Messy Histories: Dressing With Feeling

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One reason we have strong opinions about nudes because they’re so counter to how we actually observe and relate to people in everyday life – that is, dressed. It’s easy to take clothes for granted in art because, as strange as it sounds, they’re not always that important. They’re often only one part of the overall impression that an artist is trying to create, rather than the focus. Of course, that’s not to say they can’t be symbolic, but they’re only a clue to telling us about the character of the subject; their status, relationships, or values.

But sometimes artists have taken the time to make the clothes appear real, and I for one appreciate this effort. Especially in portraiture. What’s going to make me interested in some long-dead aristocrat? I can’t get behind respecting power for the sake of it, but one thing which will hook me into a state of admiration is lusting after their clothing. If you’re in rich, sumptuous fabrics that I can imagine the feel of, imagine wrapping myself in and feeling like a million dollars, I’m going to feel like I understand how you, actually within those clothes, are a real person I can get to know.

So here’s a whirlwind spin through Western art history of where I strongly feel this tactility, where I can sense exactly how the clothes feel.

The usual starting point

The business of depicting clothing in Western art has always been divided between the two poles of formalism and tactility. Like with most Western art, this division begins appearing in the Classical worlds of first Greek and then Roman art. In Greek pottery painting their famously drapey clothing is ubiquitous, but often very formally arranged in pattern, with little. sense of depth or natural hang (1).

Sculpture is where you really need to look to find texture, where it’s regularly called on to great effect. Being true-to-life had already built a tradition of being a sign of sculptural genius, but was also technically useful. it was also useful – you could, for example, emphasise the shape of a breast or leg that it might not be suitable to reveal (as is the case with Demeter (2)), or literally get your sculpture to balance on its plinth a little better.

In the Roman era it also fitted in with a couple of other growing purposes of art. The great and the good were increasingly commemorating themselves and their peers with busts and sculptures, and there was a strong favouritism from the 1st century BC onwards for what’s known as ‘veristic’ sculpture. It’s a very warts-and-all style – and if you’re going to let people see everything about you, this sometimes includes how wealthy you are. The general rule in the Roman world was that the more cloth you wore, the richer and higher status you were. So showing the thickness and volume of your fabrics became a sign of respect (3).

This skill has been admired ever since – even 19th century works like The Veiled Virgin still deliberately built upon the Graeco-Roman search for softness in stone.

Seeking Frills

I’m going to jump forward many centuries. Even over the Renaissance – who painted clothes with interest in light, shadow and flow, but, with a few exceptions, not always texture. But if we skip forward to the late 16th & early 17th centuries, a new and fascinating challenge arrives: lace.

Lace must be a funny material to paint when you think about it. It’s overtly decorative and structured in patterns, which sounds easy. But if you only focus on these elements it looks unrealistic and, more significantly, unappealing. Take this famous painting of The Cholmondley Ladies (4) – isn’t it so block-like and thick? It’s like a decorative pattern more than a clothing detail.

Yet this portrait isn’t an example of the general skill of the period. Take Portrait of an Unknown Woman (5) by Marcus Gheeraerts II, painted at east 5 years earlier. Amidst the lightness of her outfit in general, I adore the gossamer fineness of her ruff. I’m sure this dress would have been as heavy as any other 16th century dress, but it certainly doesn’t feel it. On a similar theme, look at the gorgeous gentle, soft detail of the lace on the ruffs (full props to the multiple ruffs, by the way) and sleeves on the Portrait of a Woman (6) by Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt. Contrasts with the density of the rest of her outfit.

These two pictures capture for me what’s so appealing about lace as both a product and an artist endeavour – its fine delicacy. When it’s done well it’s sumptuous and elegant but also light and weightless. And very expertly crafted – the work of which deserves faithful representation in paint.

Leaving lace for a moment though, I can’t move on from the period without mentioning one of the greatest clothes painters of all time, Anthony Van Dyck. The contrasts he creates between different fabrics are extraordinary. For a bit of gender balance here’s his Portrait of Jacques Le Roy (7). Look at the softness of his furs – doesn’t this look so cozy? And how clearly it contrasts with the stiffness of his ruff!

Just Pretty Things

We’re now entering a period where clothes get wilder, and how they’re painted keeps up – but not always texturally. To show what I mean, here’s Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (8).

The woman’s dress is central not only to the drama of the image, but also to our visual interest. With its billowing pink layers of skirts, the woman is a quasi-celestial vision, like a cherub on a cloud. As such the clothes are of more use to Fragonard as a decorative element. For all the colour and layers the painting is actually quite flat – I get only the most generic sense of what this dress would feel like to wear. This dress is a lot, and does a lot, without being of interest to my quest.

This post was inspired by a share I made in Betwixtmas on Instagram of a John Singer Sargent painting. You can debate me on this, you can say I’m just a sucker for shiny things, but I said in the caption to that post that he’s one of my favourite ever painters of clothes and I mean that. It’s not as detailed as, say, Van Dyck, but there’s so much life in its simplicity.

Sargent learned to paint in Paris in the 1870’s, and there’s definitely an influence of Impressionism in how he captures light and radiance with relaxed, quick brush strokes. Whether it’s in shiny finery of Mrs Fiske Warren & Her Daughter (9) or the confident cotton-like practicality of the Phelps Stokes couple (10), or the controversial glamour of Madame X (11) he finds a tactility that suits and elevates his subjects.

Some people get snobby about Sargent as an artist because he painted so many society women. But…why not? Especially if you’re really good at it. I think these three examples show that the genre wasn’t just a money-spinner (though it would have been that as well), but a place where Sargent really played with his feeling for paint. I can feel his fabrics even in their quickness, which is what I love about his work.

Feeling the Photo

Thanks to the emergence of photography, consumerism and mass media, clothing has been better documented in the last century than at any point before. And yet looking through archives, I was disappointed to to find few examples of where I could actually feel these clothes in a tactile. The look, the silhouette, and the attitude are all important: the actual fabric less so.

Even in fashion photography, it’s rarely the feel of the clothes which is the most important element of the image. It’s about aspiration, attitude and ‘the person you could be‘. It’s natural, really – portraiture has always been about portraying the idea of a person as much as the reality, and combined with the commercial aspect then selling the dream is the very purpose of the fashion photographer. Really, the less focus on the garments themselves – which could never live up to such life-changing promise – the better.

I wonder, has texture become outmoded in general? The fabric of our clothes in real life is, after all, less important than ever. Let’s take fast fashion: if a £3 Primark t-shirt gives a roughly similar visual effect to the viewer as a £40 Free People one, why do we worry about look at the finish too closely?

Maybe this is why it’s in photography with a larger-than-life, out-of-this-world aesthetic that I find the most tactile. The work of Tim Walker is not only riotously detailed in terms of colour, but in terms of how physical the details are. His work has abundance – no, excess – of feel in every sense of the word. Even his celebrity fashion work has this mood of almost hyper-real tangibility. It pushes our perception, and I love its impact. And that’s what visible textures in clothing have always been about for me: the impact. Whether it’s in a Roman statue, a Jacobean ruff or a contemporary fashion fantasy, working on the texture of cloth is a powerful entry point into the world of the artwork.

Image credits & selected citations

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