On Wednesday, February 21, the Art Center hosted a talk by Susan Hiner of the French and Francophone Studies department at Vassar about the Focus Gallery exhibition Accessorizing Paris: Fashion and Art in the Nineteenth Century. The exhibition, co-curated by Hiner and Emily Chancey ’18, combined objects from the Loeb’s collection with objects from Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections as well as from the Drama department’s costume shop and historic costume collection. An introductory text panel explained that “while fashion is never without its detractors, it emerged in France in the nineteenth century as a dynamic industry. It offered a legitimate career path to working class women and over time became a powerful economic force, giving rise to the modern bourgeois shopper.”
Hiner’s discussion followed the thematic divisions of the exhibition itself. One theme was the figure of the clothing maker. This section featured Jean-François Millet’s Woman Mending from the Loeb’s permanent collection. The image conveys the silent labor of many women working at home in the mid-1800s, contrasted in the exhibition with the work next to it by Edouard Vuillard which showcases a seamstress at work in a more public shop space. This juxtaposition suggests both the range of work settings and, perhaps, the range of social status among those involved in the clothing trades.
Hiner also discussed depictions of respectable women in both public and private spaces, taking note of the works by Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas in the exhibition. The print by Degas, Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery, features Cassatt as the specific subject of the work and as a more generalized woman in the time portrayed. In contrast, the work by Cassatt herself, an aquatint called Afternoon Tea Party, features a look inside the private life of an upper-class French woman. It shows many social customs confirmed via etiquette books of the time, such as a hat or black veil that should be turned up when indoors and worn down outdoors so men could not look the wearer directly in the eye.
The next topic, highlighting courtesan’s fashions, served as a counterpoint to the portrayals of respectable women. Two notable objects in this section were a print by Honoré Daumier of a rather voluptuous woman wearing a muff, alongside an actual period muff from the historic costume collection. The three-dimensional muff has a sleek outer covering of feathers and an inner lining of fox fur, once worn to keep the wearer’s hands away from the cold. Daumier’s print showcases a different side of this common accessory, playing on the muff as a sexual symbol in mid nineteenth-century France. Hiner explained that the woman in Daumier’s print is depicted as an object for male consumption because she holds a muff and stands at a bar.
The last section of the exhibition featured several images of peasant women. Hiner noted that fashions would not only trickle downwards but upwards as well. One drawing from 1826 depicted a peasant woman wearing a straw hat, an item of dress that became popular in France after Marie Antoinette and her friends adopted it for wear at the Hameau de la Reine, her pretend rustic village at Versailles where the aristocracy could play at peasant life. After the hat’s popularity had risen, it was said that all women should own at least two hats: one fancy hat and one that was made of straw to protect the wearer from the elements.
Hiner stated, “fashion and art enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in 19th century France.” This was evidenced directly in this exhibition through the seamless blending of three of Vassar’s collections and the inclusion of three-dimensional pieces of clothing featured in two-dimensional works throughout the show. The exhibition was on view January 16 through April 8 and was coordinated by Elizabeth Nogrady, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs.