Musée d’Orsay, Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago

September 2012-September 2013

Part Four: Fashion as Costume

Often though of as an unsatisfactory attempt at a large scale painting by a young and untrained artist, Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) Luncheon on the Grass (Study) (1865/6) makes sense now that it is understood in relation to fashion illustrations and the sketches of Constantin Guys (1802-1892). The close relationships among the fashion designers and illustrators and photographers only enhance the wisdom of Charles Baudelaire’s (1821-1867) choice for “the painter of modern life” as a journalist who reported on the latest trends in fashion. If one understands fashion to be a form of both popular culture and design,  it is now plain that the distinction or cleavage between fine and applied art was and is problematic now and then was unrecognized or unknown.


Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Study) (1865/6)

Imagine if we could give fashion illustrator Anaïs Toudouze (1822-1899) the status of, say, the Belgium artist, Alfred Stevens, because the only difference between the two artists is that she “illustrated” the fashions and he “painted” the gowns. The same would be said of prominent illustrator Héloïse Lelior and fine artist Albert Bartholomé (1848-1928)—she illustrated and he painted; and of designer Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) and photographer Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889)—he made the fashions and he photographed the fashions. Indeed, it is clear that the ensemble motif and poses of the fashion plates are carried over into photography studios and into the painter’s atelier and that all portray the modernité of modern life–the singular importance of fashion.


Anaïs Tousouze

Although it is clear that clothes are used in the Second Empire and the Third Republic for a new class to identify itself through a ritual of self-fashioning. The right to create an individual identity would have been deeply significant to women but interestingly male artists went to some pains to divest her of her means of selfhood. With the Impressionist paintings we see the beginnings of the separation of individual women from their clothes. Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), especially, effaces his female models in favor of displaying their dresses, but the blank face, washed of animation and drained of expression were common to both fashion photography and fashion illustration and still are today. Nineteenth century female faces are often averted or otherwise disengaged and the occasional look or stare—a fixture today—directed out of the canvas was disconcerting to the Salon viewer. Édouard Manet’s (1832-1883) Olympia, who is distinctly well bejeweled and excellently accessorized, upset male visitors to the Salon, who preferred the voyeurism of Henri Gervex’s (1852-1929) déshabille in Rolla (1878).


Henri Gervex’s Rolla (1878)

Due to the decline of portraiture and the rise of genre painting, the psychological disengagement of women as objects offered for examination in nineteenth century paintings marks them off from those assertive female aristocrats of the eighteenth century. Manet’s followers do not follow his interest in the woman who looks back. Over and over in the paintings of Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pierre Renoir and Edgar Degas (1834-1916), we see women turned away or aside, lacking the confidence of Victorine in The Railway (1873) to meet the viewer on his or her own turf. While the traditionally celebrated and renowned Impressionist males usually painted out the individuality of their female subjects, James Tissot (1836-1902) granted the women he painted personhood in contrast to objecthood.


Tissot’s July: Specimen of a Portrait (1878)

Tissot, in his attention to detail, is the artist closest to the fashion plates. According to the catalogue, like many of the painters of modern society, Tissot had dresses especially made for his paintings and these dresses show up over and over in his many paintings. Despite the detailed delineation of English modernité, Tissot’s fashionable women in their ravishing beautiful gowns have personality and agency. Some, as in his Portrait of 1876 and July: Specimen of a Portrait (1878), The Circus Lover (1885) and The Shop Girl (1883), look directly at the viewer, level considered looks, serene and unconcerned, calm and unthreatening, the same natural return of a passing glance that we see in Manet.

More than any other of the Impressionists’ women, it is the women of James Tissot who were the avid consumers of fashion. Berthe Morisot’s (1841-1895) Woman with a Fan. Portrait of Madame Marie Hubbard (1874) wears one of those beguiling simple floating white dresses that stand out so strongly in an era of deep jewel tones and heavy fabrics, but those were plain clothes or “day dresses” or at home costumes. But James Tissot’s lovely young woman on the arm of an older escort goes to Le Bal (1878) in an outrageously glorious orange and lemonade concoction of lace and ruffles. Essayist Gloria Groom notes that the beautiful dress, worn by Tissot’s mistress, Kathleen Newton (recently divorced), was out of date. Judging from Tissot’s Ball on Shipboard (1874), the artist was mainly concerned with using fashion as a metaphor for “social striving.” The women of Tissot are the modern women who appear in public, as shop girls, as wives, as mistresses, as ambitious women who are chancers on the make. Compared to the passive faceless women of the Impressionists, these women are more appealing to us today. They were the shoppers who stalked the new department stores, seeking to score a fashion coup.


Tissot’s  Le Bal (1878)

Department stores, a very French invention, stemming from the French dominance in the world of fashion, dated back to the eighteenth century. In the beginning, the main consumers of fashion were the aristocrats but by the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a substantial middle class with limited income, some of which could be directed towards what would best be termed a “response to fashion.” A woman in Paris could visit a department store, such as Printemps, and a lady in London would shop in the fashionable West End in perfect respectability, because it was important for businessmen to create consumers for their wares. In order to sell consumer goods to women, it was necessary to allow them to leave the home, use a restroom in the store, to have lunch on the premises, while she strolled, examined the goods and dreamed of outfits and eventually purchased. These were the women who gazed upon the fashion plates and learned from the dress patterns—a new invention—outlined on the back of these illustrations. These women could afford to buy sewing machines and make their own clothes. With this new invention by Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875), the woman with a modest income could buy some dress patterns and gather up some nice trimmings and voilà, she could afford her big dreams.  If the Emperor Napoléon III (1808-1873) had been more intelligent and had not antagonized the Prussians, the seductive spell of the Empire could have gone on for decades and the compliant Parisians would have enjoyed being the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” as Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) put it, heedlessly drinking the champagne of pleasure quite possibly until the beginning of the Great War.


Boulevards of Paris

Manet and the Impressionists and the other artistic observers of the Empire of Fashion were part of the enchantment and were conveyors of a sense of luxury and well-being and comfort.It would be illegitimate to confuse intent with effect, but the effect of the artistic and imaginative fashions invented by the British couturier Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) was to provide the surface appearance of a political anachronism that was self-indulgent and retardataire. Likewise clothing for women were also backwards, reflecting not only the new wealth of the industrial and merchant class but also the doomed aspirations for female equality. Swaddled in swollen garments, women were given an emotional compensation for the personal bleakness of their lives—department stores. Department stores were surely the offspring of the Grand Exhibition of 1851 in London but they were children of France, progeny of the art and craft of fashion. While men went to tailors, who were confined to a proto-Mies philosophy of “god is in the details,” women were granted passage around a cathedral of deliciousness where clothing was displayed like relics for the worshippers to adore.

Elegant Man On A Terrace Henri Gervex

Henri Gervex’s An Elegant Man

Here in these great plate-glass lined structures, holding what writer Françoise Tétart-Vittu called “the ostentatious presentation of merchandise spread to the vast window displays…” The idea of merchandise in a window coincides with Manet’s Olympia—a prostitute laid out for the next customer—and with another kind of eye candy, fashions for the otherwise unemployed women of the middle classes. Through fashion plates, fashion illustrations, and fashion writers (mostly male, including the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)), these women with disposable incomes were trained as consumers, purchasing dresses that were prêt-à-porter and augmenting the constant itch to spend with accessories, hence the stupefying splendor of the hats. More than the haute couture dresses, the hats were testaments to this in-between pre-industrial era, linking hand craft and mass production. For the middle class women, a nice hat could be a stronger fashion statement than a dress, for the wealth woman the hat could be come a large and unwieldy work of art, perched on top of a large bundle of hair, immobilizing her as surely as the top hat forced her male counterpart to remain calm and still.


Women’s Hats

One of the sub-themes of the exhibition is sublimation and the role that fashion played in compensating for the loss of democracy and a republic for the males and for the loss of status as sentient human beings for women. The charges of frivolity and decadence against the Second Empire that would surface after the Franco-Prussian War were born by women during these two decades of extreme fashions. The exhibition and the catalogue is very polite and glides gracefully past the social and political issues I brought up in the first part, alluding here and there to the unequal status of women compared to men, hardly mentioning the class issues. Like the exhibition, like the art and fashion it celebrates, the texts skim the surface of the appearance of the Second Empire, which was all about surface and all about appearance and all about voyeurism and spectacle. The catalogue essays note the interest of the male artists in shopping and fashion, if not for themselves alone but ostensibly for their female friends. Even after the Franco-Prussian war, the keen interest in fashion continued, just as it did after the Second World War. For the Parisians, male or female, fashion obviously soothed and healed and heralded national recovery—both economic and psychological. It is noteworthy that the essays barely mention the War, and why not, fashion barely faltered, paused for effect and then sauntered on, gliding towards the rest of the century.


 Carte-de-visite by Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri  of the Princess Bonaparte

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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