As a self-confessed Pre-Raphaelite - a term that by the 1880s was interchangeable with ‘Aesthete’ - Constance was carrying a torch whose flame had ben lit in the 1850s by a group of women associated with the founding Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters. Women such as Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris, the wives respectively of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet, designer and socialist William Morris, had modelled for the Pre-Raphaelite artists, wearing loose, flowing gowns.
But it was not just their depiction on canvas that sparked a new fashion among an intellectual elite. Off canvas these women also establised new liberties for women that some twenty years later were still only just being taken up by a wider female population. They pioneered new kinds of dresses, with sleeves either sewn on at the shoulder, rather than below it, or puffed and loose. While the rest of the female Victorian populace had to go about with their arms pinned to their bodies in tight, unmoving sheaths, the Pre-Raphaelite women could move their arms freely, to paint or pose or simply be comfortable. The Pre-Raphaelite girls also did away with the huge, bell-shaped crinoline skirts, held out by hoops and cages strapped on to the female undercarriage. They dispensed with tight corsets that pinched waists into hourglasses, as well as the bonnets and intricate hairstyles that added layer upon layer to a lady’s daily toilette.
Their 'Aesthetic’ dress, as it became known, was more than just a fashion; it was a statement. In seeking comfort for women it also spoke of a desire for liberation that went beyond physical ease. It was also a statement about female creative expression, which in itself was aligned to broader feminist issues. The original Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood lived unconventionally with artists, worked at their own artistic projects and became famous in the process. Those women who wore Aesthetic dress in their wake tended to believe that women should have the right to a career and ultimately be enfranchised with the vote.
[…] And so Constance, with 'her ugly dresses’, her schooling and her college friends, was already in some small degree a young woman going her own way. Moving away from the middle-class conventions of the past, where women were schooled by governesses at home, would dress in a particular manner and be chaperoned, Constance was already modern.
— Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, Franny Moyle.