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Impressionists and Fashion

Nov 12, 12 Impressionists and Fashion

Passing along the exhibits of the “Impressionists and Fashion”, which opened at the Musee d’Orsay, you involuntarily start thinking about how much the world, traditions and customs have simplified for just one hundred – one hundred and fifty years. The 21st century, the Age of Speed, does not leave us any time for many rituals, which played major roles in the daily lives of people of the past. Take for example clothing. Of course, taking out class differences but without exaggeration we have to say that even a nineteenth century peasant woman sometimes spend much more time on her toilets than a modern girl, whose “active” wardrobe often comes down to jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. And that not to mention ladies of noble families! Their day was subject to a strict routine of dresses change according to the time of the day, the status and the occasion.


On average, as the exhibition tells us, a French mademoiselle of mid-nineteenth century changed her toilet seven to eight times a day: a morning, house dress, gave way to a dress for horse riding; toilets for going out on foot, were different from those for a coach ride; one should never choose for a society dinner a dress that she would wear to opera or a theater. Ladies were having dinner in dresses with a very modest neckline, hiding shoulders. On the contrary, open gowns were reserved for balls to drive men crazy with deep necklines and bare shoulders.


In the centuries, when love letters were written by hand, and an exposure of an ankle was considered daring, the procedure of dressing (and then undressing) could have taken hours and usually required assistance. Over a sleeveless shirt a corset was put, fastened on tiny hooks in front, and pulled with laces at the back. Whalebones, like medieval torture instruments, dug into the sides of the beauties, ready to make any sacrifice for the sake of a wasp waist. “Cache-corset” bodice underwear was hiding this frightening construct. On her feet the girl wore stockings, attached to garters at the knee level and drawers over them. Then – the bustle of horse hair or whalebone and an underskirt, fitted with knots and ruffles to maintain the upper skirt. Toilet was completed by the top dress worn over that whole pyramid.


Surroundings, thus beheld only the “outer shell” that hid many lower layers, on which the woman seated like on a pedestal. And the true structure of her figure could only be recognized by skilled enthusiasts.


The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by a general reconstruction of Paris, which, by order of Napoleon III, was headed by Georges Eugène Haussmann, known as Baron Haussmann. Promenades, made possible thanks to wide boulevards, quickly became popular, adding up to social entertainments like balls and opera visits. As well as picnics and (men) swimming on the banks of the Seine.


Paintings of the Impressionists, as mirrors of the history, reflected a new, modernized life of Parisian society and the demimonde of the Second Empire. Their canvases were not as photographically accurate in the details of the toilets, as in the classical schools of painting. But they were, above all, able to convey the general atmosphere, the mood, of the Parisian lifestyle. And, of course, the fashion and its changes. Imperial crinolines of the first half of the nineteenth century: broad, taking up lots of place and causing a lot of inconvenience, by 1870 gave way to the bustle – a dress with pads, placed under the skirt below the waist to add a certain splendor to a well-known part of the female figure.


By the end of the century pads started losing their volume, returning the silhouette to natural lines.


If the dresses were losing some unnatural fancifulness, the accessories have long remained a must of any toilet. The lady did not go outside without a hat. Thriving in those days Paris hatters, who took orders from all around the world, were offering hundreds of models to suit every taste and whim. Gloves – another indispensable part of women’s wardrobe of the nineteenth century. By visually narrowing the arm, extending the fingers at the same time: very aristocratic. While umbrellas, canes and fans solved both their direct purpose and also as means for certain types of communication (the “language of the fan”).


And what about men? Judging by the paintings of the Impressionists and the fashion magazines of the time, their role was very modest and limited to to accompany ladies and their luxurious toilets. One set of clothes, usually of darker tones, could pass for a variety of cases, and should not in any way overshadow the symphony of ribbons, laces, ruffles, and plié of his companion.


Times have changed, turning someone’s past reality into exhibits, looking at which you start to desire to spend at least an hour at the times of crinolines, bustles and hats. At the times when they said: “The Parisian woman is not in fashion, she is fashion” («La femme parisienne n’est pas à la mode, elle est la mode même», Arsène Houssaye).