22 May 2013

What Women Wore - Students and Parisiennes

A long weekend in New York gave me the opportunity to study women's costume - the textile historian's term for clothing - as displayed by Joan of Arc, disco ladies, 19th-century Parisiennes,  and my daughter, as she received a graduate degree from Columbia University.

Columbia graduates, in baby blue caps and gowns.
Our prime objective in New York was a graduation ceremony at Columbia, the 5th oldest institution of higher learning in the US.  Founded as King's College in 1754, after the Revolutionary War anything royal of course became politically-incorrect, and the institution was re-named Columbia; however, tabs featuring royal crowns still decorate the gowns, and the crown motif can be found throughout the school.

School colors of baby blue (officially "Columbia blue") and white are derived from two 19th-century literary cum debating societies whose colors were blue and white.  I don't know if the football team finds it difficult to maintain its collective game face while uniformed in baby blue.

Gowns and mortarboards are of course derived from medieval models. Early universities were places of study for church careers, so scholars wore clerical robes daily. Today academia regalia are worn by students only at commencement, and by administration and faculty during academic ceremonies, including convocation.

The day before her commencement, daughter and assorted family and friends trouped to the Met to see a wonderful exhibit Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity, which ends May 27.  This exhibit pulls painting not only from the Met, but from museums in Chicago, Paris, and even Hungary.

The exhibit is a rare inter-displinary effort between the costume and European paintings departments and affords the viewer a unique opportunity to see what the artists themselves saw as they painted. Photography was not allowed, as I found out after snapping the image below, but exhibit highlights are online.

In the Conservatory (Madame Bartholome), Paul Albert Bartholome.
In the image above, painter Bartholome depicts his wife on the threshold between outdoors and the conservatory.  After his wife's death, just a few years after this picture was created, he saved the dress, now displayed in front of the painting.  

By the time of the earliest pieces in this exhibit, the Napoleonic age, with its classical paintings by David and Gericault, was long over. After Waterloo, France experienced one political spasm after another, including the Bourbon restoration, July Monarchy, Second Republic, and Second Empire. Finally the Third Empire emerged.  It was supposed to be a temporary fix, but lasted from 1870 until the Germans marched into France in 1940.  Prussia and Austria achieved military superiority, wresting Alsace-Lorraine away from France at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian conflict.

What did this all mean for French artists? The days of painting military conquerors, royal portraits and mythical subjects were over. In addition, photography up-ended the role of the artist as recorder of realistic images.

Meanwhile, the Paris Exposition of 1855, France's response to the London Crystal Palace 1851 event,  had established that France, if less dominant in military and political spheres, was nevertheless a world leader in industry and art, which were never more successfully combined than by the silk manufacturers of Lyon, who eagerly adapted the new aniline dyes for production, and promoted styles which used yards and yards of colorful material.  Inexpensive lithographic printing meant a proliferation of style books, patterns books and fashion plates, the precursors of our modern fashion magazines and New York Times supplements.

Although ready-to-wear was still in its infancy, the carriage trade was declining as middle-class shoppers could now purchase yard goods at the new grand magasin, Printemps, opened in 1865, and deliver their material to a dress-maker, with whom they would collaborate on the design of a garment at once unique but responsive to the dictates of fashion.

Wives, models and friends of artists, in their day dresses or evening attire, replaced the nude odalisques and ermine-ed royalty as subject matter for the new breed of artists, who, far from competing with black-and-white photography, used the new technology as an aide, and while not striving for exacting depiction, nevertheless excelled at observing the ephemeral play of light and shadow on fabric, whether indoors or en plein air.  While Titian was celebrated for his depiction of flesh, these Impressionists focused on fiber, and artists still had a monopoly on color, which would not become commonplace in photography until the 20th century.

So, while the dresses themselves do not appear particularly modern to our eyes - the nip-waisted silhouettes and bustles appear decidedly old-fashioned, in fact - the dresses and paintings in this exhibit actually reflect and celebrate an revolution in consumerism, in the relationship between artist and society, and in the content and marketing of art.

The dresses also represent the last efflorescence of bespoke tailoring and dressmaking -  the arrival of elevators, motorcars and omnibuses made elaborate, voluminous dresses impractical.  But while they lasted, what dresses they were! Many skilled hands contributed to the construction of these garments, employing both hand-stitching and seaming by the recently invented sewing machine.  Just as we might admire a beautifully constructed clock or boat, we can respect the work of the couturier's atelier.  Before the typewriter and the switchboard provided more opportunities, millions of women stitched and embroidered for a living.  This show is also a memorial to their unsung skills.