Drawing Dresses

Research Department
April 20, 2018

With Fashioned from Nature  opening tomorrow, we hope you will enjoy Eileen’s amazing sketches of a walking dress from 1885 as much as we do.

Written and drawn by Eileen Budd, Artist and Project Manager and Co-Investigator for VARI Residencies

As an artist, working at the V&A is a constant source of inspiration for my work. Whether it’s the visitors, staff, objects, discussions around history or the building itself, I find myself recording little bits of my day through illustration.  It’s a method that lends itself very well to capturing things that photography and report writing might miss.  Illustration lets you choose a certain style and colour palette to work in, depending on the tone and narrative you want to create.  It’s a highly effective problem solving tool.

My illustration of the Ceramics staircase outside the Research office

Edwina Ehrman, curator for the Fashioned from Nature exhibition, approached me about a problem interpreting one of the objects for the exhibition’s publication.  The object was a walking dress with multiple layers of heavy material. The x-ray had not given quite such clear an image as she wanted and she thought an illustration could be created instead, to show the layers and elements that were hard to capture by photography or x-ray.

I was delighted to be of help and, grabbing my camera and sketch pad, headed to Blythe where it was being stored.

Veronica, showing me the many layers of the Walking Dress skirt

Once at Blythe I could see the problem, each layer of fabric was a different colour, texture and material.  As the Assistant Curators, Connie and Veronica, peeled each layer back, it looked more and more like a giant flower to me, which got me thinking about cross section illustrations.

And since this was for an exhibition on fashion inspired by the natural world, a botanical style drawing, with cross section elements would work well.  The curatorial team agreed, in fact I think it was what Edwina had in mind all along.

I got home and started pulling out all the books I had on Victorian botanical illustrators to get inspiration and guidance on style. The work of Walter Hood Fitch and Marianne North especially caught my eye; North because of texture and feel and Fitch because of his technical drawing style.

The 3 layers of the skirt are each different materials, textures and colours, which is hard to show in an x-ray

Using the photographs and sketches I’d made at Blythe, I started to get to know the object a little better by creating more detailed drawings and colouring them using watercolour (a rather tricky medium, I prefer acrylic but watercolour was a style choice: North and Fitch didn’t have acrylic!).

Getting to know the object in this very hands-on way is a kind of practice-based research, and an important one too when used with objects, as it helps you to get to know just how much work went into creating the patterns, the textures and the materials.  As I draw the detailed pattern in cloth I think of hedge mazes.

Details from the walking dress in watercolour

I did numerous studies of the skirt, jacket and all the little elements that give this dress its character and as I drew it, I looked at classic Victorian botanical illustrations and thought about the comparative information to capture in those all-important details. Just as they might have pointed out a seed pod, I would have to point out a bustle pad.

Just as they drew attention to the petal layers, I would have to do the same with the underskirts.

I loved the calligraphy that accompanied the labels on these Victorian illustrations and so decided to incorporate it into my dress illustrations.

The curatorial team were essential in making sure each feature was correctly identified in the illustrations.

Drawing the jacket in detail


The jacket and skirt separated with call outs

This is a very technical style and as enjoyable as that is to work with, I also allowed myself a bit of artistic indulgence and imagined the dress as a fuchsia or pansy.

The dress imagined as a flower

My final illustration combines all the elements of exploring, researching and learning about this object, this walking dress.  I like to think that it was once worn to walk around one of the gardens that inspired the fine designs on its skirt and that maybe the wearer saw one of the flowers that North or Fitch painted, which inspired me to draw this.

The finished piece
Bodice and skirt of wool and silk, made by Madame Tridou, Paris, 1885. Museum no. T.715:1&2-1997.

Click here to book your tickets to see the dress and Eileen’s work.

In the next post, staff from across the V&A will share the story of their favourite mended garments.

Fashioned from Nature

About the author

Research Department
April 20, 2018

Yona Lesger is currently working as Assistant Curator on the V&A East Museum. She previously worked as Curator of Modern & Contemporary Performance in the Theatre & Performance department and...

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