Published: March 29, 2016
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., has mounted the first exhibition to fully explore the Romantic era as a formative period in costume history in “Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy,” on view through July 10. Given the challenges in mounting such an exhibit and the myriad of Hartford connections among the 200-plus garments and artifacts in the exhibition, the museum was well suited to host this show. Guest curator Lynne Z. Bassett, who curated the exhibition, shares some details here.
What story does the exhibition tell?
The exhibition displays historic garments alongside literary works, paintings, prints and decorative arts to illustrate how the Western philosophical and social movement called “Romanticism” affected clothing fashions between 1810 and 1860. Romanticism was a rejection of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, and an embrace of imagination, emotion, nature and the unknown. Though the ideas that were prominent in Romanticism are examined in separate sections of the exhibition — Historicism, “Fancy,” Religion, Nature and Emotion) — they are, in fact, all connected. Together, they produced distinctive fashions that reverberate to the present day — notably, in recent Goth and steampunk styles, and even in the couture runway fashions of the current season.
Why the Wadsworth?
The exhibition is a natural fit at the Wadsworth because there are such important Harford connections, starting, of course, with Daniel Wadsworth, who was a Romantic traveler, in search of picturesque views to paint. His legacy to the people of Hartford, the Wadsworth Atheneum, opened at the height of the Gothic Revival in the 1840s — the building itself resembles a medieval castle! Daniel Wadsworth was an early patron of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church and Romantic poet Lydia Sigourney — both natives of Hartford who are represented in the exhibition. One vignette in the exhibition is centered on a print produced by the Hartford lithographic firm of the Kellogg brothers. It’s called “Look at Papa,” and shows a mother holding a baby and looking upon a portrait of “Papa.” The portrait I used in the vignette happens to be Horace Bushnell, a prominent Hartford minister, who proposed Bushnell Park — America’s first public park, located one block away from the Wadsworth Atheneum. The park is an expression of the Romantic belief that the contemplation of nature brings one closer to god. These Hartford residents were leaders in Romantic culture and thought — it’s wonderful to be able to bring them into the exhibition and add yet another layer to explore within the subject of Romanticism.
What were some of the challenges in mounting this exhibit?
The entire exhibit was a challenge — it was literally produced with blood, sweat and tears. I am deeply indebted to many of my own friends who stepped up to help me — including friends who supported the exhibition with their own money, friends who loaned couture items out of their closets and my wonderful volunteers who collectively gave hundreds of hours to help me dress mannequins. People who visit costume exhibits have no idea what goes into dressing a mannequin. You don’t just slip the clothes on and have it fit. All the mannequins have some sort of customization, or were made from scratch. I honestly believe there is no other museum that would have taken on such a large and complex exhibition without a professional staff of conservators and mannequin dressers.
How important was the Romantic period in costume history?
It is extremely important because so many aspects of it keep returning to fashion. It comes around so often, you could almost say it never went away. Romanticism reappears not just with a revival of puffy sleeves. For example, Goth, with its interest in the macabre and emotion, manifests ideas that come out of Romanticism. Each revival since the 1870s has plucked certain aspects of Romanticism to suit its purpose — so in each period, the Romantic style has its own distinct personality.
How many objects are in the exhibition?
There are over 200 items in the exhibition between the clothes and the accessories, along with the art works, books, etc.
How integral to the story is spirituality?
Piety and spirituality are totally integrated into Romantic ideas of nature and history and emotion. It is all so intertwined, you can’t discuss one without the other. It made it difficult to decide which dress to show in which section, because any of them could have been shown multiple ways, each with a different focus, a different story to tell. The lovely printed wool challis dress that is important in the nature section could just as easily have gone into the history section, because of its Tudor-inspired sleeves and tight, elongated, V-waisted bodice. Or it could have gone into the emotion section, because it is nothing if not emblematic of the demure, modest Romantic woman. It’s a beautiful dress that in the period would have been understood from many perspectives. I hope that visitors to the exhibition will come away with an appreciation not only for the beauty of the clothing in the Romantic era, but an understanding of its meaning then and its impact on fashion now.
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