Costume drama: the Metropolitan’s ‘Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity’

In Henry James’s 1881 novel Portrait of a Lady, the sagely demonic Madame Merle explains to the young heroine Isabel Archer that the soul is inseparable from clothes and acquisitions. “When you’ve lived as long as I, you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account,” she says. “We’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our ‘self?’ Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us – then it flows back again.”

Madame Merle’s assertion that you are what you own haunts the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity, which pairs antique dresses with pictures of the women who wore them.

It opens with a fantastic concoction of bold grey-and-green-striped silk gauze, trimmed with a black fringe and cinched at the tiny waist. A few steps away, in Claude Monet’s monumental “Camille”, the painter’s 19-year-old mistress models an almost identical gown. Or rather, the gown models her, since the girl turns her fur-jacketed back to the viewer, presenting a train of glowing cloth. Critics tittered that it was more a portrait of an outfit than of a person. Precisely, retorted Emile Zola: “Notice the dress, how supple it is, how solid. It trails softly, it is alive, it declares loud and clear who this woman is.”

The Met’s clever juxtapositions of art and tailoring illuminate the expressive powers of style, and the show’s curators have chosen the ideal era in which to perform that experiment.

The Impressionists set out to capture what the poet Charles Baudelaire called “the heroism of modern life”, and inevitably they were drawn to clothes. To 19th-century artists, the cut of a gown and the shimmer of silk embodied the age of department stores, gas lighting and grand boulevards. “The latest fashion is absolutely necessary for painting. It’s what matters most,” wrote Edouard Manet. He and his male friends stalked the parks and boulevards in search of pretty prey. They developed the archetype of the exquisitely dressed “Parisienne”, who did honour to the world’s capital of conspicuous plumage. Female artists Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot also tracked well-dressed belles in their natural habitats, cosseted among the tea sets and bibelots that defined the frontiers of femininity.

If, at the Metropolitan, clothes bring paintings into three dimensions, the paintings return the favour by bringing dead fabric back to life. One vitrine displays a cream-coloured piquet cotton number, with black cording that loops and coils across the bodice and around the skirt. It’s a beautiful enough garment, but behind glass it has the dull, embalmed look of a relic.

Claude Monet’s ‘Women in the Garden’ (1866)

Ah, but there it is again (or something very close), billowing out around the seated foreground figure in Monet’s “Women in the Garden”. The painted version dazzles with the reflected brilliance of a summer day. That’s Camille again, wearing the dress, and she posed for the other three women too, though her features fold into shadows or duck behind a bouquet. Monet has two chief interests here: the momentary dapplings of light and the sense of timeliness embodied by the clothes. The scene represents not some timeless idyll, but a specific verdant afternoon in 1866.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the son of a tailor and a seamstress, also understood how effectively a sumptuous ensemble could compensate for a threadbare personality. In a full-length portrait of his mistress Lise, he lavishes more attention on the stunningly intricate parasol, all black silk lace and taffeta, than on the young woman holding it. (An example of the same umbrella lies in a nearby display case.) Swathed in white muslin, she is the very model of the relaxed young Parisienne.

Renoir couldn’t hack psychology – his people all look like mannequins – but he was a connoisseur of accessories. Suzanne Valodon, a painter who sometimes sat for him, recounts her adventures of shopping with the master, poking around a milliner’s to indulge his enthusiasm for hats, or tracking down the perfect pair of gloves for her tiny hands. Frills, ribbons, leather and lace tell us all we need to know.

Manet, too, had a reputation for losing track of his ladies as he studied their clouds of crinoline. One wag remarked that he “values a head no more than a slipper”. The truth, though, is that he placed fashion at the service of psychology. Using thick, succulent brushstrokes, he examined both the dress and its wearer, expressing in fripperies what he gleaned about her standing and state of mind.

A French day dress from 1865-67

Take his “Lady with Fan”, a portrait of Baudelaire’s muse Jeanne Duval in 1962, blind and mad with syphilis but still wearing the bangles and beads immortalised by the poet in “Les Bijoux”. Her small head bobs in a cottony foam; she is adrift, an ex-beauty drifting on a tide of icy white flounces.

In “Repose”, his ironically titled painting of Morisot, Manet harnesses style to insight. Nothing about her is quite right: her voluminous bustle forces her into an awkward slouch, her simple gown is casually unbuttoned at the throat, and a slippered foot juts provocatively from beneath her skirt. The undercurrent of unrest, reinforced by the Japanese storm scene that hangs above her head, broadcasts the discomfort that a woman artist must have felt in a virtually all-male world. At the 1873 Salon, the portrait scandalised crowds who found it lacking in either languor or dignity. “Dull, sickly creature, wretchedly dressed, her arms as skinny as a wire; from her sullen face to her little foot, she could not be more poor, thin, or in a worse mood,” wrote one critic.

Morisot painted herself more commandingly, in an off-the-shoulder black number that elongated her figure and maximised her chic. Then as now, black was a staple of the smart Parisienne’s wardrobe and it tested an artist’s skill. Only Morisot and Manet pulled off all the monochrome intricacies of beads, velvet, lacework, shadow and sheen, and found in all those textures and gradations of darkness an aesthetic equivalent for the tremors of the human soul.

‘Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity’, Metropolitan Museum, New York, until May 27,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.