Paris’ Fashion Aristocracy Mourns the Kennedys

What would you wear if you were having your portrait painted? It’s your eternal document; would you look for something extraordinary from the Paris couture shows, a week’s worth of presentations that wraps in the fashion capital on July 21? Or would you chose something anti-fashion? The seriously serious you.

Maybe you had better read Ingres in Fashion: Representations of Dress and Appearance in Ingres’s Images of Women (Yale University Press), one of the best fashion books so far this year, which concerns itself with the importance of clothing in portraits, namely the exquisite portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The 259-page book is the result of some 15 years of study by Aileen Ribeiro, the noted British fashion historian who heads the History of Dress section at the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London.

The book’s publication coincides with a traveling exhibition of Ingres’ paintings. When the show was at London’s National Gallery (it closed at the end of April), the plastic bag from the gallery’s gift shop–featuring a detail from Ingres’ 1856 painting Madame Moitessier –became a status item for that city’s fashion set, including Isabella Blow, a contributor to The Sunday Times Magazine , who carried her Ingres shopping bag around town during fashion week there this winter. The Ingres exhibition has moved to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where, it is on view until Aug. 22. Then it comes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Oct. 5 to Jan. 2.

Ms. Ribeiro’s book asks the question: Where does an artist place fashion in the context of his work? “What does Ingres see in dress?” she asks. “What do we see in the dress that Ingres depicts?”

For Ingres, clothing was magic. Sometimes we remember his fabrics, shawls and furs more readily than we recall the identities of his subjects. “Ingres’ heightened depiction of the visible and the tactile becomes our experience, too,” writes Ms. Ribeiro. “When one looks in detail at the surviving costume of the period, it is astonishing to see not just how accurate Ingres is in terms of cut and construction of garments and depiction of fabrics and accessories in his work, but also how alive he is to the nuances and the sense of clothing.”

Lavishly illustrated, Ingres in Fashion is highly accomplished. It tells the story of Ingres’ interest in clothing and the postures that costume dictates, “both signifiers of status and social display,” the author observes. Ms. Ribeiro also tells the story of 19th-century fashion, with added context through the ample observations provided by Ingres’ literary peers, including Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac. The 19th century, particularly in Paris, saw men’s clothing go from dandy to dour while women’s fashion went full speed ahead–styles changing so often that portraitists struggled to find novel ways of painting women as more than mere fashion plates. “How was the artist to depict what one critic in 1846 called the dessous rather than the dessus –the substance rather than just the surface of the sitter …?” writes Ms. Ribeiro.

One way, of course, was painting the lady as a sort of glamorized, reincarnated classical deity. But contemporary dress became especially popular in portraiture when Baudelaire and Gautier, among other writers, celebrated the secular fashions of the day. A woman and her dress, Baudelaire said, is “an indivisible unity.”

Face powder and haute couture made their debut in the 19th century. The latter attributed to Charles Frederick Worth, a British man who got his start working in the drapery department of a London shop. He came to Paris and ended up dictating to society women what they should wear. Until Worth, a dress was of secondary interest to the accessories a woman wore. Worth conceived entire collections and showed them to his customers as ensembles before they placed their orders.

“I dethrone the crinoline,” he reportedly exclaimed. “A dress is equal to a painting,” Worth also is meant to have opined, “I have the color sense of Delacroix and I create.”

With the popularization and increased availability of fashion, department stores succeeded in Paris. They became socially acceptable meeting places for women who, prior to this 19th-century fashion awakening, sent their maids to do the shopping. The word “chic” came into the French language in the mid-19th century and was originally a synonym of “decent.” The concept of “chic,” urbanity and elegance, was democratically applied to any French woman with flair. The aristocratic ladies one might see at court or Paris salons no longer held the monopoly on style. Fashion promised women new horizons; fashion magazines became popular.

“The way that women marked out their lives by dress … is also remarked on by the writer Alphonse Karr,” notes Ms. Ribeiro. “His not unsympathetic study, Les Femmes (1853), notes how fashion was one of the few things apart from home and family, that society allowed to women; it was their direct link with a world outside immediate domestic concerns. Thus, he claims, a woman will mark the rites of passage in her life through dress; for example, she will note what she wore when meeting her future husband for the first time, what she wore for her marriage and what her trousseau contained, and so on.” Factor in France’s pride in its long history of making luxury products and you see how fashion, which the French believe they invented, perfectly suited the national spirit.

Nonetheless, art critics accused Ingres of being what one might call in contemporary terms, and not sympathetically, a fashionista. Writes Ms. Ribeiro, “… the love of display and ornament so integral to fashion clashed with the pursuit of ‘high art,’ and–in Ingres’ case, with the purity and austerity of draughtsmanship and a love of academic history painting.”

Ingres was very deliberate in choosing what his subjects wore. The conjunction between the dress and the sitter in front of him “created the portrait,” writes Ms. Ribiero. Then came the selection and placement of the accessories, the shawls and other ornaments Ingres included. The accessories in Ingres’ paintings played “the same role as the confidants in tragedies,” it was said in an 1870 biography of the artist.

For years, one of the most popular items in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift catalogue has been a scarf inspired by the fine oblong patterned shawl draped over a chair in Ingres’ portrait Madame Leblanc (1823). The shawl is believed to have been a present to Madame Leblanc from Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte. The Met’s copy can be anyone’s for $38 and goes well with a black dress. Madame Leblanc certainly thought so.

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Why has the Duchess of Devonshire been in the papers lately?

a. A new biography of the Queen Mother describes their fiery love-hate

relationship.

b. There’s a new line of handmade outdoor furniture inspired by Chatsworth, the family property.

c. Mick Jagger has sought her advice in his dealings with Jerry Hall.

2. What are “Davids”?

a. Male-model, groovy-actor slang for well-defined muscles over one’s hipbone.

b. L.A.-speak for midlevel Hollywood studio execs.

c. Sotheby’s slang for decorative Grand Tour statuary.

3. “Innerscapes” is the name for:

a. trendy new facials accompanied with guided meditations at Bliss Spa.

b. an exhibition of photographs by Carlos Emilio at Throckmorton Fine Art.

c. new Calvin Klein underwear with X-ray-themed fabric and just the right amount of stretch.

Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) b.