A gorgeous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum casts new light on the relationship between art and style. By Sara Evans
The current fashion exhibit at the Met. conjures the glory days of the late, great Diana Vreeland, who for years presided over the museum’s Costume Institute. Under her imperious leadership, the museum’s costume exhibits were not only beautiful to look at, but also richly contextual and scholarly, affirming that clothes and accessories were and continue to be a key part of cultural history. This exhibition is the brainchild of experts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. The result is a stunning collection of paintings, costumes and accessories, displayed with the Met’s consummate taste and skill.
Paris in the second half of the 19th century was a city revamped, with the most modern infrastructure of any city in Europe. New buildings, new streets, new sewers and watermains, and state-of-the-art lighting, all made Paris a mecca for art and music, literature, trade and commerce. Above all, Paris was asserting itself as the once and future center of fashion. “Paris” was synonymous with chic. And the “Parisienne” was an invention to be admired and copied.
For the artists working in Paris, art and fashion went hand-in-hand. None other than Impressionist Edouard Manet noted in 1881, “The latest fashion…is absolutely necessary for a painting. It’s what matters most.”
At the same time, designers such as the House of Worth and such newly-minted department stores as Bon Marché and the enormous Grands Magasins du Louvre and Grands Magasins de la Paix, were becoming arbiters of fashion. The relationship between art and commerce was a close one; many department store owners bought and commissioned paintings for display in their emporiums. The days of the little dressmaker around the corner were waning, and ready-to-wear, or pret à porter fashion was becoming the order of the day. Fashion, like Impressionism, was an important aspect of modernity, emblematic of the qualities that set Paris apart from and ahead of other cities. Mass production and the advent of department stores were also important in the democritization of fashion that was taking place. Suddenly, the shop girl and the middle-class housewife had access to the latest in affordable fashion.
The Metropolitan’s encylopedic exploration of Impressionism, fashion and modernity includes no less than 80 major figure paintings by the best-known artists of the day. It is a treasure-trove of Manets, Monets, Tissots, Caillebots, Sargents, Renoirs and Morisots. Many of the paintings are icons from the Met’s own collection and that the Chicago Art Institute and the Museé d’Orsay in Paris, who all collaborated on this landmark exhibition. Other artworks and articles of clothing and accessories come from an enormous array of museums and collectors around the world, as well as such private lenders as Vera Wang.
The exhibit covers the 20-year period in Paris from the1860’s to the 1880’s. As each gallery unfolds into the next, we are treated to paintings and costumes, accessories, drawings and printed matter, each making its perfect point. The white dress with black scrollwork, the advent of black as a fashion statement, the myriad forms of dress that women changed into and out of throughout the day, from morning dresses to ballgowns. The fabrics, both on view and in the paintings, are filled with rich color, combinations of fine cottons, silks and satins, taffetas and velvets. Both the costumes themselves and the ones in the paintings demonstrate the incredible variety of hue and shade, and the beautiful ways in which light plays off them.
The globalization of fashion is expressed in rich paisleys, soft cashmeres and fine cottons from India, fine silks from the Far East, furs from North America, and alpaca shawls from South America.
The exhibition explores the advent and explosion of fashion magazines and fashion prints, which traveled fast and had women all over the world drooling over “the latest Paris fashions.” It underscores how printed matter influenced not only the buyers of the day, but also the artists who were painting them.
Scattered throughout the exhibit are a king’s ransom of accessories, hats and fans, shoes, slippers, shawls, furs and capes. The finest kid gloves, beautiful stockings and an amazing group of corsets all reinforce the importance of fashion in the Paris of the day. They invite one to look and look and look again. The exhibit points out that hats were a key fashion element, one that, despite the advent of department stores, remained the province of the milliner around the corner, where customization and uniqueness were key. Paintings by Degas and Manet demonstrate that a visit to the milliner was an important part of a lady’s life.
Men’s fashion is also explored, with top hats and fine umbrellas, silver-topped walking sticks and finely cut suits, gold watch chains and pinned cravats. One of the most stunning portraits in the exhibition is of Manet, painted by Henri Fantin-Latour. The handsome artist gazes out at us, wearing a blue tie, holding his stick, wearing fawn trousers and black coat and waistcoat, his top hat gleaming in the light.
The exhibit points out the importance of the new art of photography. Studios were opening not only in Paris but in every town and city in Europe and America. People posed for photos arrayed in their newest fashions, and had their images printed on visiting cards as well as in formal portraits for framing. As Mme. Varvara Rimsky-Korsakov observed, “One’s appearance is the dominant passion of the French.”
But for many viewers, the most exciting aspect of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” is the juxtaposition of the actual costumes shown in and with the paintings. There is a literal thrill, for instance, in seeing a painting of Madame Bartholomé, standing at the entrance to a sunlit conservatory, wearing a morning dress with a white bodice dotted and striped in purple, with a layered, elaborately pleated purple skirt, next to the dress itself. Dating from 1881, the dress looks as though it had just come out of its box. This experience is repeated throughout the exhibition, making its point beautifully and over and over again.
“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” is contemporary museumship at its very best. Don’t miss it.
(“Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York until May 27. After that, it will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and be on view from June 26-September 22. A beautiful catalog accompanies the exhibition.))