Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Book review: Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity

A review I wrote for the fashion blog fashionfairy

A substantial coffee table book, Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity is in reality a catalogue to accompany an exhibition of the same name.  With essays by fifteen scholars, including renowned fashion historians Valerie Steele and Aileen Ribeiro, the book is a visual treat with over 140 artworks and accompanying photographs of contemporary costumes. There is much to discover about the early days of the world of fashion as we know it today in this well-researched, fascinating book. Below are three of my favourite discoveries.

For a fashion historian the holy grail of research is to link an original garment with a fashion plate from a contemporary journal, and then discover it was captured on canvas by a well-regarded artist of the time. In her chapter Fashion en Plein Air, Professor Birgit Haase takes Claude Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1865/66) and does all these things and more. Haase describes how Monet’s women (or woman - it’s Monet’s companion Camille) were dressed in the height of fashion at the time, and she shows that their clothes and poses were influenced by contemporary fashion illustrations. Also included in this chapter is a lovely selection of summer dresses with embroidered details from museum collections that closely resemble those painted by Monet. 

Claude Monet (1840-1926)Lunch on the Grass1865-1866Oil on CanvasH. 248; B. 217 cm
From the outdoors to the indoors, Valerie Steele, who wrote the excellent The Corset a Cultural History (2001) uses Edouard Manet’s painting Nana (1877) as a way of discussing the link between underwear and eroticism in nineteenth century Paris.  Nana is an ideal subject ‘spearheading the new fashion for corsets made from luxury materials like satin in colours such as blue, pink and red’. The chapter includes a brief history of corsets and some interesting facts about corset production.

Edouart Manet, Nana, 1877, Oil on canvas, 154 x 115cm, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Much has been written about women’s fashion of the period but not so much about menswear and so the chapter by curator at the Musee d’Orsay, Philippe Thiebaut is a welcome insight. We learn that male dress was limited to ‘dark shades and ordinary cloth’ but that the male silhouette was every much as defined by dress as the female form.  The ideal man’s body had to be straight, ‘the torso wide, the waist narrow, and the stomach perfectly flat.’ However, we discover that the impressionists preferred to paint ‘the essence of the modern male’ in natural situations rather than the more starchily posed figures found at formal receptions.

The exhibition can be seen at Musee d’Orsay, Paris September 25, 2012-January 20, 2013, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York February 26-May27, 2013 or The Art Institute of Chicago June 26-September 22, 2013.  

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