Essay: The Violet Hour

Amy de la Haye Reflects on the Tea Gown

by Amy de la Haye .

Designed along Grecian and Empire lines, the tea dress was of a style championed by radical dress reformers who campaigned to liberate women from fashions that curtailed their bodies and lives

‘When the tea urn sings at five o’clock, we don these garments of poetical beauty.’ Mrs Prichard, The Cult of Chiffon, 1902.

An ‘arty’ tea gown of violet-coloured silk, embellished with floral embroidery and lace, hangs in sterile, metal storage at Brighton Museum. Materially and structurally, it is more robust than many surviving tea gowns that were ruffled and draped using diaphanous layers of filmy silk chiffon and tulle. However, its status is fragile. It has never been accessioned, and its provenance is unknown (1). Seemingly anonymous, imprinted stains of wear render the garment intensely human. This intriguing tea gown – assigned temporary object number CTTMP000281 (281) – motivated the narrative for The Violet Hour, made by Katerina Athanasopoulou.

The tea gown was introduced in the 1870s. It is a garment that – even by its nomenclature – appears alien today, and which has been subject to only scant critical scrutiny. It was a flowing, relatively comfortable garment, designed to provide respite betwixt the wearing of a corsetted afternoon dress and the strictures of a dinner dress and/or ball-gown. Social etiquette required a wealthy, modish woman to change her outfit – from head to toe – up to seven times a day, and fashion writers oft reported on ‘the fashion of the hour’. It was  deemed acceptable for a married woman to receive her female friends for tea thus attired.

The tea gown could be interpreted as the swansong of the pre-modern wardrobe, yet it might also be considered its precursor. Designed along Grecian and Empire lines, it was of a style championed by radical dress reformers who campaigned to liberate women from fashions that curtailed their bodies and lives. However, belying the silhouette, many tea gowns incorporate internal structure and boning: tea gown 281 has three bones on either side of the back internal waist. Further exploration reveals a long, concealed pocket in the back of the skirt – a feature, seemingly both practical and impractical, that was incorporated in men’s coats dating from the early nineteenth century. The gown fastens down the left front with chunky brass hooks and stitched semicircular eyes.

Stylistically, it is redolent of models sold by Liberty, and the fashion drawing in the film is extracted from a Liberty catalogue of 1912, housed at Westminster City Archives. Like a furnished interior, a wardrobe evolves. The film is set in 1914, but the garments are older. Tea gown 281 is of good quality, but the applied, ready-made embroidery belies the superlative craftsmanship of garments purveyed by the exclusive London department store. Liberty had separate departments dedicated to dress reform and to fashionable dress and was famous for selling arts and crafts objects and artefacts imported from ‘the East’. The chinoiserie ceramic plates and aesthetic influences in the virtual drawing room also reference Liberty style. Visual research was underpinned by visits to Preston Manor (an Edwardian residence) and the Geffrye Museum. Katerina Athanasopoulou painstakingly constructed the domestic interior in order to navigate three dimensions and capture the moody effects of late afternoon light and shadow.

The film title is a phrase from T. S. Eliot’s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922), which evokes poignantly the end of day, when dusk beckons and the sky turns violet. Eliot exploited disjointed prose to render all the more explicit his indictment of the impact of war upon the dislocation of post-war society. In The Violet Hour, Katerina Athanasopoulou has fractured
a painted London city and skyscape to suggest a wartime vorticist aesthetic. The film suggests a foreboding of impending war within the confines of domestic, feminine space. The clock shows the time is just before 5pm, and the solitary monochrome figure appears pensive.

The colour violet was widespread within pre-war fashion, and the flower was a popular decorative motif. Delicate and pervasive, the violet is imbued with symbolism within myth, legend and religion. Its heart-shaped petals have drawn associations with love; it has been revered for its talismanic and healing qualities, linked with modesty (‘shrinking
violet’) and funerary rituals. When the Phrygian god of vegetation, Attis, mutilated himself upon his love being thwarted, it was believed that the first violets sprung from his flowing blood. In Christianity, Mary’s abject despair at the crucifixion of Jesus was believed to have turned all white violets (associated with innocence) deep purple.

It is customary for conservators and curators to ‘transform’ the garments in their care; to present them pristine ‘as new’ – and ideally, displayed on mannequins sculpted meticulously to echo the contours of the worn garments. All too often this is prohibitively labour- intensive and costly. As a result, a great many garments are destined to remain unseen, their stories untold. The tea gown in The Violet Hour hangs limp. It is creased and stained, exactly as first encountered and contemplated. I would argue that for this particular project, its meaning
is rendered all the more eloquent...


***

My curatorial practices involve constructing stories using clothing – not always fashionable – as evidence, usually about women’s lives lived. I am also interested in immateriality: the items that don’t survive. And I am preoccupied with exploring strategies
for exhibiting the unexhibitable – items usually deemed too delicate or too perished for display.


(1) In 2014, the Museum commissioned a collections review written by this author, working with Curator Martin Pel, in which such anomalies will be addressed.