Turning Heads

Lauren Kaplan
May 10, 2013 9:14PM

When did artists start paying attention to fashion? The ongoing exhibition Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity makes the argument that the marriage of art and fashion peaked in the late nineteenth century, but the relationship dates back much further.

One starting point may be the "Fashion Revolution" of the 1330s, which gave rise to the inset sleeve (earlier garments were T-shaped), allowing for greater variation in dress and shirt design. Look closely at illuminated manuscripts from the 14th-16th centuries, like the Limbourg Brothers Trés Riches Heures, and you can track the movement of waste-lines, the tightening of sleeves, and an increase in cleavage over time.  In fact, fashion historians often date manuscripts by looking at the clothing rather than the other way around. 

Throughout the Renaissance, style became one way to show status. In Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, Giovanni Arnolfini's wife is often assumed to be pregnant because of the seeming bulge in her belly. However, she may just be holding up her voluminous green dress, which had an excess of fabric purely to show that she could afford it.  Fabric was expensive, and only the wealthy were able to acquire such a surplus at the bottom of a gown. Similarly, Giovanni's fur cloak is a luxury item that he could purchase as a highly successful merchant. Both garments are painted with extraordinary detail by Van Eyck, while the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Arnolfini are relatively generic and expressionless.

Later, in the early nineteenth century, Jean-Dominique Ingres became the artist most associated with elaborate portrayals of folds and patterns. His wife was a milliner, and his wildly popular female portraits were often reduced to "a face, a pose and a dress." When he created preparatory sketches for his works, he studied the clothing, not the sitter herself. Rendering lace, diaphanous silk organza, or complex ornamentation was a way for Ingres--a self-conscious artist who yearned to be a "history painter" but was relegated to society portraitist--to showcase his technical expertise.  

In all of the aforementioned examples, clothing and fashion mattered, but the person was still the supposed focal point of the image. This changed in the 1860s. In the works of Manet, Monet, and Renoir, fashion became not just a status symbol and a way for an artist to demonstrate his skill, but an important "expression of society" at that particular moment in time.  According to the writer Émile Zola, "fashion is, all at once, a science, an art, a custom, a sentiment....Painters who love their era with all their hearts and minds...reproduce us on their canvases, just as we are, with our costumes and customs. ”  When these artists painted a stylish young woman in contemporary dress, it was a way for them to show their own modernity, their awareness of up-to-date trends, and not the model herself. The Parisienne became a symbol of recent inventions and modes of consumption--the first department store, the personal Singer sewing machine, the rib-breaking corset. Though she quickly replaced all other subjects, the woman mattered less than what she represented.

In works like Luncheon on the Grass (1865/66), both an homage and a response to Manet's work of the same title, Monet took on one of his largest challenges: "putting life-size figures into a landscape." He headed to Fontainebleau and arranged his wife and friends in poses that he took from fashion magazines, so as to highlight their clothing. Women's dresses are fanned out in front or behind their bodies, men are slightly turned so the viewer can glimpse their suits and hats, and faces become almost negligible. Though the composition appears authentic, it is, in fact, completely staged. In Springtime (1872), the sitter herself is unimportant. We see a girl reading in a gorgeous, white day dress, spread out before her. The subject of the work is not the girl herself, but the way natural light hits the pale fabric and the figure blends in with her green surroundings. Perhaps it's no surprise that Monet was quite a clotheshorse himself; he was constantly in debt to his tailor. 

Renoir was the son of a tailor, which may explain his own fascination with fashion. In Danse à la ville (1883), Renoir focuses on the bustled train of his model's silk dress, which reflects the light, turning it slightly orange and blue in places. We see the woman's face in profile, but her features are far less interesting than her elegant gown, which is more form-fitting and revealing that those of the 1870s. The man's insignificance is made clear by the fact that his face is nearly eclipsed by the woman's hair. The dress makes the painting.

What is perhaps most interesting about these images from the 1860s-80s is that they show the remarkable lack of personality that modern fashion allowed. Though women were encouraged to dress however they liked at home, when they went out into the world, the goal was generally to blend in. Men were taught to value "greater uniformity and greater simplification" in clothing. By and large, fashion in the late nineteenth century was not about individual expression; it was a way to be "of the moment," and to express an certain awareness of fads.

Fashion has captivated artists and audiences for centuries, and it will continue to dominate our visual culture as we move forward. To learn more about this theme, take a tour of Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity with meLearn more here

Lauren Kaplan