The Nobleness of Dress

Ruskin and Ideal Clothing in the Late Nineteenth Century

Rachel Dickinson (Manchester Metropolitan University)


As the nineteenth century drew to a close and merged into the twentieth, John Ruskin was considered by many cultural figures to be a prophet who had highlighted problems within industrialised society and proposed solutions to these. A number of prominent designers, who worked in textiles as well as other media, acknowledged that Ruskin was an important influence on their aesthetics and work practices. These included individuals whose reputations still remain strong, such as William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane. There are also records of major mill owners being inspired by Ruskin to change the way they ran their businesses. On a smaller scale, Ruskin’s ideas about clothing and industry were also taken up by lesser-known enterprises such as the Laxey Mill on the Isle of Man, the Langdale Linen Industry, the Ruskin Linen Industry of Keswick and Ruskin Lace.

Drawing on public lectures, essays, and letters – both public and private – this paper outlines Ruskin’s theories of ideal dress. He believed that much of what he perceived to be wrong with his culture could be traced back to an essentially mercantile impetus, which he believed had entered culture when idealised medieval workmanship was lost. For Ruskin, all stages of the production of dress – from the harvesting and making of the raw materials, through the construction of the object to the final production through the act of wearing clothing – should be ethical, aesthetically appealing, useful and give joy.


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