Beauty in Dress

Author Maria Oakey Dewing
Author Name Variants Miss Oakey; M.R.O. Dewing; Mrs. T. W. Dewing
Publication New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881.
Link to Text
Genres Textbook, Advice Literature
Keywords Domestic Science, Fine Arts, Reform, Conduct
Contributing State New York
Research Notes  
Digital Source Notes  

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Emily V. Johnson 
Tulane University, December 2015 

           “The object of dress may be said to be threefold – to cover; to warm, to beautify.  It is from the point of beauty that we shall chiefly consider it.” 
– Maria Oakey Dewing, Beauty in Dress, pg. 19

           Maria Oakey Dewing’s Beauty in Dress, published in 1881, serves not only as a fashion handbook for women of the time, but also as an artistic study of women’s dress.  Through the eyes of a trained painter, the reader is shown the application of color theory, texture, and shape in the context of women’s fashion.  Dewing was born on October 27, 1845 in New York as Maria Richard Oakey (Pokinski). She studied art at the Cooper Union School of Design for Women from 1868 to 1871 and at the National Academy of Design from 1871 until 1875 (Pokinski). In April of 1881, the same year as the publication of Beauty in Dress, Maria married fellow artist Thomas Dewing, with whom she would often collaborate in her later works (“Dewing” 53). Maria Oakey Dewing became well known for her exquisite floral paintings, which went on to win a bronze medal in both the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893 and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York (Burke et al. 420). She also worked in the applied or decorative arts, such as embroidery. A set of her theater curtains, Dewey once recalled, drew high praise from Oscar Wilde: “he said ‘Why don’t you go into decoration [and] wipe them all out?’ – Because I must paint or die said I” (Burke et al. 420). Like Wilde, Dewing was an active proponent of the Aesthetic Movement, proclaiming that art could be made for the sake of beauty instead of just for analysis. These views on beauty often influenced her writings. Dewing died in 1927 at the age of 82 (Pokinski). 
           Beauty in Dress, published by Harper & Brothers, contains advice for what sort of clothing best suits different kinds of women, or “types” as Dewing refers to them, based on factors such as complexion, hair color, eye color, and body shape. The text also includes advice for accessories, shoes, costumes for balls, and clothing for children, and even information international fashion trends. Most notably, the book contains an entire chapter dedicated to countering the dress reform and anti-fashion movements. While Dewing agreed that the health concerns associated with wearing corsets, a popular garment of the time and one of the trends many dress reformers sought to eliminate, could not be ignored or taken lightly, she disagreed with the complete rejection of fashion as a whole (Fischer 27). “A dress reform that opposes itself to beauty,” writes Dewing in Beauty in Dress, “deserves to be stamped out by every reasonable woman in the land, just as a fashion that, in its blind search for beauty, destroys the most beautiful work of the Creator, deserves the same fate” (135). Dewing, instead, offered her own alternative corset that she claimed would not do damage to the wearer’s body (139). The pattern for this corset could be found in a pocket inside the back cover of the book. 
           The book’s focus on international trends, incorporating ideas from France, ancient Greece, and Japan, reflects the Exposition’s cosmopolitan ethos. Its synthesis of classical art with feminine pursuits brought women’s fashion into the realm of fine art while promoting the purpose of the Women’s Exhibit. Dewey dedicated her book “To The Women of America,” assuring readers that all women can be equally beautiful if they learn how to dress to flatter themselves.

Works Cited 

Burke, Doreen Bolger et al. In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986. Google Books, 

Dewing, Maria Oakey. Beauty in Dress. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881. HathiTrust,  

“Dewing, Maria Oakey.”A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts, edited by Carol Kort and Liz Sonneborn, Facts on File Inc., 2002, pp. 53-54. Google Books, 

Fischer, Gayle V. Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth Century Dress Reform in the United States, Kent State University Press, 2001.  

Pokinski, Deborah F. “Dewing, Maria Oakey.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online,