Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Historically Fashion Forward

by columnist Madeline Karp

I have dreams of wearing a big hoop skirt. I’m talking like a BIG, Scarlett O’Hara hoop skirt. Sometimes a corset, or a bustle; on occasion knee britches and a man’s coat from the Revolutionary War, but tailored to fit and flatter a woman’s figure. I’m a fan of the First Virginia and the Second New Jersey Regiment’s coats in particular, in case you want to make me a replica. I have a bit of a love-crush on historical fashion.

And yet, when it comes to modern fashion, I’m less enthusiastic. I kind of hate shopping. I have to put thought and effort into wearing something that isn’t black, gray or navy, and I work hard to make cardigans fit every occasion. I don’t really care about Oscar dresses, What Not To Wear only interests me when I have the flu, and I wasn’t following New York Fashion Week 2013…


Right after Fashion Week concluded (perhaps as a dovetail, perhaps not), the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a temporary exhibit entitled Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity. Fresh from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the exhibit combines Impressionist artwork with period textiles to demonstrate the interplay between fashion and art in late nineteenth century France.

So often my fashion-conscious friends will try to explain to me how modern fashion is art and I’ll smile politely and nod, but privately disagree – wearing a raw meat dress strikes me as sickening and shamelessly political instead of artistic. But, with this exhibit, I finally see what they’re talking about.

Placed throughout eight parlors, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity displays period costume alongside famous works by Renoir, Degas and Monet. According to curator Susan Alyson Stein, one of the exhibit’s big ideas is that modern fashion came of age in nineteenth century France, during a time when art was also experiencing an aesthetic revolution. The late 1800’s in France represent a time of tumult on so many levels – historians, art historians and fashionistas would be remiss to ignore the connections and influences each had on the others.

One display case boasts incredibly detailed corsets and slippers. Monet’s painting of his wife Camille in a green and black striped dress is displayed next to a similar period dress from England. Vitrines are arranged to look like Parisian shop windows. The mixed mediums ensure a wide audience.

Maybe it’s because I love Impressionism, hoop skirts, and the French Revolution, but I’m seriously trying not to drool and dream of springtime, as I stare at the pictures of big poofy dresses and paintings of water lilies and picnics on a scenic lake shore.

Impression, Fashion and Modernity runs at the Met until May 27. After that, it will be at the Art Institute of Chicago. …Road trip anyone?

To read more about the exhibition and see some drool-worthy pictures check out these websites:

1 Comment

  1. I’m down for a field trip! I’m very clueless about fashion as well, maybe worse then you if that helps!

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