The Clothes Make the _Wo_Man - DOC

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					                           The Clothes Make the (Wo)Man:
                   Dress and Gender in Rococo and Neo Classical Art

                                  Lauren Michaud
IDS 2400: Art and Revolution: Visual Propaganda during the French Age of Revolutions
                              December 5, 2002
                   2002 Co-Winner of the Art History Paper Award

         During the Rococo period, the female gender was elevated to the fore-front of the
artistic realm. This elevation also brought with it a focus on extremely feminine styles, as
well as subjects. In response to this, during the Neo Classical period that followed,
women were once again relinquished to the background in art, in an attempt to re-
masculinize French culture. Common dress, among nobles and peasants alike, was
simplified to embody and represent the equality suggested through the revolution. The
artistic portrayal of dress during these periods in France supports these shifting opinions
of the feminine and reflects the shift in political and social opinion.
         As the author of Fashioning the Bourgeoisie has argued, prior to the French
Revolution one of clothing's main functions was to differentiate between the social
classes (Perrot 15). Aristocrats were able to afford more expensive materials, colors, and
designs. However, when the economy began to crumble, so did the prestige of the solely-
aristocratic modes of dress. The rising bourgeois class began to dress in ways similar to
the nobles, and the new burst of commerce abolished the semi-feudal lifestyle. This fact
angered many aristocrats, who found it difficult to compete financially with some of the
wealthy bourgeoisie, and some even feared public humiliation and bankruptcy, in
attempts to remain a la mode. In fact, fashion became such an obsession that one visitor
to Paris in the mid-eighteenth century likened it to a fashion show, claiming that "a
fifteen day old outfit is already very out of date" (Perrot 15-18). Schama points out that
even variances in hairstyles reflected the move away from the extravagance of the
Rococo to the simpler, more equalizing tendencies of the Revolutionary ideals. Long,
curling, powdered wigs were replaced with short, natural, untamed tresses, which "[fell]
in natural, loose curls" (217). Phrygian caps were donned rather than ornamental bonnets
to mark the change from frivolity to equality in social and political values (525, 603).
         The Rococo period, marked by the conception of the Enlightenment, shifted
French cultural authority away from the "might makes right" style and gave emphasis to a
more logical, reason-based way of thinking (Magainnis, "18th Century" 2). With this
shift, the fear of portraying women in art lessened temporarily. Rococo art's "prime object
was to delight the eye" (Ribeiro 53). This aesthetically pleasing nature brought to the
surface an abundance of feminine, beautiful subjects and styles. According to the
costume historian Tara Magainnis, "the 18th century woman was the most free and well
respected member of her sex" in history up to that point ("18th Century" 2). Femininity
was idealized and glorified during this period, and women's dress reflected this improved
social standing (Magainnis, "18th Century" 2). This effect was achieved by accenting
strictly feminine physical characteristics, such as voluptuous bosoms and tapered,
feminine legs, with low-cut, revealing necklines and "empire" waists, in which material
"gathered below the breast. . . [exposing] the natural line of the body" (Schama 217).
Portraitists such as Elisabeth Vigee- LeBrun were praised for the "bold and expressive
manner" in which "the brilliance of her color matched the flamboyance and composition"
(Schama 217). A new emphasis was even placed on women's shoes as a symbol of
feminine sophistication, apparent in the erotic Rococo fascination with feet (Hollander
220-222). Even women's hairstyles were emulated at the time, as their lofty, elevated
nature was the perfect venue for employing the curvilinear, ascending Rococo brushwork
(Maiginnis, "18th Century" 1).
         Another notable trend of women's fashion during the Rococo period was the
puffy, decorative style in dress. This trend parallels the popular artistic styles and settings
of the time, which included painterly representation of clouds, flowers, and water
(Hollander 60). This trend of exposing dress lent itself to playfully erotic works of art. As
Perrot explains, these erotic settings, similar to realistic boudoirs, provided an effective
escape for aristocrats from a reality in which their power and authority were fading (16).
         One can see these fashion trends exemplified in Boucher's Madame de
Pompadour (Fig. 1 ), circa I 756. Mme. de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress, is depicted
in a green silk taffeta dress, adorned with lace and pink rose garlands (Ribeiro 53). True
to the aesthetic nature of Rococo works, the roses on her dress, the bed, in her hair, and
on the table unite with the revealing, lavishly adorned dress and room to give the piece a
beautiful, carefree, and thus markedly Rococo tone. Also, the curvilinear style and light-
hearted nature of this work add to its defining Rococo characteristics. In addition to the
feminine style and setting of this piece, there are numerous small details that create
underlying sexual overtones which render this piece markedly Rococo. A dog is present,
representative of animalistic sexual playfulness. Mme. de Pompadour is positioned on a
bed, and there is a phallic representation of a pen upright in an ink well. Also visible are
her feet, which were erotically symbolic at the time (54). In addition, Madame de
Pompadour was even quoted as saying that Boucher "was not especially good at
likenesses, but this mattered less than the representation of a somewhat idealized face"
(Ribeiro 52).
         Much of the same imagery is present in Fragonard's The Swing (see Fig. 2). this
overtly sexual piece portrays a woman gaily swinging, while a man beneath her gazes
adoring up her skirt. Her shoe is kicked off to reveal her bare foot, and the setting is
(while decorative) somewhat secluded, so that their actions will not be disturbed or
observed. She wears a large-brimmed bonnet, an aristocratic favorite, adorned with
ribbons and a feather. Such works, devoid of profound motives, were common during
the Rococo period (Ribeiro 72).
         However, the feminine focus of the Rococo coupled with the public contempt for
women meddling in politics, spurred by female revolutionary groups and a general
distaste for Marie Antoinette, soon produced a counter-active re-masculinization of
French thought, culture, and consequently, art.
         A prime example of this contempt may be found in Memoirs by Vigee-LeBrun,
written in 1869. She recounts her experiences in portraying the Queen, which she did on
numerous occasions. In earlier works, Vigee-LeBrun painted her "holding a large basket,
dressed in a gown of satin with a rose in one hand" (32). These works are expressly
feminine, as the large satin gown, rose, and basket convey obviously feminine ideals of
domesticity and beauty.
        However, in Marie-Antoinette en gaulle, circa 1783 , the Queen is presented at
ease, with roses in hand, carefree (see Fig. 8). Her gown was, as the artist states in her
memoirs, the topic of much controversy, as some critics claimed she had pictured her in
her undergarments (33). However, the puffy, flowing nature of this dress, along with the
grandeur of her hat and the mere presence of flowers all categorize this work as Rococo.
The lowered neckline, elevated waist, and billowed sleeves also emphasize the feminine
aspects of her body, which is characteristically Rococo.
        As time passed, Vigee-Lebrun captured Marie Antoinette "only to the knee . . . I
preferred to paint her without any ostentatious dress and especially without the
'obligatory' straw basket" (32). This passage illustrates the evolving mindset in Vigee-
LeBrun herself from a more formal, idealized method of portrayal to a more personal
representation of the royalty. It also demonstrates Vigee-LeBrun's attempt to respond to
the public dislike for the Queen, by showing her, not in a courtly elevated manner, but on
the same level with the citizens of France. As Schama states, "Rose Bertin, the Queen's
dressmaker, . . . encouraged Marie-Antoinette to abandon the stiffness . . . of formal court
dress for the loose, simple gowns of white lawn, cotton, and muslin" (216). These
conflicting influences are also visible in Marie-Antoinette en gaulle. While the Queen's
dress, hat, posture, and setting are decidedly Rococo, one can see in this work that Vigee-
LeBrun is moving into the Neo Classical mindset. She portrays Marie Antoinette with
unpowdered, natural hair, and she gazes directly at the viewer, unlike the impersonal,
idealized subjects of most Rococo works. The same is true of the artist's Self Portrait,
circa 1782 (see Fig. 7). She still wears a feathered hat, a symbol of the upper classes.
However, she too regards the viewer with confidence. Her hair is down and untamed,
and her dress, with its conservative neckline and simple design, are both representative of
revolutionary styles (Schama 216-220, 525).
        The Neo Classical period was brought about by a surge in curiosity about the
ancient Greco-Roman past. During this period, excavations of ancient cities produced
artifacts and clues about classical lifestyles. Finally, Europe exploded into a frenzy of
restoring, copying, and collecting replicas of classical artwork and relics. Also, mass
publication of illustrated books led to heightened knowledge of all classes of people
(Hawley 9).
        With the start of the Revolution, the restrictive categories of clothing were
disintegrated, and a new "freedom of dress" became apparent, despite the fact that men's
clothing styles changed more dramatically than women's (Perrot 20-3). As described by
Perrot, one historian developed a theory that women's fashion (until the mid-twentieth
century) evolved in a cyclical manner, shifting from the bustled, to the tubular, to the
bell-shaped (Perrot 23). In keeping with this pattern, during the late 1700s women's dress
diminished in size from the larger, bustled style, to the slender, tubular fashion
(Magainnis, "French Revolution" 1).
        Styles also tended to embody the political agendas popular at the time, as
Magainnis has shown ("French Revolution" 2). For example, the "English" cut, showing
the tendency towards Constitutional Monarchy, came into style for a period. The true
Classical styles of dress did not emerge until the time of the Directory. It was at this time
that the bonnet appeared, in emulation of the ancient Greek helmet. It was also during
this period that "Rousseau-esque" fashion surfaced. This term refers to the use of
practical, realistic clothing by men, and ornate, decorative Classical garb for women.
(Magainnis. "French Revolution" 16).
         Much of these shifts were brought about by the efforts of David. Brookner
describes his work as "an instrument to galvanize public virtues and dissolve the barriers
separating the leaders from the led" (497). His female subjects are "charmless women and
no attempt is made to rearrange them," and in one work, "no attempt is made to sweep
her shawl into a noble fold or to iron out the irregularities of her homely face" (170).
         However, as Brookner points out, David was not unaffected by the Rococo style
early in his career. In his portrait of the Marquise de Pastoret, circa 1792, he employs the
painterly brushstrokes popular in Rococo art to the background (see Fig. 3). His subject,
though noble, wears a simply draped, plain white gown with her hair down, and performs
domestic tasks and rocks her baby in a simple wooden crib. His Mme. Seriziat, circa
1795, wears a feathered bonnet, but beneath it, her hair is down, and a high waisted dress,
but with no decoration and a conservative neckline (see Fig. 5). She holds flowers and
cares for her child, which imply Rococo influence, but she looks back at the viewer,
atypical of Rococo works. By the time David portrayed Mme. de Verninac in 1799, he
had abandoned all Rococo decoration, and pictures his subject in a dress that strongly
resembles a toga, with hair down and a contemplative expression on a face that parallels
that of the viewer (see Fig. 6). Also, the background is plain, representing Neo Classical
simplicity (105, 128, 132, 144-45).
         As shown in David's Mme. Recamier, circa 1800, Neo Classicists focused more
on the internal, personal aspects of their sitters and subjects. In contrast to the sexualized
Rococo works, Mme. Recamier's virginity is celebrated in this work. Numerous men
attempted to court her, but, as is represented by her turned posture, she rejected each of
them and preserved her virginity into middle age. David emphasizes this characteristic by
portraying her in a simple white gown, evident of the Neo Classical simplicity and its
move away from the feminine (Brookner 144). The bare (though uncompleted)
background and setting in Mme. Recamier show the Neo-Classical rejection of Rococo
"feminine effluvia," and shift the viewer's focus to contemplate Mme. Recamier's
thoughts, rather than her surroundings or attire (Magainnis, "French Revolution" 2). Also,
David's invisible brushwork moves the focus of the painting to the subject and the
message, rather than the work itself. All of these aspects combine to embody the more
individualized, intellectual focus of Neo Classicism.
         The Rococo and Neo Classical genres occurred consecutively, with many
chronological overlaps between artists. However, their subjects and styles capture and
represent the popular opinions of women, as well as the shifts from a divided social
hierarchy to a democratic order of "fraternal" citizens. These differences and opinions are
notable upon examination of the styles of dress and use of fashion in Rococo and Neo
Classical art.

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Hawley, Henry. Neo-Classicism: Style and Motif. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum
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Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking, 1978.

Magainnis, Tara. "The History of Fashion and Dress: 18th Century Europe till the French
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       London: Yale University, 1995.

Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art. Princeton:
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