Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress

By Veszprémi, Nóra | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress


Veszprémi, Nóra, Journal of Art Historiography


National ornament and the imperial masquerade

Review of:

Rebecca Houze, Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War: Principles of Dress, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015, 384 pp., 79 col. plates, 109 b. & w. illus., £85.00 hdbk ISBN 978-1-4094-3668-3.

Nóra Veszprémi

In October 1859, the Hungarian magazine Nefelejts issued a plea to Hungarian ladies on behalf of the National Museum. Signed by a certain 'Mr E. S.', the article suggested that ladies contribute to the furnishing of the museum building by fitting it out with fifty-four chairs, each embroidered with the coat of arms of one of the fifty-four counties of Hungary.1 The construction of the building had been finished in 1847, but the turmoils of the 1848-49 Revolution and War of Independence and the ensuing years of absolutism had drawn attention away from the museum. Although its exhibitions were reopened in 1851, the institution was severely underfunded by the imperial government that now half-heartedly maintained it, and the building was far from welcoming in its barely furnished state. Consequently, Mr E. S.'s idea was immediately taken up by a group of aristocratic ladies who quickly managed to enlist women from different counties to support the cause, either by donating money or by contributing their own embroidering skills. The plan was given much encouragement in the press: newspapers and magazines reported on new developments regularly, and eventually expressed deep disappointment when the plan did not come into fruition after all.2

Even if unrealised, this plan is a good example of the important role of embroidery and textiles in Austro-Hungarian public life, especially in terms of the participation of women. Unlike an ultimately passive act like a donation of funds (which the aristocratic women who initiated the project could and did engage in), it gave the ladies a chance for creative participation in the creation of a national institution, while also fostering collaboration in a political climate that tended to discourage charities and other congregations of citizens. Furthermore, the project had implications that stretched beyond questions of gender. While many aristocrats still pursued painting as an amateurish pastime, the ladies would most probably never have thought of donating their products in that field to the museum. Fine art was, by the mid-nineteenth-century, seen as something that - at least in its museum-worthy form - required professional skills, while the applied arts3 - and among them, especially, textiles - still provided a space where amateurism and professionalism, popular and 'refined' art, as well as the culture of the home and that of the museum could merge and intersect in fruitful and unexpected ways.

This is the territory that Rebecca Houze's book, Textiles, Fashion, and Design Reform in Austria-Hungary before the First World War sets out to explore. In doing so, it cuts through the usual art historical boundaries between different media and draws parallels between embroideries, clothes and paintings, regarding them as products of the same cultural and historical developments. This approach has a special importance in the case of this particular scholarly field. As the author explains in her thorough and well-argued introductory chapter, the art and culture of fin-de-siècle Vienna tends to be reflected in the lens of the traditional, French-centred narrative of modernism as a belated anomaly, not least because of the way it often merged the fine and the applied arts and encouraged ornamental tendencies. Consequently, this field of study requires a conceptual framework that is able to integrate fine art with artistic craft, while putting aside the 'traditional interpretations of modernism' that find 'its form in ever more flattened and abstracted fields of color' (p. 9). Houze achieves this by focusing on problems such as the role that museums, exhibitions, ethnographic studies, and, last but not least, nationalism - or, to be more precise, nationalisms in different parts of the Empire - played in shaping the movement of design reform and constructing new concepts such as that of 'house industry. …

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