for international travel from the comfort of the settee, they provided the possibility of time travel as well. Designs for tea gowns often borrowed from eighteenth century French designs, featuring Watteau backs that swept away from the body (providing a dash of both historicism and comfort) and mimicking the silhouette of the robe à la française.


An 1879 critic wrote sharply of the tea gown in the Evening Post: ‘It is of elaborate design and infinite cost…. It is absolutely useless and utterly ridiculous, but this is not the worst that may be said about it’. Does this not, however, make the tea gown the perfect item to lift the spirits of a woman typically tightly corseted and kept indoors? It is an act of self-indulgence, but it is also a small rebellion against the dreary constraints of the every day. (The Metropolitan Museum notes that one of the tea gowns in its collection was worn by prominent member of American high society Amelia Beard Hollenback just after she gave birth to her daughter, an indication that there may be a very practical purpose to the tea gown unknowable to its male critic). Perhaps the tea gown is also just what the locked-down, early-sunsetting end of 2020 calls for as well, offering us a lift off of our collective couches into the depths of history and encouraging us to engage in costumed camouflage with the interiors of the homes to which we are confined. This seems an opportunity too tempting to pass up in favour of sweatpants.

Designer unknown (American), Tea Gown, 1875, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 2009.300.397.

by Ruby Redstone


‘Free and Easy Manners in London Society. (London World.)’. Evening Post Vol. XVII, Iss. 387 (5 April 1879): 5.

Hartzell, Freyja. ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, and the Fabric of the Interior.’ Fashion Theory Vol. 13, Iss. 1 (2009): 51-81.

Lee, Summer. ‘1898-1901 Green Silk Embroidered Tea Gown’. Fashion Institute of Technology Fashion History Timeline. Last updated 13 January 2020.’

Liberty. ‘Our Heritage’. Accessed 26 November 2020.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘House of Worth, Tea Gown, 1900-1901’. Accessed 26 November 2020.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Tea Gown, 1900’. Accessed 26 November 2020.


Fashion Interpretations, a Symposium

We are pleased to announce that next week The Courtauld and London College of Fashion will host Fashion Interpretations, a five-part symposium series hosted every evening from 30 November to 4 December. Documenting Fashion’s own Dr. Rebecca Arnold will lead this series alongside London College of Fashion’s Judith Clark, as both are co-founders of Fashion Interpretations: Dress, Medium, and Meaning, a Fashion AHRC-funded networking project. Each night Fashion Interpretations’s leaders will be joined by a selection of brilliant guests and speakers, and the series will culminate in a roundtable discussion to celebrate the launch of Archivist Addendum. Please book tickets to the week’s events here: If you’ve missed out on tickets for any of the nights, not to worry–the Documenting Fashion blog will be updated daily with our recaps, new knowledge, and perhaps even a few of our own fashion illustrations from Thursday night’s master class with Richard Haines.