Impressions of Fashion and Modernity in Art

We are often told that fashion styles come and go but what about those fashions that transcend the ides of time and are somehow immortalized. Those fashions belong to the world of Art because not only do artists themselves use the fashion of the time to inspire their masterpieces, they also have a hand in making those fashions relevant for decades upon decades by making them a part of their work. Considering that connection, art and fashion can be said to have a symbiotic relationship where they represent each other as well as the era surrounding them while also speaking to what it was like being an individual in that time. When we look at fashion today we oftentimes forget to question exactly how that look came to be trendy, yet as we learned through books like Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, fashion although often appropriated always has a specific tie to the surrounding culture or is more likely a reaction to that society. Inherent in that argument is also the fact that a sort of tension arises between fashion and the concept of time. As Wilson extrapolates upon in Adorned in Dreams, fashion is consistently temporary, unique to consumer societies, rapid and continually changing. The changing is based on a capitalistic need to sell, personal evolutions and a desire for social approval that comes with novel fashion trends. Fashion is characterized through it changes over time because there is an ongoing battle between new and old, what was and what is next and an overall dissonance marked by something that wasn’t acceptable before but is now. The styles seen in the Impressionist paintings are able to operate in the fleeting world that is fashion because they transcend belonging just to the ephemeral whims of fashion and instead become cultural artifacts endowed with historical richness especially having been infused with the Impressionist paintings of the 19th century.

Emile Zola: There are painters who love their era with all the artist’s mind and heart … they try above all to penetrate the exact meaning of things.. their works are neither banal and unintelligent fashion pictures nor journalistic drawings such as those published in the illustrated press. Their works are alive, because painters … have feelings for modern subjects.

Impressionism belonged to a specific moment in time, yet it is a moment easily recalled upon and is highly visible in today’s world as well through museums and the Art world at large. By making fashion a part of that Art world, it is offered a similar opportunity to both belong specifically to a moment in time as well as find itself a part of something bigger. It becomes a movement and not just a movement in the form of a subculture that is going against some part of society but instead it becomes the representative of that society. To represent is to stand for, to characterize, to express and to symbolize. Fashion takes on that wealth of a definition by being not only a representative of art, but as a representative of social classes, economic prosperity and hardship, times of war and peace, soberness and gaiety and even life and death. It may seem that fashion represents too much, yet since it is seen everyday in a whole host of ways by different people from all walks in life, it has the unique ability to be the representative of much more than meets the eye. Fashion as an Art demands respect and that is exactly what Impressionists gave fashion through their representations of it in their pieces.

Eduouard Manet:  the latest fashion…. is absolutely necessary for a painting.


Impressionism was a movement ahead of its time. Unlike their predecessors, the Impressionists chose to take an interest in the representation of individuals going about their daily lives whether it is in the city or the country. They introduced a sense of intrigue to life’s more mundane moments and also embraced fashion and the contemporary dress by recognizing fashion as being a representative of modernity. They observed modern humans who were playing with novel styles and a certain magnetism began to build around the use of fashion that enticed these talented artists to give expression to this lifestyle. Impressionists are known for their obsession with lighting and for utilizing mass and simplified colors that were complementary especially because they even made their shadows appear as colors in order to avoid the use of more earthy tones. They are equally known for a certain fragmentation of brush strokes that give their paintings a certain vibrancy and feeling of joie de vivre. Most importantly for the purpose of this curation, they were attracted to contemporary subjects and the phenomenon of modernity that was so pervasive in 19th century Paris that had just been renovated and expanded by Haussmann. Considering that each Impressionist artist were working within the same field and abiding to a similar set of rules, they also found ways to differentiate their work through bringing a sense of their authentic selves into the works. The famed artist Renoir unlike his peers paid more attention to details, believed in creating finer brush strokes, sought to capture the clothing and find the nuances in his subjects so that he could bring the infectious happiness he was witnessing to the forefront. Fashion bloggers are similarly looking to make their own name in the field and while they may be representing fashion in a different style than the artists considering the medium they utilize, there exists a continuity between an Impressionist artist and a blogger. Both can be said to have either conspicuous or authentic personas as Marwick coins it because they are trying to both curate and demonstrate their identity to the world through their work. “Fashion bloggers are both producers and consumers of fashion content. Most obviously, they participate in the global flow of consumption by buying goods (clothes, shoes, accessories, makeup, etc.), writing blog posts, and taking photographs which promote “fashion” as a concept” (2). The Impressionists are a subculture within the culture of Art at large and pushed the boundaries by portraying day-to-day life and fashion in a manner that was not previously witnessed. In this quest, they equally become producers and consumers of fashion because they are using the fashions as inspirations for their masterpieces but also become involved in marketing the fashion and the lifestyle associated with it by creating these pieces in the first place. The rarity of a painting adds even more prestige to the process and the fact that a specific dress or moment was carefully chosen to be depicted. Overall, they were able to play with, manipulate and transform fashion for the purposes of their work.


            By taking a look at an Impressionist painting, one gets the sense that this is a sort of snapshot, a snippet of time that was captured amongst life’s bigger moments. That ability to represent life not in all its perfect and majestic glory but instead venerating the fleeting moments of everyday life gave Impressionist paintings a pulse and give them a continuity with photography. In the works, the demarcations between the different styles are clearly visible based on the setting. A particular focus in terms of fashion was the dress. A woman’s dress is a harbinger of social class, of character, of pecuniary status and says something about the woman’s role in that era. Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class speaks directly to this concept by claiming that leisurely time is the best tell tale sign of wealth and considering the exhibition of fashion that exploded across Paris whether it be on the street, at a grand event, the theater or even in the country, the Impressionists were capturing these leisurely moments. Within that argument is that specific clothes belonged to different realms of activities and the paintings precisely represented how different looks accompanied the various leisure pursuits available. Veblen stressed the importance of also making that leisurely time known to add to the “pecuniary strength” of the individual and the painters were doing this in a remarkable fashion for their subjects (25). We can even see Instagram as a modern day example of this practice because an average Instagram consists of photos of activities such as eating, walking through the streets of NY, a capturing of a specific occasion such as a birthday or concert that are all deemed worthy of being filtered and presented to the masses for likes. The amount of likes can even be thought of as adding to the “pecuniary strength” or at least cultural capital and for the Impressionists having their works shown in the Salon meant even more than getting over a 100 likes. The below paintings demarcate between day and night activities, the top one being Monet’s Women in the Garden and the bottom is Beraud’s Une Soirée. 



White dresses and parasols belonged to the realm of daytime fashion while silky black dresses found their way into evening wear. White dresses carried with them a tone of informality and authenticity for the purpose of a daytime scene as witnessed in the paintings such as Woman with Umbrella that portrays a young woman dressed enchantingly in white in a country setting. On the other hand, black dresses gave the female an elegance and implicit sensuality that equally beguiled the artists to paint the style. Most notable of these paintings is Manet’s La Parisienne that encapsulated the modern day fashionista because the idea of “La Parisienne” became the epitome of urbanity and all women were inscribed in the goal to become that figure. Veblen claims that there is a desire to emulate what one thinks is success especially if one thinks to belong to a specific social class and that yearning to be the ideal is transcribed in the paintings. To see what was fashionable and acceptable is to study these works and live by the Houssave quote “there are two ways to be a Parisienne, by birth or by dress.” There was also a shift in general style over the course of Impressionism from the 1870s to the 1880s when crinolines gave way to the bustle and then from there what is known as “princess style” became popular.

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Essential to the movement and relationship between art and fashion at the time was the complementary rise of consumer culture. With this burgeoning middle-class consumerism, it was made clear how people sought to perfect the look of “La Parisienne” and could achieve it by shopping at the new department and clothing stores. The artists were equally attempting to depict the novel existence of fashion magazines, department stores and ready-made clothing by making the cultural movements apparent in their works. As seen in Tissot’s The Shop Girl (pictured below), consumerism equally fascinated the Impressionists in their quest to capture modern fashions. In this painting, the viewer feels much like the main figure who is a pleased consumer leaving this glamorous boutique filled with attractive and desirable goods. This consumerist rise demonstrates a time of great urban change and solidifies the ability for these paintings by including things such as the lighthearted activity of shopping of representing a cultural movement in the most sophisticated of manners. The term representation makes these paintings and the attached styles sort of relics that are tangible and spectacular. The Impressionists were also seeking out fashion magazines and photography to best understand just how to capture the spirit of the moment because it was as if it could fly away at any instant. By looking at the technique behind the paintings, the representation of context is made even clearer. The large and quick brush strokes related directly to the industrial approach to fashion through ready to wear fashions made available to all because there arose a new efficiency driven attitude. The exuberant but slack application of color makes apparent how frivolous these fashions were in all their intricate details and lace. What is so key to the representation in this relationship between the artists and the fashion is that they were jointly speaking to a shift in lifestyle choices, a new consumer culture and the rise of woman’s fashion as more than just aesthetically appeasing to the male palette.


Fashion and art together can be said to be complementing and completing the era to which they belong by being both a driving force of that time and carrying on as a representative of the period. That representation is also not limited to any particular thing or time or place because the beautiful thing about representation is that there exists a subjective and objective quality to it since the beholder of the work can find it to represent a whole host of things. They can also find unexpected continuities by tracing it to this day and age as is seen in the above photo of the Chicago University student’s adaption of the fashion of these classic works by engaging his own unique taste.

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There is a wondrous quality to finding the beauty in the past and understanding it as much more than an inanimate object but as a cultural artifact that represents a whole era of change and art and beauty and a life that can only be witnessed once one makes the effort to look closer. The idea behind something representing another set of things demands that the viewer be willing to find the details and understand the way in which an item can speak volumes. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but what about a painting then or a garment or in the case of Impressionism the two put together? As Davis expertly declares in Do Clothes Speak? Fashion is a language and there is a whole set of ideologies and values that compliment this concept of fashion as a lens to understand something larger. She claims that we should look at the objects of culture critically; that we should want to decode them because ideology is an understanding of how the world works. Also intrinsic in her argument is that the things we are the least likely to question are often the most rich for ideological analysis. This serves as a lesson in better understanding that the items that make up our lives come to represent who we are and the world we live in. In these paintings, the women are also representing a version of themselves, the idea of the snapshot demands that not everything can be seen but what wants to be seen is being put on display. The whole semester we’ve learned fashion as a movement and as a signifier for a wealth of things and that is therefore so rich and dynamic that it has come to be central to every type of individual. That ability of fashion demonstrates how it is constantly representing and we are all drafted into that representation. I just like La Parisienne am trying to live up to an imagined presentation I’ve been taught to strive for. What makes representation so wonderful is that unlike appropriation for example it has a sort of stability so while something like an impressionist painting can come to represent new things over time it doesn’t lose it’s initial power as a representative of its surrounding context either. Symbolism is a powerful concept, and it is so essential to notice just how representative fashion is. All in all, one can regard the impressionist art and the complementary fashion as being endowed with meanings, with stories and with a history that all come together as the puzzle pieces that make the beautiful masterpiece that is the era they represent.




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