The Rise of Romanticism and Sentimental Fashion

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Romantic fashion in the 1820s spun societal notions of femininity and softness into lace trims, brimming and billowing hats and sleeves, highly saturated textiles, and buoyant silhouettes. Romantic fashion stems from the concept of romanticism, which is most commonly discussed in reference to art and literature. According to Britannica, romanticism is “a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified classicism in general. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.” When translated to fashion, these sentiments were expressed through decorative ornamentation that could be deemed excessive, and increased volume to combat simplicity in a puffy presentation of contemporary society.

Harper Franklin for FIT NYC writes, “by 1825, the early romantic silhouette was established with a natural waistline, large puffed sleeves, and a wide skirt with an increasing number of gores. The breadth of sleeves grew exponentially into true gigot or leg-o-mutton styles by 1827, and skirts became so wide that gores were no longer enough.” While skirts and sleeves became almost double the size of the waist, trims nearly doubled in weight as they were lined with “lace and flounces, puffs, and rouleaux which were tubes of bias-cut fabric filled with wadding to create a firm roll.” Romantic dressing was often synonymous with hyper-femininity supported by ideas that women were as soft as silk, as airy as lace , and embodied the emotional element of romanticism.

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Modern Romantic Fashion

American fashion’s shift back to romanticism is best evidenced through the Costume Institute’s statements about this year’s Met Gala. This year, the gala is based on the Costume Institute’s two-part exhibit:  In America: A Lexicon of Fashion and In America: An Anthology of Fashion. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute states, “Over the past year, because of the pandemic, the connections to our homes have become more emotional, as have those to our clothes. For American fashion, this has meant an increased emphasis on sentiment over practicality.” Echoing the movement away from rational classicism of the 1800s, he also states, “Taken together these qualities will compromise a modern vocabulary of American fashion that prioritizes values, emotions, and sentiments over the sportswear principles of realism, rationalism, and pragmatism.”

The romantic fashion movement of today can be equated to societal shifts of the 1800s to some extent; however, there are also several changes in society that affect the meaning of modern romantic fashion.

The deeply personal and imaginative element of romanticism is currently intensified by social media. Franklin writes of 1800s romantic fashion stating, “long, fluttering ends of ribbon from the hat or bonnet and waistband of the dress were particularly fashionable, and combined with the shimmering gauzes and blonde lace, there was a feeling of constant movement, buoyancy, and exuberance in women’s clothes when at their best. At their worst, however, these styles could appear wild, fussy, and nonsensical, and the balance was not always easy to maintain.” While nonsensical and unbalanced was a part of the signature look, social media allows for the nonsensical and extravagant to be made into an aesthetic that plays into an individual’s “digital aspirational persona.” An individual today, in other words, can present romantic looks on their social media that could be deemed “fussy” outside of their social media space, while wearing more muted romantic pieces in daily life. Due to social media, romanticism can expand even further into an increasingly imaginative realm.

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A woman’s role in society and the perception of her in the 1800s heavily influenced romantic dressing. Charlotte Jirousek for Cornell writes of women as the romantic period’s muse; “Women were placed on a moral pedestal, and looked upon as the guardians of family and community virtue, and the educators of the children. This moral elevation of women would eventually lead some to suggest that women deserved a wider role in public affairs. However, for now, dress reflected the perception of women as weak and decorative.” While this moral pedestal notion eventually may have led to women’s rights sentiments, the early depiction of femininity through clothing could not necessarily be considered a form of “power dressing.” Today, with much wider definitions of femininity and movements toward equity, romantic dressing can certainly be considered a form of power dressing.

Ella Alexander for Harper’s Bazaar notes that “romantic dresses are on the rise, imbuing a softer strength that offers a different kind of armour.” She cites Dr. Findlay who comments on the “frivolous” aspect of romanticism when she writes, “These dresses take up space, they take light colours, tulle, ribbons, and place them on adult bodies, perhaps reframing the ‘frivolity’ of these textures and colours. So, they could be read as claiming something – a vision of femininity, taking up space in the world—that could make someone feel powerful.” So, while romantic dressing is no longer about women being placed on a moral pedestal, it is about women and men alike re-claiming or claiming their femininity and placing themselves on a self-created platform. It is also an assertion that femininity and softness are not synonymous with weakness and submission.

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Fashion Reverie’s Romantic Fashion Brand Picks

A plethora of emerging brands, particularly those that gained popularity on social media, best represent modern romantic dressing especially among youth demographics.  Below are Fashion Reverie’s top 5 brand picks:

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Lirika Matoshi

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Minju Kim

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Emma Brewin

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—Tessa Swantek

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