What Are the Characteristics of Art Nouveau Dresses?

Angela Colley

The art nouveau period lasted from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, during which glassware, metal-ware, jewelry, and dresses inspired by the movement became popular across Europe and the United States. Early styles of art nouveau dresses were formal and decorative hour-glass shaped dresses with long, flared skirts, high shoulders and lace embellishments. Later styles had a more relaxed cut, following the natural shape of the body, and often used softer fabrics.

Art nouveau dresses had waistlines that were cut to fit tightly against boned corsets.
Art nouveau dresses had waistlines that were cut to fit tightly against boned corsets.

At the beginning of the movement, art nouveau dresses took their cue from the later Victorian dresses. The dresses often featured plunging necklines tapered into dramatic bell shaped sleeves. Waistlines were cut to fit tightly against the boned corsets that were popular at the time, giving the dress an hour-glass shape when worn. A long flared skirt, often with a train, extended from the tight waist line.

These early art nouveau dresses were heavily embellished and highly detailed. Adding lace scallops along the neckline and bottom hem of the skirt were popular. Many dresses featured pearls, gold string, or different jewels sewn along the cuffs and neckline. Combining solid silk with patterned material was also popular.

As the movement progressed, art nouveau dresses took a less formal turn. The invention of the S-shaped corset turned designers away from the more formal hour-glass shape and toward a more natural looking cut. These dresses followed the natural curve of the female body and allowed for more movement. Later styles still favored plunging necklines, but the sleeves became smaller and more casual looking.

Along with a different shape, these dresses also featured softer materials and colors. Many later art nouveau dresses favored light-weight material, and often used more lace throughout the main body of the dress. The softer materials caused these dresses to flow more naturally than earlier art nouveau style.

Another, slightly less popular style, of art nouveau dress featured a suit top. The bell sleeves and plunging neckline were replaced with by a fitted suit top, and a long, flowing skirt extended from the bottom of the suit top. These suit dresses often incorporated the same lace, fabric, and jewel embellishments, and many had lace and silk brocade along the skirt and waist.

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