Sargent and Fashion: the American painter brings silks and satins into the limelight

Another exhibition celebrating male artistic genius through depictions of elite women may sound rather dull, but the Tate Britain’s new exhibition on John Singer Sargent is a refreshing look at this master’s skill of painting fashion.

As a fashion historian, whenever I visit an art exhibition, I tend to leave with a camera full of photos of the sitters’ clothes, rather than their faces, anyway. I am often in awe at how masterfully the rich tones in swishing silks and the twinkling light in bejewelled details can be captured.

Among art critics, fashion in portraiture often receives prejudiced derision. Already, Sargent and Fashion has been described as “canvases … crowded by old clothes” and a “surfeit of sweetness”. Misguided and outdated notions that clothing is frivolous and unimportant are, unfortunately, still prevalent among art critics.

Yet this exhibition, collaboratively curated by the Tate and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, attempts to redress this antiquated and blinkered attitude. Sargent would not be Sargent if it was not for the way he handled fashion. This exhibition compels the visitor to consider that skill with a paintbrush also required skill with fabrics, needles and pins.

The importance of fashion was well established with the Victorian fashionistas that Sargent painted. They understood the intense image-making power that their clothing choices had.

Margaret Oliphant noted in 1878: “There is now a class who dress after pictures, and when they buy a gown ask, ‘Will it paint?’” Fashion and art were innately intertwined and fashion’s modernity, dynamism and cultural relevance is present in every brush stroke.

Sargent the fashion stylist

Stepping into the first room of the exhibition feels much like being welcomed into a salon by its hostess. A 1907 portrait of Aline de Rothschild, Lady Sassoon, greets visitors as they enter. Draped in a dramatic fantasy of crisp black taffeta, the sitter’s face glows out from the swirling darkness of her opera cloak. Even in my carefully chosen fashion historian chic, it managed to make me feel remarkably under dressed.

Lady Sassoon’s black cape was pinned by Sargent in dramatic fashion to make a dated garment seem more interesting.
Private Collection Houghton Hall

But perhaps my sense of personal sartorial drabness is because I need Sargent’s transformative skill as an artistic director to elevate my look. This exhibition frames Sargent not just as a painter, but as a stylist.

He wielded not only paintbrushes, but pins, to manipulate and engineer fabric into dizzying shapes around his subjects. The curators compare Sargent to an art director at a fashion shoot. His paintings do not meticulously record the fashions of the day, instead they are carefully constructed visions of his own aesthetic agenda.

The cloak Rothschild wears in her portrait is displayed close by. The cloak dates to 1895 and predates the portrait by a decade. It serves as another reminder that fashion in this context is not about constantly evolving trends. Even a ten-year-old cloak could by styled into a vibrant moment of modernity through Sargent’s pinning and draping.

Throughout the exhibition, the paintings are slotted back into the broader cultural landscape of the turn of the 20th century. Satirical drawings which lambasted the fashions, photographs of the sitters at work and play, and the garments and accessories Sargent depicted are peppered through the exhibition.

The women we don’t see

While Sargent’s work as an artist and stylist is present everywhere, the makers of the fashion items themselves (usually poorer women) remain relatively obscure.

Aside from a short panel on Charles Frederick Worth, whose importance within 19th-century fashion is often overemphasised, there is minimal acknowledgement of the hands which cut, pinned and stitched the glorious concoctions. The garments and accessories on show throughout the exhibition are often accompanied by the tag “maker unknown”.

Adele Meyer and her children.

The exception to this is the curators’ inclusion of Adele Meyer. Painted by Sargent in 1896, Meyer was both a stylish woman of fashion and a pioneer of garment workers’ rights.

Along with Clementina Black, Meyer authored Makers of our Clothes: A Case for Trade Boards, which was published in 1909. This volume was an investigation into working conditions in the dressmaking and tailoring trades.

The book is displayed next to the painting, but very much cast into the shadows when next to the glittering brilliance of the painting. Together, this display serves as a reminder of, rather than a resistance to, the ways in which garment makers’ labour is overshadowed by the beauty of fashion.

A gently feminist exhibition

The exhibition does gently push back against power structures in other areas.
Traditionally, these paintings are known in art historical circles by their sitters’ married names.

Lady Helen Duncombe (married name Vincent), Viscountess d’Abernon.
Birmingham Museum of Art

Mary Louisa Cushing is known only as Mrs Edward Darley Boit and Mathilde Seligman as Mrs Leopold Hirsch. Following Victorian etiquette and sensibilities, these women lost their own names and were swallowed up into their husband’s identities.

Radically (although it shouldn’t be radical at all) the curators have twinned these official titles of the paintings with the sitter’s own maiden names. This is a subtle switch, which will go unnoticed by exhibition-goers unfamiliar with this convention. Yet it is an important normalisation of these women as individuals and not the property of their husbands.

Ultimately, this is an exhibition which subtly moves in the right direction. The opportunity to see the infamous Madam X, the socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, in her iconic and sexy black gown will no doubt be a major draw for visitors. Yet the exhibition does not say much new about fashion history. Instead, it is a gentle realisation that Sargent’s skill with fashion was fundamental to his success as an artist.

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Five fun fashion Valentine’s gifts from history – from eye rings to hair jewellery

Poets, philosophers and scientists have all struggled to define love. But when words fail to express our feelings, lovers throughout history have turned to gifts. Whether given as part of a public romantic gesture, or in the quiet intimacy of a private moment, romantic gifts are a longstanding staple of romantic expression.

In 2024, Valentine’s gift-giving is a commercial goldmine for retailers. Popular choices for a romantic gift might include an evening out, a heart-shaped box of chocolates or a classic bunch of red roses. But research shows that, if you really want to impress your sweetheart, jewellery and fashion accessories are the best options.

It is estimated that USD$6.5 billion (£5bn) will be spent on Valentine’s Day bling in the US alone in 2024, while a further $3bn will be splashed out on clothing, such as lingerie.

This commercialisation of love may seem like a very modern phenomenon of our capitalist age, but jewellery and fashion accessories have been popular tokens of love for centuries.

I’m a fashion historian. Here are five historical ways you could show that yours is a love for the ages with a gift of jewellery or fashion this Valentine’s Day.

1. Sexy underwear, the Georgian way

Today, corsets are associated with titillating lingerie. The corset’s predecessor, stays (fully boned laces bodices), were just a functional part of everyday dress for the Stuarts and Georgians, but they could still have romantic features.

The busk was a long piece of wood, which slipped inside a channel at the front of the stays. It’s practical purpose was the keep the front of the garment straight, but people also found more intimate and romantic uses for them.

A 17th century French busk with the inscription: ‘until I see you again … my love is pure’.
Met Museum

Engraved with love poems, depictions of hearts, and sometimes even verses euphemistically referring to orgasms, these busks were often given as romantic gifts. Positioned between the breasts, the engraved rhymes often expressed jealousy for the busk, which got to intimately rest in the recipient’s cleavage.

One busk from 17th-century France was engraved: “He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover / Who would very much like to take my place.”

Read more:
’I die where I cling’: garters and ’busks’ inscribed with love notes were the sexy lingerie of the past

2. Lovers’ eyes

Georgian lovers did not always conceal their love tokens in their underwear. Eye miniatures, also known as lovers’ eyes, were rings, brooches or pendants decorated with miniature paintings of a romantic partner’s eye. These were gifted between lovers as a wearable symbol of their love.

An eye miniature from the early 19th century.
Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY-NC

The Bible says that the eyes are the window to the soul, and the lover’s eye was considered an incredibly intimate form of portrait. Yet it was also very secretive and caused tantalising gossip. Much speculation ensued about who was wearing whose eye.

3. Lockets

Elizabeth I’s locket ring, known as the Chequers Ring.
Ann Longmore-Etheridge/flickr

Another popular way of keeping a secret lover close to the heart was the locket.

Early lockets often expressed religious devotion and familial connection, rather than romantic love. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, wore a locket ring containing portraits of herself and her mother, Ann Boleyn (although some historians argue it could be her stepmother, Catherine Parr).

With the rise of mass manufacture in the 19th century, lockets became a cheaply available and widespread love token for the masses.

The new technology of photography also meant that placing a picture of your loved one inside the locket did not require the expensive commissioning of a portrait painter.

4. Hair jewellery

The practice of cutting a lock of your lover’s hair and wearing it in a locket close to your heart was historically widespread, but the Victorians took this trend even further.

Hair locket from 1795.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC BY-SA

Hair jewellery – ornaments made from strands of human hair – was incredibly popular in 19th century Britain.

While there were also commercial hair jewellery makers, some women crafted rings, bracelets and watch chains out of their lover’s hair at home. Elegant Arts for Ladies, a book containing instructions for crafts that women might try at home, was published in 1856 and even contains instructions for making earrings out of your lover’s hair.

Professional hair-work services came under increasing suspicion in the 19th century. Customers sent in the hair of their lover or family member expecting it to be crafted into a beautiful keepsake. Yet with increasing commercial demands, some manufacturers turned to mass production, and the item returned was sometimes fraudulently made from a stranger’s hair.

5. Posey rings

Perhaps the most timeless of all wearable tokens of love is the posey ring. These simple gold bands, engraved with a romantic inscription, were consistently popular from the Medieval period. Their name comes from the French, poésy (poetry), referring to the words engraved inside.

A 16th century gold posy ring found in Yorkshire.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme, CC BY-SA

The inscriptions in these rings were often taken from published compendiums of sayings, such as The Mysteries of Love or the Arts of Wooing, published in 1658. Sometimes, these inscriptions were touching and romantic, but often they had religious overtones, such as a 17th century example engraved with: “Fear God and love me.”

Romantic bling remains a timeless choice of Valentine’s gift, and the posey ring is still alive and well in the modern wedding band. Although it is doubtful that the wooden busk and hair-work jewellery will come back in fashion any time soon.

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