2018 MECA Senior Thesis
Whistler to Wearables: The Connection Between 19th Century Paintings and Contemporary Garments
I. An Introduction: My Work as a Maker and Designer
As a student in the textile and fashion department, the work I have produced throughout my time at Maine College of Art has varied in a number of ways. Before deciding on becoming a student in the TFD department, I experimented with a range of materials. I had originally intended to major in the Metalsmithing and Jewelry Department, as I had taken courses at Haystack Mountain School of Craft in metalsmithing and kinetic jewelry making prior to choosing a major in my Sophomore year. I had also experimented with a variety of other mediums and practices, including painting, glass casting, sculpture, encaustics, ceramics, graphic design.
The overall process which can be seen throughout various collections of my work is repetition through surface design and material manipulation. Whether it be with wovens, knits, or various materials arranged to become a wearable garment, there are repeats of technique throughout the process. To begin a garment, I will choose individual techniques such as crochet, pleats, tucks, beading or knit-weaving. I then determine the scale in which I would like to work for the specific project. From this, I repeat the technique I’ve chosen to such an extreme degree that the process takes on a new form.
II. Inspirations: Historical
The inspiration that I am currently focused on for thesis is 19th century paintings. After taking an art history course last semester that focused solely on the art created during this era, I found a great deal of technical and conceptual similarities between the work that was made then and the work that I am trying to create now. As the art of the 19th century unfolded, new ideas of contemporary and modern art came about. Using specific techniques with brushes and paints allowed for the paintings to change the form of the painting’s reality. As opposed to the standard portraits and landscapes with specific guidelines, they started to become conceptually considered, artistic compositions.
Throughout the nineteenth century, a somewhat overwhelming amount of changes in the world of fine arts began to take place. As the concept of modernism came to the foreground of the art scene, new questions arose between the artists and their viewers. One question in particular was asked most frequently about the changes in art: What is the work’s intention and real purpose? Realism helped shine a light on the stage of these new questions and ideas. Creating an elaborate backstory to simply convey a painting’s purpose was no longer the way of this new genre. For portraits in particular, the challenge became unique, as the person’s identity being portrayed in the work was less relevant than in previous eras. Craft and composition needed to take center stage for the new aesthetic and conceptual demands. One solution to combining these new desired elements was through artistic elaboration on what the individual was wearing in the painting. Accessories and apparel from nineteenth century works of art were key elements in showing the new era of realism and modernity within the framework of portraiture.
While sculptors, painters and writers of the time were able to easily leave their mark and gain social and monetary status in the elite art world, many artists of clothing were less than what one may call famous. The creators of the ateliers were allowed their own place in society, but these were simply faces of the brand. They were not physically attached to the hands that labored over the garments produced.
In an excerpt from Charles Worth and the Queer Origins of Couture, the author, Abigail Joseph, discusses Charles Worth, an influential fashion designer of the 19th century. Known specifically for drama and elaboration with garments, his customer base was of a higher class, looking for something relevant to the new, modernist age. One section describes a designer’s experience working for Worth on a custom garment. The individual needed to leave their home, family and children for the entire day, skipping a full meal and working tirelessly simply to produce a custom fit dress. Seeing as the customer was not of close living proximity to the design house it made more sense for the designers to completely edit their masterpieces in one day rather than going through multiple fittings at different times when each party was available. Painstaking efforts were made to ensure this quality and craftsmanship could create a desired masterpiece. However, only the customer would really catch of glimpse of this laborious practice.
This extensive labor was not completely lost to the viewers. If worn for a portrait, it became a painter’s responsibility to try and illuminate the extravagant compositional details- fringes, seams, hems, surface manipulation and topical decor. Through dedication and desire, Worth and his brand became a significant symbol of the elite world of fashion, combining traditional techniques with new, modern influenced styles. The fabric itself was an incredibly significant element to these works of art. These textiles had the ability to signify and categorize key elements within in the paintings. Was the fabric used in the garments a common commodity? Or was it rare and therefore required fairly extensive outsourcing? Did individuals collect these materials during trips to different parts of the world? Were these colors used to dye the fabrics of great commonality or rarity? If these materials were difficult to acquire, could they easily be replicated by way of paint?
One portrait painting that strongly shows this shift from formal and rigid to casual and realistic is French Painter James Tissot’s Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née Thérése Feuillant, painted in 1866 (Figure 1). This peignoir dress contained a blissful variety of feminine color and flare. Made of silk and velvet, the dress was designed for a looser fit, not perfectly draped to every curve of her body. In fact, the woman herself is slouching over slightly, elbow placed on the mantle while the other hand is casually draped over the front of her right thigh. Due to the painter’s depiction, the woman in this painting does not read as a true, elite social power. Rather, the garment does it for her. The dusty rose velvet starts as a shawl over her shoulders, modestly covering any sign of provocative gestures. Her stance is incredibly relaxed compared to portraits created in previous eras with the intention of showcasing all of the power within the individual. In this portrait, her pose is clearly chosen to best portray the many details in the garment as well as showcasing the sheer amount of fabric. This focus on materials makes the painting a much stronger compositional success.
A dress of similar style can be found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (Figure 2). Within their fashion archives, this pink gem radiates a sense of depth and mastery of skill. The human form almost becomes lost behind the grandeur of this wearable work of art. This dress is of similar color, but is made instead with sheer material, adding to the sense of extravagant volume and weightlessness. The wearer simply becomes the pedestal for this body of work, the dress taking center stage. She is a model of the fibers, rather than a model of her own significance.
Monet’s Camille, painted in 1866 is truly the epitome of portraiture differences within this world of modernism (Figure 3).The pose that she is placed in does not even show her front side to address the audience. Rather, she is turned away from the front, diminishing the entire concept of what it means to traditionally compose a portrait. One could even question whether this could be called a human portrait. The key element within this painting however, is her face. Her head is turned back towards the audience, and for a brief moment it seems as though she could in fact be addressing the viewers. Then, upon closer inspection, it becomes blatantly evident that her gaze is focused on anything but the audience. She, just like the rest of the viewers, is admiring the garment in which she is wearing. The true personality and character can be seen within the great billows of the skirt, the emerald and ebony lines cascading their way to the stale, grey floor. To further the hierarchical aesthetic, the coat is encompassed by lush edges of fur lining. The way in which the stripes are placed on the body, the scale and configuration of the garment makes this painting a true success. It is genuinely a showcasing of the artist’s ability to compose the textiles solely and realistically for what they are.
In Manet’s Railroad, The Gare Saint-Lazare painted in 1873, (Figure 4) it is not made clear to the viewer who these girls even are, or what their relevance is. Why they are at the railroad? Why they are sitting? What is the context and their true significance? None of these questions matter, as their clothing speaks for them. To begin simply with color, the contrasts between the rich navy blue and the crisp whites allow for an awe-filled composition and connection between the figures and the location in which they are staged. These colors exactly match the mood of the railroad. Their skin tones reflect the pale feeling of the day, and the strange sense of solitude that seeps from the paint. The ribbon alone speaks volumes to the the youthfulness of the two girls. Frills on the older girl’s sleeves tie in with the frills on the young girl’s shoulders. Even the coloring of the dog is painted to coordinate with the styling of these two girls. These girls could have had some significance to society during the 19th century, but one simply wouldn’t know from looking at this painting.
It can be argued that the garments chosen for these portrait paintings hold a higher importance within each portrait than the figures themselves. Flesh is flesh, eyes are eyes. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, portraits, sculptures, drawings had already captured the many personalities that the human body was capable of portraying. Roman and Greek gods had shown their magnificence, muscles and contours had been shaped to near perfection. The ideal body had in fact been made, again and again. During this era, the human form was no longer at the height of interest for the artists of the time. As modernism sprouted from the minds of artistic geniuses and flourished, the concept for painting things as they were became the new, glorified and romantic way of creating art. The preset story was no longer of great value or concern. The true presence of the moment captured within the paintings, and the essence of the composition was of paramount significance. In many of the paintings, the textiles recreated from paint seem to be the main figures, rather than parts of the human form. From nudity monopolizing the art world to nearly complete modesty and a desire for incessant drapery, the changes became crucial shifts in what art truly meant.
It is made incredibly evident throughout the painted portraits created in the nineteenth century that there were monumental changes in the way that the upper class and elite wished to be portrayed, as well as the way in which painters at the time craved to depict these groups in society. The garments themselves have the same exact guidelines as this new form of painting. In terms of the wearable works, they had to fit to the overall composition of the body. Proportions must be accurate, fit must be perfected, hems, finishes and decorative touches must all be so carefully considered before the work is complete. I believe that many artists were able to unintentionally see the connection between these forms of art. They each relied on each other to reach this common goal of a new, more innovative way of thinking towards the arts. Through fashion, and entirely new door was opened to the opportunity to show the core values of modernity. Although these works were intended to be realistic representations of simply the subjects being painted, the textiles create an undeniably significant connection to the key fundamental elements of the era. Through displaying these materials in great detail, painters created a larger image of the social climates and their relevance to the social, economic, and political climate of the era.
III. Inspirations: Contemporary
Within the world of current fashion, I look to many of the designers and brands popular today to see their process of how they represent historical influences in their contemporary collections. Some of the more popular brands that I look towards are Chanel, Valentino, Dior, Gucci, Balmain and Prada. All of these brands are similar in a way as they take references from historical, high class, elite cultures throughout the centuries. Much of the focus for this body of work that I am creating in particular is focused on the use of European influence in modern wearables.
The first brand that comes to mind when considering significant influences for this thesis collection would be Chanel. Starting in Paris in 1910, designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel lead the way for women to leave behind the old, uncomfortable styles of women’s clothing in exchange for a new, modern take on the independent woman. This message has carried on to present day, allowing for the brand to continue to design for the chic, modern woman. A key element in which Chanel is most infamously known for is the change to the woman’s silhouette. Rather than restraining the body, waistlines were allowed more ease and a more functional, boxy shape took center stage. (Figure 5) The brand was about so much more than selling a product. It was about creating an entirely new lifestyle, one for women full of physical and societal freedom from the typical standards of womenswear.
This idea of allowing room for the body to comfortably exist is a core value that I have tried to uphold within all of my collections. How can the individual flourish if they are physically restrained by the clothing in which they wear every day? This challenge is something in which I personally face daily, as person with Crohn’s Disease. I have continuously struggled to find comfortable clothing that wouldn’t cause agitation and pain to my midsection, due to the immense amounts of abdominal swelling. Finding comfortable clothing that I could wear and feel confident in throughout the day became an enormous challenge. Clothing is something you wear every single day, making it to be a much more crucial element of life than some may realize. How the body and mind feels is immeasurably influential to how the individual goes about their day.