Another enlarged quote, from “The Young Lady’s Guide to the Harmonious Developement of Christian Character,” from 1842, asks, “How can I glorify God in my apparel?” Eschewing the doctrine of predestination, religious beliefs during the Romantic period focused on salvation through morality and good behavior. The “Religion” section of the exhibition examines the manifestation of this principle in the Gothic Revival aesthetic, epitomized by the use of the Gothic arch.
Here, a stoneware jug, glass pickling jar and wooden chair are all embellished with Gothic arch motifs. During the 1840s, dresses, too, adapted to the trend: sleeves became narrower, shoulders sloped and waists elongated into a point. Describing the look in her catalog essay, Ms. Bassett wrote, “The resulting silhouette made women into walking, talking Gothic arches.”
But not all women. In Chester Harding’s portrait “Mrs. Abbott Lawrence (Katherine Bigelow),” circa 1855, the subject sits knitting, her gaze meeting the viewer’s. Ms. Bassett, standing beside the work, explained that the composition offered a conglomeration of Romantic values. “There she is in her Gothic Revival chair, very pious in her demure black dress with a cross at her neck,” she said. “She’s a good housewife, doing her knitting. There are books — she’s intelligent and educated, a good mother forming the minds of her children. And you have roses on the table and a scene of nature in the background. There are layers and layers here.”
One of those layers was the veneration of nature. The portrait hangs in the “Nature and the Picturesque” section, not far from Frederic Edwin Church’s “Niagara Falls,” painted in 1856, and a vitrine holding a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature.” Emerson’s 1836 essay laid the foundation for transcendentalism, a philosophy that sought to find God in the contemplation of nature. Church, Cole and other artists coalesced in the Hudson River School, known for landscapes that glorified the wilderness.
Ms. Bassett said that domestic advice books of the time urged the use of colors found in nature. “They recommended earth tones, subtle greens and beiges, as if they were lit by a setting sun,” she said. She indicated a nearby outfit: a lustrous bronze silk dress with matching bonnet and flowery tan shawl.
In “The Age of Emotion,” Romantic sentimentality is addressed though the cycle of life; selections progress from cream-hued wedding attire to an adjustable maternity dress, a discreet nursing dress and a baby’s dress and cap, and on to black mourning garments for women and children.
The exhibition culminates with “Romantic Revivals,” which features the era’s aesthetics reimagined for contemporary tastes. The puffed and slashed sleeves of a 1984 gown designed by the Parisian couturier Hélène Hayes recall Renaissance fashions, while its draped skirt suggests the 18th-century style “polonaise.” A stunning beaded velvet and satin dress was part of Alexander McQueen’s 2007 collection “In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692,” a tribute to an ancestor.
The section displays two Steampunk outfits created in 2013 by Nightwing Whitehead. Like Romanticism, Steampunk, which evolved in the late 1980s out of a fascination with Victorian science fiction, was fueled by an idealized conception of earlier times, in this case the late 19th century, when industry was powered by steam. “Again, it’s the lure of the past,” Ms. Bassett said, “when things in the present are upended.”
A pair of Goth-inspired ensembles from Jean Paul Gaultier uses black fabrics with blood-red flocking (a jeans and jacket combination is titled “Vampire Suit”). “Goth pulls from that aspect of Romanticism that embraced the slightly uncivilized and the sublime,” Ms. Bassett said, “the things that would scare you.”
Across the room, a monitor plays a runway video of Valentino’s winter 2015-2016 haute couture collection. Elegant models, in headbands evoking 15th-century ferronnières, wear opulent gowns adorned with cloaks, puffy sleeves and flowing black lace. “It’s a fantasy mélange of historical influences in the manner of Romantic era fashion,” Ms. Bassett said.
She said that the practice of culling from the past began with Romanticism. “Before that, fashions were pretty much new from century to century,” she said. “Then Romanticism came along and started picking up inspiration from the past and reorganizing it into new looks. And we’ve been doing it ever since.”