The Muslin Dress by Mabel Dearmer

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A girl strikes a pose against a blank background. She wears a full sleeve dress with a large collar. The dress stops right before her knees and is very big and unshapely.
The Muslin Dress, by Mabel Dearmer (1897)
A small child wearing yellow speaks to a woman with long black hair and wearing a long red dress. The woman also has 2 red flowers in her hair. The sky is yellow and shows a setting red sun. There are also flowers in the grass in the foreground are also red. And in the background, to the right side, there appears to be a forest.
The Boy who Looked like a Girl, by Mabel Dearmer (1897)

 

This is the Muslin dress by Mabel Dearmer. It appears on page 190 of the twelfth volume of The Yellow Book. It is preceded by a title page, as is normally done in this little magazine. Mabel Dearmer was a regular in this publication by 1897. Her artwork immediately follows the short story of Evelyn Sharp, “The Restless River.” The two were friends and contemporaries. However, the more interesting connection is that Dearmer was illustrating Sharp’s Wymps and Other Fairy Tales this year as well. The strategic placement may have been a decision made by John Lane, who was publishing both these individual works in The Yellow Book, but also their second collaborative book at The Bodley Head. This can be viewed as a smart business tactic to promote their upcoming work. This is also indicative of The Yellow Book’s desire to remain popular, despite rejecting the mainstream and trying to push for the avant-garde.

Dearmer can be viewed as an example of a “New Woman,” in some ways, in that she was a woman who worked while being married but also believed in values of feminism, equality and socialism. She did settle down, get married and have children which can be viewed as very traditional, but she was also a modern working woman with progressive beliefs. She primarily worked with children’s fiction and even enjoyed directing children’s Christmas plays. Despite the fact her intended audience may have been children, her work was described as unornamented and distinctly modern. She also used rich colours, bright colours blocking and bold lines.

“The Muslin Dress” depicts a girl in black and white. She wears a loose fitting dress that ends right before her knees. Her legs are bare and she seems to be striking a pose or perhaps dancing. The movement is captured, not only in her legs and hands, but also her dress which seems to billow around her. Dearmer’s drawing, however, seems to lack explicit sexualization, which was present in male “New Woman” artists’ works. There appears to be an innocence around the girl, and a clear absence of a male gaze, which is very relevant to the fact the Mabel Dearmer, as the artist, is a woman herself.

This is relevant because of Sally Ledger’s research in “Wilde Women and The Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and Decadence,” she distinguishes between the “New Woman” as depicted by a man versus a woman.

The “New Woman” was a woman who was independent and empowered by her intellect. She was expected to cross gender boundaries and restrictions and uplift herself despite them. The “New Woman” was ahead of her time, and thus not fully accepted by society. According to Ledger, the depiction of the “New Woman” could often range from sexually liberated to sexually promiscuous. The Yellow Book includes both depictions which complicates the little magazine’s beliefs around, and promotion of the “New Woman.”

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