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Downton Abby has sent the fashion world in a crinolined craze of late. Anyone who saw Ralph Lauren’s catwalk can see it is really hitting the zeitgeist. So it is the prefect moment for The Frick to open an exhibit of nine full length Renoir paintings capturing the fashions of his day down to the last fantastic feature. We spoke to Maude Bass-Krueger, a fashion historian and author who has worked closely with the Frick on researching the fashion in these incredible images. While interning with the Frick she not only scoured New York for references but flew off to Paris to unearth some fantastic information. We spoke to her about her discoveries below.
Tell us about your fashion discoveries when studying these paintings?
What has been incredible about this research is just how much the fashion within these nine full-length paintings can tell us about the women depicted, Parisian society, and Renoir's own painting process and intentions. Both La Promenade (1875-6) and The Umbrellas (c. 1881 and 1885) have hidden or separated layers in which the fashion analysis heightened the discoveries made by the infrared scans: for La Promenade, the "young mother's" round skirt was a very important clue that she may not have in fact been a mother but an older sister figure, whereas the different silhouettes worn by the mother and modiste in The Umbrellas reveal the changing codes of fashion over four years and help date the two campaigns. Analyzing the dresses and accessories of the three dancers in Dance and the City, Dance in the Country, and Dance at Bougival (all 1882-3) revealed social cues that are lost to us today, but would have been important in Renoir's time, such as gloved versus ungloved hands, the lounge suit versus the dress coat, department store "confection" [ready-made] versus couture.
What was your favorite part of the research?
Confirming my suspicions about the “young mother’s” skirt in La Promenade with the revelatory infrared reflectography ranks high on my list of great research moments. Overall, it was thrilling to see how much attention Renoir lavished on the clothing he painted in these full-lengths: from the dainty lace which peeks out of the little girls’ sleeves in La Promenade, to the discerning up-to-the-minute silhouette of the modiste’s uniform in The Umbrellas, to the specific v-shaped neckline that he desired for Dance in the City, to the very fashionable red straw hat featured in both Dance in the Country and Dance at Bougival, to the historical fantasy of Madame Henriot’s outfit, Renoir was an astute observer of contemporary dress. And, needless to say, Renoir definitely had an eye for fancy hats…
How did you know where to go to unearth these fashion finds?
I'm very familiar with the Parisian fashion archives and knew that the Bibliothèque Forney had a wonderful collection of Department Store catalogues from the mid- to late 19th century. These were essential in identifying fabrics, colors, silhouettes, and prices for everything from dresses to shoes to fans to lounge suits. Some of the catalogues even had fabric swatches and I was able to find close matches for some of the fabric depicted in the paintings. The BnF also has a wide variety of fashion magazines (from the luxury fashion magazines to those destined for provincial women) that were absolutely crucial for the colored plates and the articles on "what to wear" and "how to wear it". 19th century manuals, books, and society magazines helped contextualize the fashion research while material evidence found in costume departments provided concrete examples of how these kinds of dresses were constructed, trimmed, and worn.
Renoir, Impressionism and Full-Length Painting is on view through May 13th.
The Frick Collection 1 East 70th Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenues)