Nature and Dark Romanticism in Art and Fashion Design

Olivia Terry, Third Year BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History student shares her research into nature and dark romanticism in the work of an artist and fashion designer.

Back in the spring of 2020, I was in the midst of writing my presentation for the second year module After Modernism: Postmodernism and Beyond, when university as we had known, changed. The pandemic seemed to have loomed in the background for so long, and then with breakneck suddenness, everything was moved online. Unfortunately, in all of the chaos of transition, I never got to share my research to my classmates, yet when I reflect back on my time at Brighton, I consider it to be my favourite presentation.

Fig. 1. Anna Dumitriu. The Romantic Disease Exhibition. Pictured: Where There’s Dust There is Danger, Rest! Rest! Rest! And Pneumothorax Machine. 2014. Waterman’s Gallery, London. Still from The Romantic Disease at Watermans. 2014. Vimeo.

I was assigned the topic of fashion and nature. Ironically, months prior to the pandemic taking over every aspect of our lives, I chose to focus on disease, when I read about a 2014 postmodern exhibit titled The Romantic Disease: An Artistic Investigation of Tuberculosis (see Fig.1). Anna Dumitriu, a British bio artist, combined science with art to create an exhibition that redefines the division between art and nature, by introducing disease to her collection. Textiles in the exhibit were literally impregnated with extracted DNA of sterile Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Centered around mankind’s relationship with the disease, Dumitriu simultaneously played scientist while creating an exhibition that inspired strong feelings of romanticism and horror, similar to that of postmodern fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. The artists differ in their approaches to communicating nature as a theme, but the end results are blaringly similar: nature is at the heart of beautiful suffering.

The exhibition featured a 19th century altered maternity dress known as the Romantic Disease Dress (see Fig. 2).

Fig.2. Anna Dumitriu. The Romantic Disease Dress. Victorian Maternity Dress stained with natural dyes.

It had been stained with walnut husks and embroidered with madder root and prontosil dyed silk. Madder root dyed flowers decorate the neckline and safflower dyed bows were placed on the cuffs. Walnut husks, madder root and safflower, were once used as ancient remedies for tuberculosis. The dress is also stained with extracted DNA of killed TB. Dumitriu chose the maternity dress because TB was once thought to be genetic, so infected individuals were discouraged from marrying, and in some cases, pregnant women with TB were given forced abortions. The dress combines fact and feeling, making it a powerful piece. It uses historical remedies and strains of TB, while representing the emotional toll and extreme loss of the disease.

Similar to Dumitriu, Alexander McQueen dramatizes the killer side of nature, while still communicating beauty.  His Oyster Dress (click to see an image) brilliantly combines nature and romanticism: Originating from the 2003 “Irere” collection, the dress seems to be a “poetic rendering of a disaster at sea.” (Met Museum) A layered sand coloured silk organza resembles the curved lip of a mollusk, and tossed over the shoulder, is reminiscent of a shredded fishing net. The dress and mannequin both invoke dramatic feelings surrounding a tragic disaster at sea.

Both Dumitriu and McQueen’s work stem from nature. While Dumitriu chose to explore nature at its most microscopic level, her exhibits share similar postmodern elements such as unconventional materials, nostalgia, romanticism, and horror as McQueen. While their creative approaches differ dramatically, both create highly emotional art that communicates the cut-throat beauty of nature.

Drawing with the Dress Detective: Learning to See

Rachel Ng, Third Year BA (Hons) Fashion and Dress History student discusses her experience of attending a workshop with Dr Ingrid Mida on observing a garment through drawing.

Screen grab from the drawing with dress detective workshop. The image illustrates Ingrid Mida handling dress and a detail of a drawing

Figure 1: Screengrab from Drawing with the Dress Detective: Learning to See, 2021.

Author of The Dress Detective and Reading Fashion in Art Dr Ingrid Mida recently hosted a drawing workshop online via MS Teams. Her ‘Slow Approach to Seeing’ methodology demonstrates how to analyse a garment, focusing on slowing down and using drawing as a tool for learning. In her 2020 book Reading Fashion in Art, Mida states that ‘[…] drawing as a method of slowing down can help identify specific elements of dress as well as the nuances of an artist’s process’. (42) The workshop allowed us to understand the difference between looking and seeing and how one can look but not really see.

Mida describes: ‘For me, drawing facilitates seeing and a deeper level of engagement with a thing. I record the path of my eyes on the paper as I study the object or artwork, and even if my drawing bares little or no resemblance to the thing I am looking at, when I finish a drawing, I feel like I have touched that thing’. (2020: 42) To fully understand this process, we were asked to complete three short drawing exercises to warm-up for a larger drawing piece later. The short tasks allowed us to break down any expectations we may have had about the ways in which our drawings may have looked. Instead, we were encouraged to focus on the process over product. We were drawing a Chinese dragon hat. We started by using two pencils in one hand, focusing on the aerial view of the hat. Then we were asked to draw with our non-dominate hand, focusing on the side view. Lastly, we looked at the front view, drawing in one continuous line without glancing at the paper. As you can see in Figure 2, my drawing did not look too much like the hat, but then again it wasn’t supposed to. For our final longer task, we drew a jacket and then had a discussion which revealed the details people picked up on, that might have been otherwise overlooked. For example, the piece’s overall construction, hidden buttonholes, and the lack of pattern matching. This process has allowed me to think differently about the next time I view a garment and how drawing can really help to highlight the details that may point to the wearer’s intentions, such as the points of stress on a piece.

line drawing of mask illustrating the process of drawing

Figure 2: Side-by-Side Comparison of a Continuous Line Drawing with Object, 2021. Pencil on Paper. Photograph. Author’s Own Image.

Due to the pandemic so much of our lives now inhabit the internet and screen time. People’s attention span has dropped, and this workshop has reminded me of how much you can easily miss when you do not slow down and really focus on something. This method can, of course, be challenging for people who have expectations of how they want a drawing to turn out, but as Mida said in her talk, you have to let go of expectations and return to a childlike mind to fully appreciate this method of research. What resonated most with me was her closing statement, ‘wanting to discover the information has to be more important than the drawing’.

It was great to be able to put a face to the well-renowned author and gain a better understanding of how to break down and construct garment drawings. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and will be using this approach in the future.

Screengrab showing tips on drawing from a garment

Figure 3: Screengrab from Drawing with the Dress Detective, 2021.