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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

‘Strange old Italian dresses’: Walter Pater, Victorian fashionista?

Bénédicte COSTE


Cet article traite de du vêtement esthétique tel que pensé par Walter Pater au cours de sa carrière littéraire. De « Léonard de Vinci » (1869) à l’inachevé Gaston de Latour (1888-1894 ?) en passant par « L’école de Giorgione » (1877) et « Un Prince des peintres de cour » (1885), Pater a évoqué, décrit les vêtements et plus particulièrement leurs détails. Ces descriptions s’inscrivent dans le cadre de l’Esthétisme britannique, mouvement où le vêtement tient une place importante, et plus particulièrement en regard des portraits de Whistler et écrits de Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, sans oublier sa caricature sous le crayon de George du Maurier et de Sir Leslie Ward. Progressivement, Pater élabore la figure d’un dandy esthète, incarné par le roi Henri III, qui, en jouant sur une gamme chromatique restreinte aux riches nuances, se crée en dehors de toute mode pour affirmer une jouissance exclusive. A l’opposé, Pater dépeint de véritables fashion victims, prises dans un rapport de soumission aux modes du temps.

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“L’important, c’est le maquillage”
(slogan of the queer activist group Gazolines, c. 1971)


  • 1 My heartfelt thanks go to my two anonymous reviewers who suggested insightful additions.
  • 2 « [I] entreprend de révolutionner la toilette et les arts décoratifs. Il demande qu’on remplace par (...)
  • 3 Architect and designer E. W. Godwin became consultant of Liberty’s for its dress department in 1884

1From its inception British Aestheticism addressed the whole experience of life and emphasized the importance of dress.1 Through its distinctive figures—Oscar Wilde, Whistler and, in the early 1890s, Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm—the movement was remarkable for its sartorial innovations and discussions of dress (Wilde 1991, 55-58). Commenting upon British Aesthetes of the early 1880s the French literary critic Gabriel Sarrazin noted the comprehensive aim of the movement: “it undertakes to revolutionize dress and the decorative arts. It wants the replacement of our coats and tight-fitting jackets by loose clothing and a sort of drapery, and the abolition of the hideous furniture of the modern bourgeoisie for a more tasteful style” (Sarrazin 29).2 Sarrazin was commenting upon sartorial habits the inception of which arguably became prominent in Britain in the 1870s when “simple dresses in plain fabrics draped from the shoulders with unconstricted waists and sleeves that did not inhibit movement” (Edwina Ehrman 206) and that were partly inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings were worn in some artistic circles (Cunningham 133-4), painted by Whistler (James Mc Neill Whistler 1873), caricatured by George du Maurier in Punch and lauded by Mary Eliza Haweis (Haweis 1878). Oscar Wilde’s 1883 tour in North America was notable for his pronouncements on art in “The English Renaissance of Art” as well as for his dress which was reproduced or described in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. Aesthetic dress became the marker of alternative choices and identities and a way of contesting Victorian lifestyles and gender divisions. Close to the Dress Reform Movement and sharing its idea that beauty could be achieved through dress (E. W. Godwin 193-278; Newton 1974),3 Aesthetic clothing appeared as “an anti-fashion statement” (Vadillo 243-71) at a time when following fashion had become an established, largely feminine, middle-class activity (Flanders 2007, 78-122; Lipovetsky 1994; Craik 1994). As Ana Parejo Vadillo has demonstrated in the case of Michael Field (Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper), from the 1890s onwards, the two Aesthetic poets’ dress was “one of the many expressions of their oppositional aesthetics to mass culture”. With their emphasis on individual taste, Bradley and Cooper had their clothes designed and made “to express their innate sensibilities and assert their own values and cultivated tastes”; they used dress “as a way to individualize their own aesthetic lives” and “realized their own concept of aestheticism through a poetics of clothing” (Vadillo 244). In her study of the sartorial ethos of Wilde, Beerbohm and George Du Maurier’s caricatures in Punch, Talia Schaffer contends that, as opposed to Wilde’s sartorial gender-bending of the 1880s, both Beerbohm and Du Maurier asserted a dandiacal garb predicated on a skilful departure from masculine sartorial conformity. For Schaffer “Aesthetic fashion” borrowed “colors, styles, fabrics, and accessories from the women's sphere” with a view to “reformulat[ing] them in the language of scholarship, insisting that their clothes were readable by trained connoisseurs and containing valuable historical and aesthetic information.” (Schaffer 2000, 42) Whether gender-bending or über masculine, “Aesthetic men developed new visual codes to reconfigure their fear of feminization, creating a new kind of body which could be read as an essential, unchanging, scholarly, and artistic icon.” (Schaffer 2000, 39) Vernon Lee’s satiric novel Miss Brown (1884) gives numerous descriptions of Aesthetic dress of both sexes and emphasizes the visual disruption they created as well as the communities of taste formed by their wearers. Aesthetic dress displayed its historical inscription and conceived of itself as an homage to former times that was variously appreciated by its contemporaries. It created and signalled one’s belonging to a distinctive community of taste. Arguably Wilde, Beerbohm, and George Du Maurier were indebted to painter and engraver James McNeill Whistler, an Aesthete himself indebted to French artistic garb of the late 1850s. When he was photographed by Alfred Carjat in 1864, Whistler sported a bourgeois enveloping frock-coat, a waist-coat and a cravat (Carjat 1865), but a later self-portrait shows him wearing a more artistic garb, with a cravat, a white studio apron and a floppy cap reminiscent of seventeenth-century caps (Whistler 1871-1873). Joseph Boehm’s bust of the artist displays him wearing his artistic cravat (Boehm 1875). “Spy” (Sir Leslie Ward) has Whistler sporting a silk hat, a long grey coat, a cane, and a monocle in “A Symphony”, (1878). His cane, loose trousers and monocle (Menpes 1903), would become associated with Whistler’s carefully constructed media image as an Aesthete (Anderson and Koval 1995, 240).

2In discussions of the Aesthetes’ sartorial habits, Walter Pater is rarely mentioned, because of his emphasis on the visual arts from Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) onwards and certainly because of a seeming lack of detailed information on his garb. In 1894, Edmund Gosse, who knew Pater from 1874 reminisced:

The costume of Walter Pater had been the ordinary academic dress of the don of the period, but in May 1869 he flashed forth at the Private View of the Royal Academy in a new top hat and a silk tie of brilliant apple-green. This little transformation marked a crisis; he was henceforth no longer a provincial philosopher, but a critic linked to London and the modern arts. (Gosse 1896, 259)

  • 4 “[O]ur fashion … was the fashion of the movement which sprang from Morris and Burne-Jones. Liberty (...)

3Still, his living with his two sisters, one of whom, Hester, was a keen embroiderer in Oxford in late 1869, may have fuelled his attention to dress and costume. One of his neighbours, Mrs Ward, has left a description of early Aesthetic dresses and of the Paters’ home in Oxford,4 but did not notice Pater’s dress. The few extant pictures of Pater display a dapper don possibly indebted to the male traditions of dandyism, including those provided by his reading of Baudelaire’s “Le peintre de la vie moderne” with its notations on dandyism. Simeon Solomon’s 1873 pencil on paper drawing shows a young sensitive Pater with a classic tie and a cutaway collar (Solomon 1873).

  • 5 Gaston de Latour’s first chapters were published in Macmillan’s Magazine and The Fortnightly Review(...)

4A member of the audience to Whistler’s public reading of the “Ten o’clock”, in London, on 20 February 1885, Pater acknowledged the importance of dress within the Aesthetic experience and as an aesthetic experience in itself. In “The School of Giorgione” (first published in The Fortnightly Review in 1877 and later included in the 1888 edition of The Renaissance), he praised an overall Aesthetic way of life, namely “[A]ll things that partake in any degree of artistic qualities, of the furniture of our houses, and of dress, for instance, of life itself, of gesture and speech, and the details of daily intercourse” (R 88). In all of his writings the most gifted theoretician of Aestheticism gave its full scope to the movement by including dress, decoration and daily interactions on a par with arts. Accordingly, nearly all the essays of The Renaissance (first published as Studies in the History of the Renaissance in February 1873) mention dress, from Leonardo da Vinci’s attraction to “odd bright dresses and spirited horses” (R 64) to the “strange old Italian dresses, parti-coloured, or fantastic with embroidery and furs” (R 97) painted by Giorgione. “Odd” and “strange” refer both to the experience of the modern reader and to the experience of some sixteenth-century Italians on seeing such uncommon dress. For Pater, dress is essentially characterized by details such as “the spotless white linen at wrist and throat, [Giorgione] painted so dexterously” (R 97) rather than by overall description. Whether historical or imaginary, the individuals he sketches are singularized by the details of their dress, not by full-length descriptions. From “Leonardo da Vinci” (first published in the Fortnightly Review in 1869) to his last unfinished texts, Pater paid great attention to dress: mentions of accessories such as jewels, colours, textile, and material run like a golden thread structuring his literary and imaginary portraits. What follows is therefore devoted to tracing the ever-increasing subtlety of his vision within what became the highly competitive writings of the 1880s, notably by Wilde and Whistler, on the dress and sartorial habits of the Aesthetes (Wilde 1991, 52; Wilde 1991, 55-58). Special attention will be devoted to Pater’s second novel Gaston de Latour which, because it is unfinished,5 has received scant attention. And yet in Gaston de Latour Pater may well be providing his own manifesto for Aesthetic dress.

Playing and displaying

  • 6 In her Foucaldian analysis of fashion, Entwistle sees dress as a “situated bodily practice” entaili (...)

5Quite significantly, in “The School of Giorgione”, which is Pater’s first aesthetic manifesto alongside the 1868 “Conclusion” to The Renaissance (a text omitted in 1877 and only reinserted in the third 1888 edition of The Renaissance), dress is linked to play and to the stage, which are themselves linked to music: “[F]rom music, the school of Giorgione passes often to the play which is like music” (R 96). Pater first praises play as “that to which people really apply their own best powers”, and as the moment when “the stress of our servile, everyday attentiveness being relaxed, the happier powers in things without are permitted free passage, and have their way with us.” (R 96) Playfulness functions as a means to attune the players to the sensible influence of objects, one of Aestheticism’s central tenets. From play understood as fantasy and imagination, Pater goes to “those masques in which men avowedly do but play at real life, like children ‘dressing up,’ disguised in the strange old Italian dresses, parti-coloured, or fantastic with embroidery and furs” (R 97). To dress up—and cross-dress—is to experience life from a playful point of view, to have a carefree test that does not preclude more serious engagement but, on the contrary, fosters it. Fancy dress or costume may possess a half-humorous dimension, but dress is essentially the means to consider life seriously, i.e. as a performance through which one’s identity is continuously shaped, fashioned and refashioned, dress functioning as a visual marker of one’s existence and lifestyle. However, dress is no disguise: it expresses one’s subjective position; it entails agency; and foregrounds issues of passivity or activity. Should one follow the fashion of the day, initiate it, or depart from all fashion altogether? At a time when fashion was a full bourgeois consumer activity, entailing subservience and/or resistance,6 Pater used discreet mentions of dress details in his writings to delineate a subtle dandiacal position, while commenting upon sartorial mores and manners that partake of alienated forms of subjectivity.

  • 7 Walter Pater, “A Prince of Court Painters: Extracts from an Old French Journal”, Macmillan’s Magazi (...)

6“A Prince of Court Painters” (1885),7 one of his first imaginary portraits, signalled the fashioning power of dress and warned about equating it with disguise. The warning echoed Wilde: “all costumes are caricatures. The basis of art is not the Fancy Ball.” (Wilde 1991, 52) Presented as the diary of Marie-Marguerite Pater, sister of eighteenth-century French painter Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695-1735), one entry describes the young woman sitting for Watteau, wearing a walking-dress created by the artist: “a gown of a peculiar silken stuff falling into and abundance of small folds, giving me ‘a certain air of piquancy’ which pleases him” (IP 129). Marie-Marguerite however comments that her own “Flemish dress” (129) suits her better. Watteau is superimposing his vision on reality, a gesture Marie-Marguerite finds alienating of her own identity (‘my true self’, 129) both as a Northern woman and as a writer. Such imposition is also a skilful echo of Pater’s narrative technique in this portrait, as Marie-Marguerite’s diary is edited by an anonymous, possibly masculine, narrator. For the only time in his literary career a Decadent Pater decomposes the narrative voice into a feminine diary and a masculine(?) editor and humorously adopts the “Flemish dress” of an eighteenth-century woman under the almost invisible garb of the editor presenting “Extracts from an Old French Journal” (115), i.e. cutting her diary in tailor-like manner. If dress cannot be equated with disguise, and art with reality, Marie-Marguerite proves more resilient than Watteau as she accompanies him to the grave, commenting: “he has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world, that there is no satisfying measure, or not at all.” (IP 141) She might have added that Watteau had vainly tried to superimpose his vision on reality, a self-defeating gesture. Lene Østermark-Johansen has noted how Pater relies on Edmond de Goncourt’s Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint, dessiné et gravé d’Antoine Watteau and L’Art du XVIIIe siècle (with Jules de Goncourt) to describe eighteenth-century dress as faithfully as possible, therefore willing to anchor his prose in the historical accuracy Aesthetes favoured. Dress, costume, and fashion remained enduring concerns in his further writings as powerful sites for interrogating gender identities.

  • 8 “a designer, promoter, or follower of the latest fashions” (Merriam-Webster 1993). “A person devote (...)
  • 9 Edith Cooper deplored Mrs Le Gallienne’s “heapy aestheticism” in 1892 (quoted Parejo Vadillo).

7In an unpublished chapter of his second but unfinished novel, Gaston de Latour (1888-1894?), replete with sartorial descriptions of sixteenth-century men and women, readers are presented with contrasted portraits of what could nowadays be termed fashionistas,8 in order to comment on the fate of Aestheticism through a skilful parallel between sixteenth-century France and late-Victorian Britain. Gaston belongs to the 1880s developments of Aestheticism, when the movement appeared almost passé, but was being vindicated by Walter Hamilton, its first historian (Hamilton 1882). In Gaston, a mature Pater revisits his former interests in the French Renaissance, this time choosing the more agitated period of the Wars of Religion (1562-1598), “a fanatical war of forty years,” (GdeL 9) to present the vicissitudes of young French nobleman Gaston de Latour moving in high class circles in Paris and encountering the great figures of the day such as Queen Marguerite de Navarre. Three moments when dress figures prominently in Gaston are of especial importance: the description of Queen Marguerite de Valois and of her fashionable friends, the performance of Tannhäuser given before a Parisian audience, and the description of King Henri III. These are moments when dress strikingly appears as the marker of a specific identity. In those rarely discussed descriptions, dress illustrates the complexity of modern subjectivities: in a novel where Valois France stands as a faithful mirror of fin-de-siècle Victorian Britain, this is one of Pater’s aims. His overall meaning may be partially obscure as Gaston is unfinished but the extant pages enable readers to accompany him in his sartorial reflections about “a style that originated in the idiosyncratic, anti-materialistic decorating choices of a select coterie of artists and intellectuals in 1860s Oxford and Chelsea” (Breward 2010, 204) which then faced increasing popularisation or even, as Linda Dowling argued, vulgarization (Dowling 1997). From the 1880s onwards the “translation [of Aestheticism] into the ephemeral phenomena of the theatre, the suburban parlour, the shop window and the store catalogue, the nursery-book, and mass-circulation periodicals […] [became] as a ‘craze’ of the moment effectively eclipsing its cultish status as a religion for the philosopher/connoisseur” (Breward 2010, 195), an appropriation and reformulation eliciting criticism from the Aesthetes themselves. Oscar Wilde rejected any sartorial antiquarianism, “an antiquarian revival of an ancient costume” (Wilde 1991, 57) and defended Aesthetic dress as both beautiful and rational, while Michael Field (the pseudonym used by Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper) were privately critical of ready-made dresses (including those sold at Liberty’s) and of fake Aesthetes following what had become a popular fashion in the early 1890s.9 In 1885, vindicating High Aestheticism, Whistler exposed the traducing of art as “a common topic for the tea-table” by those “false prophets who have brought the very name of the beautiful into disrepute” (quoted Breward 2011, 199-200), before embarking on a series of acid criticisms on those he thought were debasing beauty by unfortunate dress. Wilde was thus commanded to “Restore those things to Nathan’s, and never again let me find you masquerading the streets of my Chelsea in the combined costumes of Kossuth and Mr. Mantalini!” after Whistler had seen him in Polish cap and green overcoat, “befrogged and wonderfully befurred” (Whistler 1967, 243). As for Whistler’s arch enemy Harry Quilter, he was described as “an amazing ‘arrangement’ in strong mustard-and-cress, with bird’s-eye belcher of Reckitt’s blue” (Whistler 1967, 72). Less prone to controversy and subtle humour, and less inclined to engage in public quibbles, Pater also set out to critique some of the sartorial mores he observed in London’s and Oxford’s Aesthetic circles, counterbalancing them with his own vision of Aesthetic masculine dress.

Pater’s fashionistas

8In the unpublished drafts of Gaston Pater probably wrote in the late 1880s-early 1890s, two chapters picture the mores and fashions of sixteenth-century Paris as “an age of courtiers and ceremonial, of continual self-presentation” (101). For Pater, France is subjected to the deleterious influence of Renaissance Italy, “as infection comes, wrapped up with costly furniture and the like […] to set a fashion, and remodel everything else after its own pattern” (101). Because such a vision markedly departs from Pater’s praise of the French Italianate Renaissance in “Joachim du Bellay” (1872) as “a new and peculiar phase of taste with qualities and a charm of its own” (R 99), it remains intriguing.

  • 10 “The aesthetic critic, then, regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and (...)

9Chapter VIII, “An Empty House”, stages a visit by young Gaston to the deserted house of his friend Jasmin, while the narrator comments that “the house, the style, was the man” (GdeL 91). Gaston’s visit allows the narrator to describe the young aristocrat in “his evening suit in cloth and silver and pearls, marvellously godronné, a ‘symphony in white’” (89) conspicuously offered to be looked at like the other high-priced objects in his house. With its reference to Gautier’s “Symphonie en blanc majeur” (1852) and Whistler’s eponymous paintings (Whistler 1861-2; 1864; 1865-7), Jasmin’s dress appears both as a statement in scholarly and artistic knowledge and as a vestment emphasizing self-display. Quite significantly the whole chapter is devoted to picturing decor and objects of the Medicean house the young aristocrat lives in, before the narrator tersely concludes on their deleterious effect over the owner: “it was as if [their owner] were already dead” (89). Jasmin testifies to a time when objects, including clothing and accessories, supersede human subjects, marring the aesthetic relation between subject and object Pater had posited as a central tenet of Aesthetic criticism in the “Preface” to The Renaissance.10 Now endangered, such careful balance is therefore threatening the raison d’être of the “Aesthetic critic” by the supremacy of objects over subjects (R xxx).

10For his part, Gaston is surprised to discover a beautified version of himself in Jasmin’s mirror, while the narrator notes that “Gaston too was conforming to [a recognised facial type]” (90), i.e. identifying to a type rather than to his own likeness. Such remark triggers the following narratorial hypothesis: “Did portraiture not merely reflect life but in part also determine it? The image might react on the original, refining it one degree further.” (90) Can individuals become defined, subjected (alienated?) by their reflection? Can they mistake refinement for reality and engage in an existence where their individuality is somehow blurred or sacrificed to the adoption of a mock identity testified to by the beautified image mirrors send back? Such interrogation occurs in a climate where art has reached a high degree of self-consciousness:

art achieved, and reaching just now its last refinements, the finest intelligence of its own motives and capacity, must needs minister to the mood of the day with somewhat low-pitched “symphonies” in black and grey—, with “harmonies” in iron and steel, or at the gayest, in steel and silver—rusty steel, tarnished silver.’ (95)

11The unmistakable reference to Whistler’s paintings functions as a reminder of the times when Pater reviews the somewhat debased state of Aesthetic art, as Whistler’s quite famous and much commented upon “symphonies” have seemingly become mere caricatures of the painter’s ambitious interart project by being reduced to dress accessories. His reflection continues in the following chapter devoted to the fashions and mores of the times, centring around Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615). The Queen is described as a venomous, beautiful woman, dangerously verging on the masculine and evoking for late-nineteenth century readers visions of the femme fatale mixed with a New Woman’s assertiveness, or “female Aesthetes w[earing] dark, straight, unadorned, uncorseted gowns, look[ing] like men” (Schaffer 2000, 44). She defeats expectations of what a beautiful woman ought to be:

the pallor […] of a thing kept studiously, like white lilac or roses in winter, from the common air or, you might fancy, in the dark; and there was almost oriental blue richness, blackness, in the king-fisher wings or waves of hair which over-shadowed ce beau visage blanc so abundantly […] the black eyes surprised you by their clear dark blue (98).

12Evoking hot-house flowers and cultural otherness Marguerite de Valois appears as a Decadent creature endowed with a touch of evil, figuring a problematic contrast between aesthetics and ethics. A “poison-daisy” (92), she is surrounded by friends and courtiers compared to exotic evil-tinged flowers:

the really white flowers of both sexes [who] opened, spread themselves so gracefully, easily, superbly, for an hour, yet with so delightful a sense of mystery, as if they drew their nurture from nethermost darkness. They swarmed here, those luscious heavy-petalled blossoms, these momentarily beautiful faces, lips or eyes (102).

13Adopting Baudelaire’s “flowers of evil” aesthetics while masking their problematic ethics under the most virginal colour, the narrator pictures a series of individuals conforming to the time’s overall aesthetic scheme:

You seemed to expect, to have known something of them before they came; after a few minutes’ intercourse, to have known them always. They filled a place made ready for them by the books, the pictures, the very fashions of the day—nay! More than filled it, they superseded all this daringly. (102)

  • 11 « Par toi je change l’or en fer », Charles Baudelaire, « Alchimie de la douleur » (l. 9), Les Fleur (...)

14Like pieces of a larger puzzle, Margot’s friends do not initiate fashions and lifestyles but subscribe to them and find their identity in such perfect subjection; seemingly deprived of agency, they follow sartorial prescriptions, embracing passivity and thereby raising the question of the initiators of those prescriptions. Consuming fashion and lifestyle other trendsetters have created, they illustrate the voluntary subservience to domineering, sometimes unknown, figures they finally “supersede” by their fashioning. Fashion no longer appears as a playful activity but as fraught with intimations of sado-masochism, engaging its followers in a relation of rivalry, domination, mastery. Baudelaire’s infernal alchemy turning gold into iron11 materializes in the jewellery women wear:

Iron armlets, necklaces, necklets, iron chains, how daintily decorative we may conceive, became the fashion among, well! among Les belles ferronières [sic] …. It was as if they felt some sensible affinity for colours of the earth, earthy, of the sudden earth under rain or decay—which made silver look like iron. (95)

  • 12 See for instance the serpent armlet in gold (c. 1870) purchased by Alma-Tadema at J.S. & A. B. Wyon (...)

15Although Aesthetic jewellery (Flower 1967; Gere and Rudoe 2010) is an area in which strict definitions are hard to achieve because of the “emphasis on originality and individual taste”, as Clare Philips points out (Philips 2011, 208-11) Pater may well have commented upon its historical character, since Philips notes that some jewels inspired by archaeological discoveries displayed fine metalworking.12 Echoes of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Pater’s Decadent “ferronnières” play on appearances, and significantly, their consumption is enacted in a society of the spectacle (Debord 2004) where the difference between reality and play is fully blurred:

one groped one’s way mentally, morally about all-accomplished Paris, as if in the rambling purlieus of some vast theatre, among the traps, the lofts and ladders and peep-holes, upon the artificially illumined stage, where the actors not seldom reached the height of real lust, real madness, and in real fury drew swords on one another. (95)

16As the Wars of Religion rage, Paris has become a gigantic playhouse with the consequence that the negated or foreclosed reality—that of death—returns with a vengeance as bloodlust, with the massacre of Saint Bartholomew (1572). Negation’s less unfortunate consequences also appear when a “choice company of Italian players, brought thither by King Henry, presented there in masquerade, by way of a ‘mystery’ or ‘morality,’ their own version of […] the legend of Tannhäuser.” (105) At the time of “the war of the three Henries, des trois Henri”, pitting Henri III of France, Henri III of Navarre and Henri I Duke of Guise and of Lorraine (114), the performance of Tannhäuser features gender reversal as, this time, Venus vainly seeks her “Lord”, thereby allowing the novel’s narrator to comment upon gender conventions and re-articulations through a brief description of an Italian masque.

  • 13 Aubrey Beardsley, “Under the Hill: A Romantic Novel”, The Savoy 1 (January 1896), 151-70 and 2 (Apr (...)

17Pater had first mentioned the medieval legend of Tannhäuser in “Two Early French Stories” (1872) as an example of the return of paganism in the Middle Ages. The original story—revived among others by Richard Wagner (Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, 1845), A.C. Swinburne (“Laus Veneris”, 1866) and William Morris (The Earthly Paradise, 1868-70, a collection Pater commented upon in 1868 and which provided the first part of the infamous “Conclusion” to The Renaissance), and soon to be rewritten and published as “Under the Hill” by Aubrey Beardsley in Decadent parodic style in 189613—describes the love of Tannhäuser for Venus in a Christian context, pitting paganism against Christianity, unorthodox Hellenism against conventional religion. In 1872 Pater summarized the story:

the erring knight makes his way to Rome, to seek absolution at the centre of Christian religion. “So soon,” thought and said the Pope, “as the staff in his hand should bud and blossom, so soon might the soul of Tannhäuser be saved, and no sooner”; and it came to pass not long after that the dry wood of a staff which the Pope had carried in his hand was covered with leaves and flowers. (R 4)

  • 14 “with such fantastic knowledge as stage-players in that loosely pedantic age could come by, of like (...)

18The legend is used to vindicate the claims of all antinomian desires against institutionalized power. In the early 1890s, the Italian version of Tannhäuser critiques strict gender identities: “Those Italian players took their subjects a little on one side, so to speak, put the Venustas, the quality of Venus, not on a goddess but on a god, and made the adoring fanatical lover a woman” (106). Pater has not left a precise description of the players’ costume but emphasizes its trans-historical dimension: presented before a “fashionable Parisian audience late in the sixteenth century”, the masque displays “the ways, the looks, the raiment of men and women in old Assyria transformed mistily on the stage to ancient Egypt, Judea, Corinth, Rome, to humanity” (106).14 The Italianate Tannhäuser conspicuously harks back to ancient pagan times but the players have exaggerated the feelings of the desiring character almost to the point of madness and present not desire but a caricature of feminine desire:

the old Eve, mother of us all, as through many forms she takes her way through the world, ever one and the same from age to age, with desire towards [her lord] ruling over her, betrayed again and again into the realm of some irrepressible male idol, supposed in this particular case to be […], seeking now and then, if it may be, the ministry of some wholesomer kind of religion, but always returning again at last underground to her madness and idolatry, usually, as was truly said, to nurse her deity in sickness. (106)

  • 15 Oscar Wilde’s “Shakespeare and Stage Costume” as later reprinted in Intentions (1891) as “The Truth (...)

19Not only is the original Venus replaced by the arch-mother figure of Eve, and masculine desire by female irrepressible lust, but the version displays vertiginous cross-dressing, as a role meant to be played by a male character becomes a female part performed by a man. However, this modern cross-dressed version is perhaps more faithful to a psychological form of truth as it enables viewers to uncover “the self-immolating, longing feminine soul, from age to age always the same (the constant repetition of its sad fortunes was the force of the thing)” (106). In “Shakespeare and Stage Costume” (1885, the future “Truth of Masks”) Wilde had defended the importance of historical dress on the stage to vindicate archaeological drama (Stokes 1972), because “the stage is not merely the meeting-place of all arts, but is also the return of art to life”, (Wilde 1991, 237),15 a pronouncement Pater echoes here as he had done in “The School of Giorgione” while giving historical dress the additional meaning of presenting not only life conceived as a performance but as displaying psychological truth as well. An expression of feminine ardent desire, the Italian masque delivers the somewhat uncomfortable truth that Tannhäuser desires less than Venus. Still, readers and spectators should be wary of correlating expressions of desire and gender identities: “Only, be it remembered”, the narrator adds, “such female souls are not necessarily lodged in women’s bosoms”, as the young male player performing the part of Venus shows (106). The Italian masque demonstrates the permanence of such longing, regardless of the sex of the desiring subject, negating solid gender identities. Venus vainly seeking her “Lord” might well be the theatrical expression of male individuals, as will be the case when the narrator presents the story of Raoul’s unfortunate and deadly tragic desire towards Jasmin (107-9). For all its exaggeration, the play allows the expression of desire severed from constrictive gender norms. Reasserting its permanence, it functions as a subtle rebuke to late-Victorian mores and stark gender definitions, and discreetly promotes more fluid identities.

Henri III and the dandy

  • 16 “Henri III […] emprunte des éléments de vêtement tant au costume de spectacle qu’aux modes étrangèr (...)
  • 17 “cet officiant missionné du culte sans rituel d’une beauté qu’il veut et sait toujours inaccessible (...)
  • 18 Pater however disapproved of the drawing and forbade its publication, which only took place in 1895 (...)

20As opposed to the proclamation of communal desire upon which eroticism and the play between activity and passivity revolve, another category of individuals appears under Pater’s talented pen when the narrator introduces a specific dress, “perhaps the loveliest masculine dress the world has seen” (110). As part of a general aesthetic scheme of the times, “the conscious art only, the literature, the music of the age, […] the very furniture about one […] the wine one drank, the cup that held it, the platter one took it from, and above all those graceful fashions” (110), it achieves the contradictory purpose of un/veiling the masculine form as a carefully designed artefact denying the naturalness of the body: “how faithfully, how daintily it followed, displayed, yet made a mystery of, the person, the natural form within, relieved the finely bred, much cared for hand and head.” (110) The dress of Henri III (1551-1589), “that new toilet, contrasting, the white pâté of his face” made of “[b]rown satin, grey silk enriched with black velvet, set up with rich dark fancy stones and heavy unbleached lace” (119) is in sharp contrast with the alienated fashionistas surrounding Queen Margot.16 Such a garb, the historical truth of which Pater carefully ascertained in L’Estoile, who can be credited for having created the dark legend of Henri III (1875-1896), and Brantôme, obeys no logic of self-display: “our aesthetic doings shall have a purpose beyond any momentary satisfaction”, Pater has the king declare (119). As a perfect proto-Aesthete, Henri III aims at transcending time to present himself as the embodiment of beauty. With his specific volonté de jouissance exceeding fleetingness, Henri III wills himself to appear different from his courtiers, allies or enemies, escaping the limits and change of fashion to set his own time-defying manner of self-display. Beauty becomes eternized. His own “poetics of clothing” is not primarily addressed at consuming beholders but at some unknown exclusive addressee the king has set for himself and who will not respond to others or acknowledge their demand. Françoise Dolto explores these dynamics and concludes that such mode of address characterizes the dandy’s search for beauty: “an officiating minister of the ritual-free office of a form of beauty he wills and knows to be always inaccessible [...], [he is] faithful to his total engagement. No earthly aim can arrest him, and the most captivating ones are transparent for him. It is the very heart of God he must attain; an arrow of desire, it is in the heart of God that he must shoot his arrow”. (Dolto 1995, 15)17 It is not sure that Pater’s dandiacal Henri addresses God: arguably, the king escapes the boundaries of communality to situate himself beyond the nexus of exchange and desire, in a novel where religion and religious warfare rank high but where God is never mentioned as such. Relying on “the low octave of colour then prevailing, couleurs de sacristie almost, art’s latest triumph surely, bringing by a subtle economy out of so little, effects so rich” (119), the king’s unique raiment does not turn or debase dress into music by confusing both arts but treats the materiality of clothing as music and plays on the tiniest difference between chromatic nuances, therefore realizing Pater’s 1877 vision of the arts as “aspiring to the condition of music” (R 86). Beautiful clothing morphs into the music of coloured nuances and details of shape that only Henri’s exclusive addressee can acknowledge. Wearing the couleurs de sacristie—white, purple, red, green and pink—which, significantly, were also some Aesthetes’ favourite colours (worn by the Michael Fields and Wilde), Henri III is the dandy of the sixteenth century (significantly Viviane Aubry uses the word to describe him). Or rather, he is a proto-dandy, showing once again the trans-historical character of dandyism and unveiling an economy functioning on careful attrition and unmatchable, almost invisible distinction, that of the musical octave. Far from the maddened crowd of desiring subjects, far from the fashion victims of the day, he asserts his uniqueness and will to jouissance, escaping time’s boundaries and communities of taste affiliation in his search for personal beauty. As opposed to Whistler’s public strictures or Wilde’s sartorial comments, Pater chooses to present his vision of sartorial elegance embodied in history but functioning as a possible model for 1880s/1890s Aesthetes. Unfortunately, contemporary readers did not benefit from it, and Pater’s vision has long remained somewhat masked by that of more vocal contestants in the competition for Aesthetic sartorial correctness. However, young artist Will Rothenstein has left a lithograph of Pater in 1894 displaying an aging Pater with a pale frock-coat, a cutaway collar and no hat (Rothenstein 1893-96).18

  • 19 “In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his (...)

21The strikingly designed dress of Henri III echoes Max Beerbohm’s vision of the “unapproachable, icy ideal” of the dandy19 according to Schaffer, “leading the fashion yet standing outside the fashion. [...] impervious to the changeable rules of fashion associated with feminine flightiness. [...] More passionately concerned with his appearance than any woman, the dandy of the nineteenth century masculinizes his interest in dress, assigning it the ideals of restraint and discipline.” (Schaffer 2000, 46) Beerbohm chooses to emphasize the Victorian ethos of restraint, therefore demonstrating the historicity of dandies, while Pater’s Henri III emphasizes the Renaissance ethos of nuanced chromatic diversity. Both Beerbohm and Henri III distinguish themselves from communities of taste, unwittingly becoming fashion leaders by adopting a striking “mode of producing an ideal self.” (Schaffer 2000, 46)


22By depicting sixteenth-century French sartorial mores, Pater relies on historical and cultural distance to cast a critical glance at some fashions of his times and carve his own sartorial ethos in the highly competitive Aesthetic community. Moving in progressive circles in London but about to return to Oxford in 1893, the mature essayist differentiates followers of fashion from initiators or prescribers, men and women who simply adopt any fashionable dress as a costume from those singular beings, sometimes known as dandies, capable of creating their own “poetics of dress” by rejecting commonality, easy dress unfortunately mixing arts for the sake of nuanced and jouissif clothing. The distinction they achieve is not only social, even if it relies on their purchasing power to satisfy their desire to stand out. It is personal, an attempt to defy time—and the change it brings about in dress as well as in their existence—in one’s quest for beauty. The dandy’s distinctive outfit is a subtle challenge to mortality.

  • 20 “The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of h (...)
  • 21 Pater takes the phrase from Jules Lemaître whose Serenus he reviewed, see [Walter Pater], “M. Lemai (...)

23“I have dwelt thus at length on what was visible in Paris just then, on the mere historic scene, forgetful it might seem of the company of Gaston” (121): in fine, Pater leaves his reader to follow Gaston as an observer of the society of his times, a mirror of late-Victorian London. Such a position entails an aesthetic receptivity that Pater values as conducive to aesthetic open-mindedness: “I do suppose [Gaston] thoughtfully looking on with us, all the while, as essentially a creature of the eye, even more likely than others to be shaped by the things he sees.” (121) Encountering fashionistas and dandies, Gaston adopts the more comfortable position of a spectator, temporarily protected from the vicissitudes of life including sartorial change. No bourgeois, Gaston may well announce the Debordian spectator20 of the modern society characterized by indifference, privatization and political apathy, in front of the “collection of very rare flowers of human life” (101) Pater has depicted with Margot and Henri III. But as opposed to Debord’s apathy-stricken spectator, the Paterian subject retains empathy towards the condition of men and women whose paths cross his life, being “certainly uncontaminated as if invisibly shielded, and always with a great pity, a great indulgence” (121). Gaston’s “great pity” and “great indulgence”21 are virtuous means through which the looming society of the spectacle when Aesthetic dress turns into Aesthetic fashion in “these pale lustres of the court of the Valois” (121), or in the progressive circles of 1890s’ Aesthetes, can be endured with aesthetic and ethical open-mindedness.

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1 My heartfelt thanks go to my two anonymous reviewers who suggested insightful additions.

2 « [I] entreprend de révolutionner la toilette et les arts décoratifs. Il demande qu’on remplace par des vêtements flottants et par une sorte de drapement, nos redingotes et vestons étriqués, et qu’on abolisse, pour y substituer un style de meilleur goût, l’odieux ameublement de la bourgeoisie moderne. » (Sarrazin, 1884, 29). Translation mine.

3 Architect and designer E. W. Godwin became consultant of Liberty’s for its dress department in 1884.

4 “[O]ur fashion … was the fashion of the movement which sprang from Morris and Burne-Jones. Liberty stuffs very plain in line, but elaborately ‘smocked,’ were greatly in vogue, and evening dresses, ‘cut square,’ or with ‘Watteau pleats,’ were generally worn.’ (Ward 1918, 160-2)

5 Gaston de Latour’s first chapters were published in Macmillan’s Magazine and The Fortnightly Review in 1888. See Walter Pater, “Gaston de Latour”, Macmillan's Magazine, LVIII (June-October 1888): “Gaston de Latour: A
Clerk in Orders”, 152-160; “Gaston de Latour: Chapter II”, 222-29; “Gaston de Latour: Chapter III, Modernity”, 258-66; “Gaston de Latour: Chapter IV, Peach Blossom and Wine”, 393-400; “Gaston de Latour: Chapter V, Suspended Judgement”, 472-480; “Giordano Bruno” Fortnightly Review, XLVI/ LII (August 1889), 234-244. In 1896, Charles Shadwell, Pater’s literary executor, edited Gaston de Latour: An Unfinished Romance (London: Macmillan, 1896). A more complete edition including chapters that Pater completed after 1888 while revising the first published text has been published by Gerald Monsman, Gaston de Latour. The Revised Edition (Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 1995). All references are to this edition.

6 In her Foucaldian analysis of fashion, Entwistle sees dress as a “situated bodily practice” entailing resistance and subservience. (Entwistle, 2000, 11).

7 Walter Pater, “A Prince of Court Painters: Extracts from an Old French Journal”, Macmillan’s Magazine 212, vol. 52 (October 1885), 401-14, rpt. Walter Pater, Imaginary Portraits (London: Macmillan, 1887). I use Lene Østermark-Johansen’s edition of Imaginary Portraits (London: MHRA, 2014), 115-41.

8 “a designer, promoter, or follower of the latest fashions” (Merriam-Webster 1993). “A person devoted to fashion clothing, particularly unique or high fashion.
A person not to be called a fashionista would be someone who obsessively follows trends. REAL fashionistas do not believe in trends”. (accessed 14 July 2018). The term entered the French Petit Larousse in 2010: a “fashionista” is “une femme à la dernière mode”, sometimes with a derogatory meaning.

9 Edith Cooper deplored Mrs Le Gallienne’s “heapy aestheticism” in 1892 (quoted Parejo Vadillo).

10 “The aesthetic critic, then, regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind.” (R xxx)

11 « Par toi je change l’or en fer », Charles Baudelaire, « Alchimie de la douleur » (l. 9), Les Fleurs du Mal.

12 See for instance the serpent armlet in gold (c. 1870) purchased by Alma-Tadema at J.S. & A. B. Wyon of Regent Street (Clare Philips, “Jewellery”, 208).

13 Aubrey Beardsley, “Under the Hill: A Romantic Novel”, The Savoy 1 (January 1896), 151-70 and 2 (April 1896), 187-96. A longer version, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, appeared in 1907.

14 “with such fantastic knowledge as stage-players in that loosely pedantic age could come by, of like this very theatrical company did, presenting a single piece in all the towns and provinces in turn, onward to medieval Nuremberg and modern Venice, and coming down on the last generation, discreetly stopped as their own, not from lack of contemporary instance, as the reader is aware, but as leaving the theme confidently to the fancy, the experience, of a fashionable Parisian audience late in the sixteenth century.” (106)

15 Oscar Wilde’s “Shakespeare and Stage Costume” as later reprinted in Intentions (1891) as “The Truth of Masks”. The essay contradicted Lord Lytton’s article in The Nineteenth Century (December 1884), arguing that Shakespeare had little interest in the costumes his characters wear. It also defended archaeological drama.

16 “Henri III […] emprunte des éléments de vêtement tant au costume de spectacle qu’aux modes étrangères et les ajoute au costume français avec plus ou moins de bonheur.” (Aubry 1998, 56). In their book on sixteenth-century fashion, Annabel Benilan, Sophie George and Sophie Kurkdgjian note that Henri III, Catherine of Medicis’ favourite son adopted a markedly precious dress that set its mark on the times. (Benilan, George, Kurkdgjian 2010).

17 “cet officiant missionné du culte sans rituel d’une beauté qu’il veut et sait toujours inaccessible [...], fidèle à son engagement total. Aucune cible terrestre ne saurait l’arrêter, et les plus captivantes sont pour lui transparentes. C’est au cœur même de Dieu qu’il doit atteindre, flèche de désir, c’est au cœur de Dieu qu’il doit ficher son cri.” For his part Jean-Paul Aron has a secular vision: “Le dandysme, ce n’est ni l’affectation ni la coquetterie, ni la mode. C’est le contraire. C’est la différence absolue, si radicale que seule la mort—le refus de la vie—la rend possible”, “Mon Sida”, Le Nouvel observateur (30 October-5 November 1987).

18 Pater however disapproved of the drawing and forbade its publication, which only took place in 1895 at the insistence of Lionel Johnson who persuaded Pater’s sisters to let it appear.

19 “In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr. Brummell’s miracles. He was ever most economical, most scrupulous of means. Treatment was everything with him.” Max Beerbohm, Dandies and Dandies, 1896, The Works of Max Beerbohm,

20 “The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.” “Thesis 30”, The Society of the Spectacle, translator Black and Red,

21 Pater takes the phrase from Jules Lemaître whose Serenus he reviewed, see [Walter Pater], “M. Lemaitre’s ‘Serenus, and Other Tales’”, Macmillan’s Magazine, LVII (November 1887), 71-80, rpt. Sketches and Reviews, (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919), 59.

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Bénédicte COSTE, « ‘Strange old Italian dresses’: Walter Pater, Victorian fashionista? »E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 01 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Bénédicte COSTE

Université de Bourgogne
Bénédicte Coste is professor of Victorian Studies at the University of Burgundy. She mainly works on Walter Pater and fin-de-siècle studies. Her publications include « Cette époque de doute » : Walter Pater et la question de la croyance (Montpellier, PULM, 2017), Aesthetic Lives, eds. Catherine Delyfer & Bénédicte Coste (High Wycombe, Rivendale, 2013) and Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism, eds. Christine Reynier, Catherine Delyfer and Bénédicte Coste (New York, Routledge, 2016). She has translated many essays by Walter Pater including The Renaissance (Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2016).

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