Although Chicago is not a fashion capital, our museums have done an excellent job in making connections between fashion and social and cultural changes. The Chicago History Museum’s Costume Council frequently puts on rich exhibitions that explore the ways changes in fashion mirror changes in society at large. The latest example of this comes from the Art Institute of Chicago.
In Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, curators connect the rising social classes, fashions designed to please these new classes and work of some of the most impressive Impressionists. Despite the faults of the exhibition’s layout (dark, depressing rooms and the inability to fully immerse in the construction of the actual designs), the exhibition brings up a larger point that is still relevant today: What does fashion say about who we are?
Some of the most exciting works in the exhibition are the small steel and wood engravings. Called “fashion plates,” the engravings resemble fashion spreads in magazines. The images on the plates have a potent combination of idealism and realism that rings true. This could be your life!
Fashion plates were eventually replaced by fashion photography and yet little has changed in how we present fashion and even images as a whole. Fashion spreads are often the only consistent outlet for commercial publications to explore aesthetic and artistic ideas on a regular basis. This is why fashion photography still makes headlines. They can help spread existing stereotypes or negative portrayals of different people.Impressionistic painting was inspired by the fashion of the time and fashion was an urban phenomena synonymous with modernity. Fashion offered a playground for artists to play, eventually bringing paintings to life. In turn, the paintings gave the dresses a freedom of movement not previously seen.
The paintings also immortalized the clothing and trends. Why is this not the case in contemporary society?
Contemporary art of the Impressionist period reflected the ephemerality of daily life and focused on the permanence of beauty and art. This was a rapidly changing time in relation to the distribution of wealth and resources. As individuals’ means changed, so too did their art.
Does contemporary society have an issue with “beauty” and “art?” Probably not. This could be a result of changing markets.
Both art and fashion have been overrun by purchasing power and capitalist markets. However, fashion has seen this occur much more rapidly than the art market.
Great art and beauty are still created on a daily basis. But everyday life lacks the ephemeral quality it once had. We are more connected and intertwined than ever before. Nothing dies on the Internet. What does this mean? Well for one, it means that our actions, however small, can live on beyond our own lives. In terms of connecting fashion and art, perhaps this means that there is nothing to reflect on in the grand picture. There is nothing to capture before it is gone because all of it can live on with us and in us with greater permanence.
Regarding fashion, we often claim that something has “come back,” but perhaps in 2013, it never went away. This is what ultimately makes the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibition so important. It is not just reflecting on what was. It also reflects on what can no longer be. We’ve abandoned the newness of fashion and culture. Perhaps we can rectify this. Perhaps not. Fashion is still tied into our wants and desires. People still purchase clothing – luxurious clothing – to reflect where they are (or where they want to be). But as an art form, it’s lost its relevance with the everyday consumer.
Britt Julious blogs about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt’s essays for WBEZ’s Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms. She’s a co-host of the Changing Channels podcast about the future of television.