Friday, September 6, 2013

The Art of Fashion

The legendary hot, humid Chicago summer almost seemed to have past us by. Cold and rainy well into June we waited wondering when, if, we would experience the torrid conditions we were accustomed to and steel ourselves against each year. It was a season of pleasantly warm temperatures and cool lake breezes. A short spell of uncomfortably hot weather came and went in the blink of an eye. While I was visiting the furnace that is central Texas late in July Chicago's high one day was 57 degrees. Windows were left open and air conditioners were left off.

Late in the season the dreaded moment finally arrived. Weather forecasters across the region announced the approach of severe heat moving in our direction. Heat advisories were issued and the population panicked as they watched the severe weather conditions advance toward them. Along with the heat and humidity came flies,their sharp, stinging bites adding to the misery. I took refuge where I have in torrid times past, Chicago's Art Institute.

There are some things I will admit to being old fashioned about, particularly in terms of appropriate dress. For instance, I dress when going to the theatre, almost always donning a blazer or sport jacket, at the very least , for the occasion. I also, when going to a museum, particularly an art museum, wear long pants. On this day I broke one of my own cardinal rules and wore shorts. I attempted to mitigate my fashion faux pas by also sporting an expensive silver bracelet given to me by a vendor at work for attaining a certain level of sales of their product. I quickly ascertained, after arriving at the Art Institute, that I was not the only man, or woman for that matter, who was baring my knees on that extremely hot afternoon.

The special exhibition "Impressionism Fashion and Modernity" explored the depiction and importance of fashions of the day in the works of Impressionists. Apparel and accessories from the era, most culled from the remarkable collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum, were showcased with impressionist works, many on loan from the D'Orsay in Paris, featuring similar fashions.

Before heading upstairs to the main event, I visited one of my favorite spots in the museum. As you pass the grand staircase and go through a set of glass doors there are a series of rooms, accessed through a rather small, nondescript entry, where selections from the Art Institutes expansive collection of works on paper are exhibited. Due to their extremely fragile nature, the pieces are rotated frequently virtually assuring a happy new discovery with each visit.

The works on view that day, exhibited under the title, "Undressed, The Fashion of Privacy" explored nude and partially unclothed figures in works by many of the same artists whose interest in fashion was shown in the main exhibition. Drawings, lithographs, woodcuts and pastels by impressionist masters such as Degas and Renoir graced the walls. The works ranged from studio figure studies to works from the artist's imagination. A grouping of works depicting male bathers by Cezanne and Munch, because of the placement and relationship to one another of the figures pictured, carried subtle homoerotic undertones. One room depicted visions of sex, death and violence. The disturbing quality of these pieces were juxtaposed against the tranquility expressed in the following room which was anchored by a large, charming pastel by Mary Cassatt.

I continued on my way to the main exhibit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the art I have become familiar with over my many visits to the museum. Grant Wood's "American Gothic", the large, surrealist work that was commissioned for Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water", and Hopper's "Nighthawks". This work by Hopper has the ability to draw me into it's ambiguous story. I can feel the cool night air and hear the silence of the deserted street. When it is on loan I miss it like I would miss a friend who is far away.

The exhibition relates how, with the advent of printed fashion illustration and department stores, information on the current trends of dress of the late 19th century became widespread. The show opens with two small works by Manet and Renoir depicting women reading fashion ads followed in the next room by a large Monet portrait of his mistress complimented by a dress much like the one in the painting displayed in a case nearby. There is an imposing, breathtakingly beautiful Renoir of a woman posing with her two identically dressed children and their family dog. The languid and sensual "Woman with Fans" by Manet pictures a woman lounging on a couch, the fans of the title hanging on the wall behind her. A favorite holding of the Art Institute by Degas, "The Millinery Shop" is shown in a room showcasing hats, gloves and evening slippers in a gallery devoted to the depiction of fashion accessories in impressionists works.

I enter a room with faux grass on the floor and the recorded sounds of birds in the air. Devoted to outdoor scenes it is dominated by two surviving fragments of a monumental, life size work by Monet, "Luncheon on the Grass". Damaged when Monet's landlord stored it in a cellar, Monet giving it to him in lieu of rent, only these two fragments remain. Earlier studies give the viewer an idea of how the finished work would have appeared. This was the first time the two pieces had been shown together in the U.S. Examples of fashions in these paintings are provided by day dresses on turntables in the center of the room.

Throughout the exhibit the mirrored backs of some of the cases containing dresses and gowns allow the visitor to enjoy the detail in the back of these fabulous costumes. I was amazed at the condition of these fashions, especially considering their age.

One gallery is focused on women's undergarments. Featured there is a highly erotic work by Henri Gervez. "Rolla", painted in 1878 portrays a woman sprawled seductively on a bed entirely nude. A well positioned bit of the bedsheet covers the area between her legs but all else is bared. A man stands at a window, dressed but with several buttons undone on his shirt. In the poem which inspired the painting the man, from a good family, commits suicide after suffering the shame of a relationship  with a courtesan. The painting was removed from the studio during it's initial showing for "indecency". Not because of the naked seductress pictured but because, lying over a chair in the room, her corset and petticoats are shown in the painting.

Near the end of the exhibition is a small room focusing on men's fashion. While providing a handsome silhouette, it seemed, outside of ceremonial military garb, to be invariably black and white and lacked the individuality afforded to women.

One gallery is devoted to fashion illustration from the period. This innovation was a large part of the introduction of the concept of fashion trends to the masses. It propelled fashion forward as the industry needed to provide new looks and ideas to keep the interest of a now more informed population.

The exhibition ends with the presentation of Seurat's pointillist masterwork "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte", regarded as one of the two most important works in the Art Institute's collection. The painting, in terms of fashion, portrays a range of people from a number of classes. From the wealthy couple out for a stroll to the man in the sleeveless shirt lounging on the grass. Men in military uniform mix with middle class families, one person famously walks a monkey on a leash.

As I leave the museum I stop into one of the libraries to view another small display of fashion illustration and women's magazines from the period. As I head back out onto Michigan Avenue I observe the locals and tourists who swarm the street on this extremely hot afternoon, wondering how the fashion of today would be rendered by the impressionist masters of the past.


  1. I find this topic fascinating. When we moved to AZ I noticed a drop in formal clothing in business and social settings. Shorts, no neck wear, T-shirts; show up everywhere even in Church and at the opera. I try to keep properly dressed; it is tempting not to at over 100 degrees.

  2. Concur with Spo comments on this. I usually make a point of wearing a tie to the symphony and the opera. The ballet is one place in Phoenix where people still seem to dress appropriately so a suit or at least a jacket is the norm. Theater here is a lost cause. Shorts and flip-flops are common. I see them at the Symphony as well but they tend to be a noticed exception there...thank goodness