Have you ever gotten a nostalgic knot in your throat when looking at beautiful gowns of the late 19th century and wondered what it would have been like to live in that era? Those gowns seemed so elegant, every lady was beautiful. Who would not want to look like one of the lovely ladies from a Monet, Renoir or Manet painting? Maybe it’s because the impressionist era is my favorite, but I get a little misty when I look at that romantic era.
Okay, it’s time for a reality check. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is just coming to the close of their exhibit of impressionistic paintings featuring clothes from the 1860’s to the 1880’s. With this exhibit came some revelations of what it really was like in that era.
Black became a fashion color, not just reserved for mourning. Since black is the most complex color, the dying process is more difficult. Thus it was considered a luxury because of the additional expense. Women, however, decided black was universally flattering so it became popular with the masses.
New textile production technology made detailed garments and accessories affordable making many previously unaffordable pieces available to the lower class. Upper class ladies with private tailors were no longer the only ones able to afford luxury fashion items. As you can imagine, the upper class began clamoring for unusual details to distinguish them from the masses.
This opened the door for luxury label designer clothing. Charles Frederick Worth from England brought in the Designer’s signature style – styles that were distinctive and recognizable by other fashionistas. He even added his own designer label inside each garment.
Wearing voluminous trailing skirts was often more than a little cumbersome so some creative genius tricked them out with long ribbons called tirettes, within the skirt. These could be pulled up to shorten the skirt as desired. This was no doubt appreciated on a picnic!
Despite the modesty of these styles, fashion police didn’t hesitate to weigh in on what they considered unseemly. In one painting by Thore, the model was criticized for wearing “bluestockings” (unseen under her gown) because they were “comfortable”. Oh, where have I heard that before? Manet’s painting of a young lady with two buttons unbuttoned at the neck, met with cries of horror. So unfeminine!
Okay, nostalgia gone! I will remain content to admire these fabulous paintings featuring beautiful ladies magnificently attired but I am grateful that we can wear capris to picnics, suits to the office and fun dresses without hose to a party.