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I had a whirlwind trip to New York for a wedding last September which meant I had a chance to see all the cultural delights the city has to offer. I returned with a memory card full of photos and a head full of fashion stories which I would like to share with you here on Rua Ruth – starting with the amazing Fashion in Art tour I took at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s an amazing free tour you can take around the museum and a wonderful way to navigate what can be can be an overwhelming collection.

The tour takes approximately an hour and dips into fashion in art through the ages from Ancient Roman times to the 20th century. It’s a superb way to see how we have dressed through time. Fashion in art addresses and captures the same human issues across the eras from identity, status, eroticism and beauty. It also reminds us that while fashion is about these core meanings it will manifest itself differently in every age – and that’s what makes it so fascinating. So come join me and the very stylish Met guide (pictured above) to see some of the best depictions of fashion in art…

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Marble relief with dancing Maenad wearing swirling drapery. Roman, Augustan Period, 27 B.C

The tour began with Ancient Rome and a marble relief of a dancing Maenad. This wonderful piece shows the mythical creatures known as the Maeneds who were inspired by the god of wine. The figure (pictured above) is wearing an ivy wreath and carrying a fennel stalk (as you do) and showcases a beautiful form swathed in swirling drapery. You can see how the dress has been created to emphasise the beauty and flowing lines of the body, and how beautifully and meticulously the folds have been executed in stone. The dress appears purely as a foil for nudity and was done for its aesthetic affect rather than as a representation of any dressing practice from the time. Its wonder is not lost on the modern eye, art historians call this style wet-drapery and its sensual quality has influenced fashion designers of the 19th, 20th and 21st century.

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Rubens, his wife Helena Fourment (1614–1673), and their son Frans (1633–1678)

I snapped this painting of Rubens on the tour and I love how the hair of the audience blends with his colour palette and the brush strokes within the painting. This magnificent portrait shows the artist with his second wife and one of their five children strolling in a “Garden of Love.” The child wears male attire and is said to be Frans. But the painting really pays tribute to  his wife Helena, who is depicted with the innocence and serenity of a female saint. The magnificence of her costume is a sight to behold with its bright colour, dynamic surface texture, rich silks and fur. For contemporary viewers this painting would have highlighted the trends of the time from the stiff tight corseting and high necklines that would have originated in the Spanish court, which positions, quite wonderfully, the artist and his family right in heart of what was happening in European culture, politics and society.

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Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,  Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc 1823

This is a portrait of a Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc  who is resplendent in a black dress .  I love the beautiful details in this painting especially of the hands, the gold chains, the rich textiles and how they interplay between each other.  The piece de resistance is the shawl which is the stand out motif of the painting not only for its incredible execution but because of what it represented.  This fashion piece with its floral detail and its fine quality is represented in almost photographic quality. Kashmir paisley shawl’s were de rigeur in the early 19th century. Valued for their exoticism, supreme softness and beautiful detail.  The shawl is positioned front and centre in this painting making it known that the wearer is a woman of fashion and importance, and as the writer John Berger so eloquently says – you are what you have.

“Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents. What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on. Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property. As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have.” — John Berger

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Édouard Manet, Young Lady in 1866

As the 19th century continued Manet’s much forgotten muse Victorine Meurent stares out of this painting in a much more different way than Madame Jacques Louis Leblanc. Victorine had recently posed as the brazen nude in Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass or  Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe. Here, appearing relatively demure, she still flaunts an intimate silk dressing gown, a dress that was for indoor wear only. And so the artist is depicting, quite daringly, parts of a woman’s wardrobe that are usually seen my those most intimate to her.

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I would highly recommend checking out The Met museum’s tour programme if you find yourself in New York, the Fashion in Art tour runs almost daily and is given by Met experts in their field. See here for more info.

I’ll leave you with some more details from the Met collection. And I will be back with more fashion stories soon and my Lost Tour programme for the summer will go live shortly.

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All photos by Ruth Griffin on Canon EOS 600D.

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