Review by Mary Manning
In Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 2016), Lynne Zacek Bassett tracks trends of historicism, naturalism, and emotion in fashion from the early nineteenth century through the present day. Bassett, a very well respected costume historian and curator, has a long record of producing thoughtful texts on the role of clothing and textiles in American life and especially in New England. Written to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, Gothic to Goth is similarly thoughtful in the clear connections it poses between seemingly disparate objects to argue for the societal influences that determined why men and women dressed the Romantic ways that they did.
Though a slim volume, Gothic to Goth presents a narrative that is both authoritative and instructive. Bassett first provides an extended definition of Romanticism as a movement, explaining its underpinnings in philosophy as well as two crucial aspects of the exhibition’s content: the way it was disseminated to varied social classes through literature and poetry and how the American variant differed from its British and German contemporaries for religious and democratic reasons. Bassett then proceeds to address a selection of components that make up Romantic style—historicism, color and pattern, religion, nature, emotion—and builds as she goes along, drawing these elements together over and over. In doing so, she productively indicates how this style’s reliance on nature and abstract ideals belies its practical and social complexity. Her construction of Romanticism and the Gothic as hardy and resilient forms of expression serves her well when she reaches more recent couture interpretations of these styles. It is the logical conclusion of her historical analysis that designers like Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Jean-Paul Gaulthier would be interested in adapting the Romantic idiom for new audiences.
The credibility of Bassett’s arguments depends on the viability of her comparisons across media and across eras—in other words, does it make sense when she compares a building to a tree to a dress? With the catalogue’s lavish and carefully selected illustrations, the answer, more often than not, is yes. Yet because this catalogue focuses on providing such a convincing overview of its topic, there are certainly items of clothing, objects, or lines of argument that may have deserved further analysis in a different context. For example, Bassett quickly informs readers that Victorian mothers were not as modest when it comes to breastfeeding as modern audiences might think and includes an exquisite ca. 1845 nursing dress tailored to hide its removable panels. With this dress and other items, suggestions of how the “natural” body is contained or policed (or not) by fashion come up frequently and could play a larger role in a more overtly analytical consideration of the subject matter. Similarly, though the connections to more recent fashion are substantial, their many components and allegiances are not as thoroughly spelled out as the ones for their nineteenth-century antecedents. However, it is fair to state that the twentieth- and twenty-first century variations on Romanticism could fill another whole exhibition of their own.
It is a strength of Gothic to Goth that it will provide useful information to both general and specialist audiences. Those readers encountering Romanticism for the first time, perhaps coming to this text through the lens of contemporary punk, goth, or steampunk fashion, will find direct, well-argued historical context. A specialist audience looking to situate particular trends will be well-served by the connections Bassett draws between clothing and a wide variety of visual art, decorative and design objects, literature, and print media. This exhibition catalogue navigates successfully between the mainstream and the macabre and makes the case that the consequences of nineteenth-century Romanticism still persist in our decidedly unromantic modern world.
Mary Manning has a Ph.D. in Art History, which allows her to professionally obsess about paintings and/or nineteenth-century France. She currently lives in the Cleveland area and, as an AmeriCorps Member, works with local history organizations on projects that allow them to do more and serve more people.