This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
IF taste in dress could be traced to, or its cultivation and exercise were solely due to, the influence of the constant study of beautiful forms and fine historical models in design, as well as of the living human figure, we might be justified in looking to our schools of art to give us the best types and standards in costume. There are, however, too many missing links between the ordinary art student and the practical designer, between the tasteful person and the leader of fashion, to enable us to prove a close connection of cause and effect in the matter.
No doubt the general and extended cultivation of a knowledge of art even on the ordinary art-school lines has contributed not a little to the general interest in artistic questions, and quickened the average eye to some extent; but it must be said that we have not yet succeeded in making our schools of art remarkable as sources of invention, of initiative, or, on the whole, distinguished for capacity of artistic selection. We should be expecting too much, perhaps, to look for these things from training grounds. We ought to be satisfied if they ultimately turn out a fair average of capable artists, or, rather, enable students to become capable artists.
Even if all schools were equally well equipped in respect of models and teaching staff, under the present system there is practically but little margin left by the regime of the Board of Education for individual experiment and inquiry off the main lines of the prescribed courses of study in which passes or honours are obtainable.
The courses and classes of study are arranged in certain stereotyped ways, so that it becomes an object to attain a certain mechanical proficiency in certain methods of drawing, and the representation of a certain range of forms, in order to obtain certificates, rather than to cultivate the sense of beauty in individuals with a view to the public benefit and the raising of the standard of taste.
These defects are, it seems to me, inseparable from any attempt to teach art and taste in schools (that is to say by precept and principle rather than by practice), and upon a uniform system directed from a central department. Such an organization must necessarily tend to become rigid and work according to routine, and its administrators' best faculties are apt to be too much absorbed in mastering the details and rules of the system itself, and in the working of it, to be able to think out, much less to adopt, vivifying changes from time to time.
Greek Drapery, Temple of Nike Apteros, Athens
At certain stages, no doubt, by its command of expert opinion, such a Department may be of service to the schools of the country collectively in setting up a standard of taste, and advancing it from time to time by means of the national competitions, which are the means of instituting instructive comparisons between the work of different schools.
But the real educating after influences; the inspiring and refining sources of artistic invention in design must be found in the splendid array of examples of ancient art of all kinds in our museums and galleries - which are mines of artistic wealth to the student and the designer.
Yet the most ordinary art-school training cannot be without its effect, even if only negative. The mere practice of cultivating the observation and uniting it with a certain power of depicting form is an education in itself, and gives people fresh eyes for nature and life.
The mere effect upon the eye and feeling of following the pure lines and forms of antique Greek sculpture, and the severe and expressive lines of drapery can hardly be without a practical influence to some degree even upon the least impressionable.
At all events, we have living artists, many of whom have survived the usual art-school or Academic training, and who through their works have certainly influenced contemporary taste in dress, at least as far as the costume of women is concerned.
I think there can be no doubt, for instance, of the influence in our time of what is commonly known as the pre-Raphaelite school, and its later representatives in this direction; from the influence of Rossetti (which lately, indeed, seems to have revived and renewed itself in various ways) to the influence of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. But it is an influence which never owed anything to Academic teaching.
Under the new impulse - the new inspiration of the mid-century from the purer and simpler lines, forms, and colours of early mediaeval art, the dress of women in our own time may be said to have been quite transformed for a while, and though the pendulum of fashion swings to and fro, it does not much affect, except in some small details, a distinct type of dress which has become associated with artistic people - those who seriously study and consider of the highest value and importance beautiful and harmonious surroundings in daily life.
Beginning in the households of the artists themselves, the type of dress to which I allude, by imitation (which is the sincerest form of flattery - or insult, as some will have it) it soon became spread abroad until, in the seventies and early eighties, we saw the fashionable world and the stage aping, with more or less grotesque vulgarity, what it was fain to think were the fashions of the inner and most refined artistic cult. Commerce, ever ready to dot the i's and cross the t's of anything that spells increased profits, was not slow to flood the market with what were labelled "art-colours" and "aes-thetic" fabrics of all kinds; but whatever vulgarity, absurdity, and insincerity might have been mixed up by its enemies with what was known as the aesthetic movement, it undoubtedly did indicate a general desire for greater beauty in ordinary life and gave us many charming materials and colours which, in combination with genuine taste, produced some very beautiful as well as simple dresses: while its main effect is seen, and continues to be seen upon the domestic background of interior fittings, furniture, furniture-fabrics and wall-paper. The giddy, aimless masquerade of fashion continues, however, perhaps not without a sort of secret alliance with the exigencies of the factory and the market, and it has lately revived, in part, the modes of the grandmothers of the present generation, but, as is often the fate of revivals, has somewhat vulgarized them in the process.
Modern dress seems to be much in the same position as modern architecture. In both it looks as if the period of organic style and spontaneous growth has been passed, and that we can only attempt, pending important and drastic social changes, to revive certain types, and endeavour as best we can to adapt them to modern requirements.
Yet architects are bolder than dressmakers. They think nothing of going back to classic or mediaeval times for models, while the modiste generally does not venture much further than fifty or a hundred years back, and somewhat timidly at that. Small modifications, small changes and adaptations are always taking place, but it generally takes a decade to change the type of dress.