On Fashion

© Yasumasa Morimura, 1989. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Yasumasa Morimura, “Daughters of Art History, Theater B,” 1989. The photograph by the Japanese artist is a riff on Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” Styling himself as Manet’s barmaid, Morimura is nude, with the disjoined hands from the original painting resting on the bar. Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum.


“On Fashion,” originally published in 1858 in the journal L’Artiste, and then as tiny, pink-papered pamphlet distributed to subscribers of the fashion magazine Le Journal des Dames, defends the clothing of its era — and in particular that of women — against art-world critics.

WHY IS IT, IN a civilisation in which clothing is of the utmost importance (owing to the prevailing moral ideas and the climate, the naked body is never on display) that the art of apparel is left completely to the whims of tailors and dressmakers? In the modern age, clothing has, for man, become a kind of skin from which he will not be separated on any account, and which clings to him like fur to an animal, to such an extent indeed that our actual bodily form has today sunk into oblivion. Everyone who has some connection with the world of painting, and whom chance has led to enter an artist’s studio while a model is posing, has, without paying too much attention to the feeling, experienced a certain surprise tinged with mild repugnance at the sight of the unknown beast, the male or female batrachian, posing on the table. Surely no rare species newly brought back from central Australia could be more surprising or novel from a zoological point of view, and indeed a cage ought to be reserved at the Jardin des Plantes for an individual of each gender, stripped of their artificial skin, belonging to the species homo. They would be gazed upon with as much curiosity as the giraffe, the dziggetai, the tapir, the duck-billed platypus, the gorilla or the possum.

Were it not for the admirable remnants of antique statuary, the tradition of the human form would be utterly lost. It is by consulting these marbles and bronzes, or plaster casts of them, and comparing them with the nude model, that artists succeed in painfully reconstituting the ideal being one sees in sculptures, bas-reliefs and paintings. What connection is there between these abstract figures and the clothed spectators who view them? Would one even credit them with belonging to the same race? Not remotely.

We will be eternally nostalgic for the nude, which is the very origin of art, as man cannot conceive of any form more perfect than his own, molded as it is in the image of God. The nude, which was natural in the divine climate of Greece during humanity’s youth, when poetry and the arts blossomed like the flowers of an intellectual spring, gave rise to Phidias, Lysippus, Cleomenus, Agasias, Agesander, Apelles, Zeuxis and Polygnotus, just as it would later produce Michelangelo and the marvellous artists of the Renaissance (we understand the word nude as including drapery, its inevitable complement, just as harmony is the complement of melody); but already the nude was no more than a convention; clothing was the visible form of man.

Sculptors and painters bemoan this state of affairs, which they could if not change, then certainly turn to their advantage. Modern dress prevents them, they claim, from producing masterpieces. To hear them talk, it is the fault of black clothing, of the paletot, of the crinoline that they are not Titian, Van Dyck or Velázquez. Yet these great men painted their contemporaries in costumes that revealed as little of the naked form as our own, and which, although occasionally elegant, were often ungainly or bizarre. Is our dress as ugly as it is claimed? Does it not have a certain purpose, little understood by artists, steeped as they are in ideas of the antique? With its simple styling and neutral tones, it gives plenty of emphasis to the head, the seat of intelligence, and the hands, the tools of thought or a sign of breeding; it maintains the structure of the body and indicates the sacrifices necessary to produce an effect. Imagine Rembrandt confronted with a man of today dressed in black; he would focus the light from a slightly higher source onto his brow, illuminate one cheek and bathe the other in warm shadow, pinpoint a few bristles in his moustache and beard, rub his coat with a rich, dull black, apply a generous touch of straw-tinged white to the linen, prick two or three points of light in the watch chain, and set all of this off against a murky background with a bitumen glaze. This done, you will find the Parisian’s tailcoat as handsome and as characteristic as the jerkin or doublet of a Dutch burgomaster. If you prefer line to colour, take a look at the portrait of M. Bertin by M. Ingres. Are not the folds in his great coat and trousers as firm, as noble and as pure as those in a chlamys or toga? Does not the body beneath its prosaic clothing seem to live just as much as that of a statue beneath its drapery?

Beauty and strength are no longer typical characteristics of the man of today. Antinous would be preposterous now. Alcides’ muscular labours can be performed by the most humble hydraulic jack. We should therefore refrain from adorning what is without any real significance; it is simply a question of avoiding heaviness, vulgarity, inelegance and of hiding the body inside a covering neither too large nor too tight, one which does not over-emphasise the contours, and is more or less the same for all, like the domino worn at a masked ball. No gold, no embroidery, no garish colours; nothing theatrical: it is important that a man is felt to be well dressed without those who have seen him subsequently being able to recall any detail of what he was wearing. The fineness of the woolen cloth, the perfection of the cut, the quality of the tailoring and most importantly how well all of this is worn add up to distinction. These nuances are lost on artists, at least the vast majority of them, who are infatuated with bright colours, abundant folds, draperies with shimmering creases, torsos with well-defined pectoral muscles, arms with raised biceps. They rue the fact that some young fop lacks the dash of a plumed toque and a scarlet mantle; and they are astonished by the persistence of society people in wearing such drab, lacklustre, monotonous clothing. It is as if someone were to ask why all the gondolas in Venice are black.

In reality, of course, despite their apparent uniformity, nothing could be easier than to distinguish the gondola of the patrician from the gondola of the bourgeois.

However, if artists are justified in crying out against men’s clothes, whose design their wearers leave to the tailors instead of taking care of it themselves, they have no plausible objection to raise against women’s costume. If they went into society more, and were willing to cast off their studio prejudices for an evening, they would see that ball wear has what it takes to overcome the most stubborn preconceptions, and that a painter who depicted this clothing in the historical manner, applying his own individual style but without ceasing to be exact, would achieve astonishing effects of beauty, elegance and colour. Not to be struck by the charming scene presented by a crowd leaving the Opéra or a group of women seated in a salon or chatting on their feet by a console table or fireplace requires the full force of a bogus classical education.

Never, perhaps, have women been better coiffed: hair is waved, frizzed, braided, raised up into wings, brushed back, and twisted into ropes … all with truly astounding art. The Parisian comb is the equal of the Greek chisel, and hair submits with greater docility than the marble of Paros or Mount Pentelikon. Look at these beautiful swept-back strands, describing pure lines of black on a pale brow and pressed by a diadem-like coil of hair that issues from the chignon and attaches back into it; see this blond crown in which a sensuous breeze seems to palpitate, forming a kind of golden halo around a pink and white head! See how exquisitely these knots, these curls, these plaits, coiled like ammonites or the volutes of an Ionic capital, cluster on the nape! Would an Athenian sculptor or a Renaissance painter be able to arrange the hair with more grace, ingenuity or style? We think not.

Up to now we have only spoken of the arrangement of the hair itself; what if we were to describe the hair’s adornments? We defy art to invent anything better. There are flowers in which tremble drops of dew, opening their petals among glaucous leaves of russet or green; there are supple twigs that drop casually to the shoulders; there are sequins, webs of pearls, diamond stars, pins terminating in filigree knobs or spangled with turquoise, strips of gold interwoven with the hair, wispy feathers resembling coloured vapour or rainbows, bows of ribbon, crumpled and leafy like rose hearts, lattices of velvet, gold and silver lamé gauzes whose every crease flickers in the light, skeins of pink coral, bunches of amethyst, ruby redcurrants, butterflies of precious stones, bubbles of glass glinting metallically, Buprestidae wing-cases, the freshest, prettiest, most brilliant things that can be dreamed up by the imagination, and all without overloading, without excess, without any grotesque piling up, without ludicrous extravagance, all in perfect harmony with the look of the face and the proportions of the head; the Venus de Milo, were she to rediscover her arms and find a willing society lady to lend her a bodice, could attend a party coiffed exactly as she is. What an accolade for the fashion of our time!

But the crinoline, you are going to say; hooped skirts, sprung dresses that have to be mended when they malfunction like watches by the watchmaker, is not all this hideous, savage, abominable, against the spirit of art? We are not of this view: the women who retain the crinoline despite all the jokes, caricatures, vaudeville turns and humiliations of all kinds are right to do so.

They are justified in preferring these ample, substantial, sturdy skirts, which are generously laid out before the eye, to the narrow sheaths in which their mothers and grandmothers encased themselves. From this abundance of folds, which flare out like the fustanella of a whirling dervish, the waist emerges elegant and slender; the upper body is shown off to advantage, and the entire person assumes a graceful pyramidal shape. This mass of sumptuous fabric forms a kind of pedestal for the bust and head, the only important parts of the body now that nudity is no longer allowed. If we may be permitted to draw a mythological parallel on so modern an issue, we would say that a lady in ball dress conforms to the ancient Olympian etiquette. The senior gods were depicted with naked torsos; from the hips to the feet, meanwhile, they were covered by draperies with numerous folds. It is for this reason that when dressing, one should leave the chest, the shoulders and the arms bare. The same fashion can be found in Java, where those presenting themselves at court must be naked down to the belt.

Erudition and joking apart, a young woman with a low neckline and bare arms, her hair done as we have described, wearing double skirts or a skirt with multiple flounces, and trailing behind her cascades of moire antique, satin or taffeta, seems to us as beautifully and well dressed as it is possible to be, and we fail to understand what art has to reproach her with. Sadly, there are no contemporary painters; those who seem to live in the present belong to bygone eras. Their misconceived notion of antiquity prevents them from having any feel for the present. They have a preconceived idea of what is beautiful and the modern ideal is a closed book to them.

A more serious objection would be the incompatibility of the crinoline with modern architecture and furnishings. In the days when women wore panniers, the salons were vast, doors had two wide leaves, the armrests of armchairs opened out, carriages could easily accommodate skirts of this width, and boxes at the theatre did not resemble the drawers of a commode. Well what of it! Salons will have to be enlarged, the shape of furniture and coaches altered, the theatres demolished! For women will no more give up the crinoline than face powder—another object of banal ranting by artists one and all.

With that special sense of harmony characteristic of them, women have grasped that there exists a kind of mismatch between fine clothes and the face in its natural state. Just as skilled painters establish a correspondence between flesh tones and draperies through the use of light glazes, women whiten their skin, which would otherwise appear unbleached alongside moires, laces and satins, thereby endowing it with a unity of tone preferable to the patchworks of white, yellow and pink presented by even the purest of complexions. With this fine dust they cause their skin to take on the mica finish of marble, thereby eliminating that look of ruddy health that is considered vulgar in our civilisation because it suggests the predominance of physical appetites over intellectual instincts. Perhaps it is even a vague ripple of modesty that leads women to cover their neck, shoulders, bosom and arms with a veil of white dust that tones down their nakedness by removing from it the warm and provocative colours of life. Their appearance thus resembles that of a statue; it is spiritualised and purified. Let us now turn to the practice of darkening the eyes, which also comes in for its share of criticism: the emphatic lines elongate the eyelids, describe the arc of the eyebrows, give the eyes an extra sparkle, and can be compared to the finishing touches applied by the masters to their masterpieces. Fashion is right on all of these points.

Were a great painter like Veronese to paint the staircase of the Opéra or the lobby of the Théâtre Italien as the duchesses both mondaine and demi-mondaine await their carriages, draped variously in white burnouses, striped cabaans, ermine capelets, sorties de bal padded and trimmed with swan down, swathed in marvellous fabrics from every country under the sun; their heads spangled with flowers and diamonds, their gloved fingertips resting on the sleeve of their companion, in all the insolence of beauty, youth and luxury, you would see for yourself whether, in front of the finished painting, there would be talk of the poverty of today’s fashions.

Théophile Gautier was a nineteeth-century French poet, novelist and critic. 

Yasumasa Morimura is a Japanese artist and photographer.