Throw off the cloak of snobbery and treat fashion as a serious art form

<span>The exhibition features 60 paintings by John Singer Sargent alongside several period dresses, many of which were worn by the sitters themselves.</span><span>Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock</span>
The exhibition features 60 paintings by John Singer Sargent alongside several period dresses, many of which were worn by the sitters themselves.Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

When I read or hear the word “frock”, my heart sinks and my hackles rise: when will fashion be taken seriously? As the most powerful form of non-verbal communication, clothes tell us a lot about people – from their occupation, to religion, to their Indigenous heritage. The now thriving academic discipline of fashion studies rose from schools of anthropology, ethnography, sociology, philosophy, curatorial scholarship and art history. The first postgraduate course in the history of dress was set up in 1965 at the Courtauld Institute – a bastion of the art establishment – to enable curators and art historians to date paintings and describe garments in them accurately. Sadly, many of them continue to get it wrong.

Jonathan Jones’s review of the Sargent exhibition at Tate Britain (Sargent and Fashion review – tragicomic travesty is a frock horror, 20 February) was typical of the snobbish and dismissive attitude often taken towards anything to do with fashion, including the multitrillion-dollar fashion industry that, for better or for worse, ranks as one of the biggest in the global economy, a fact that is seldom recognised. If it was called “garment manufacture” instead of “fashion”, a complicated word freighted with negative connotations, it might be.

Museums such as the V&A and the Tate well know the pulling power of fashion exhibitions and can hardly be blamed, in their currently straitened circumstances, for wanting to cash in on it: on Thursday this week, the Tate exhibition was packed, demonstrating the level of public interest. However, the exhibition is more than just an exercise in ticket sales. Sargent was a great painter who had an affinity with dress and fabric, like Dürer, Holbein, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Gainsborough and Lawrence before him, and traces of their influence resonate throughout his work.

Whatever the distress caused to Jones the by lighting, wall colours and glass cases in wrong places, it is a very rare thing indeed to see garments displayed next to the paintings in which they are depicted, and a special joy to see these same garments interpreted on the canvas with Sargent’s consummate skill and aesthetic judgment. Some of the gowns on display are by Charles Worth, the most prestigious couturier in Paris (not “designer” – the word had not been invented then). Compared with these, Ellen Terry’s beetle-wing-embellished Lady Macbeth stage costume (“costume” is the term for clothing worn for performance, not for garments worn in everyday life) looked dull and lifeless, yet scintillated in radiant, glowing colour from Sargent’s portrait, a testament to his quality as an artist.

Yes, some of the objects displayed to accompany a painting seemed arbitrarily helicoptered in, such as the top hat Jones mentions in his review, but this is not an exhibition about “historic millinery” as he puts it, but one that offers a new approach to a brilliant and prolific artist, just as the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends in 2015 did. This generous, sumptuous array of Sargent’s work tells us much about class, society and fashion at the end of the 19th century, an era of great privilege for some, before the impending rupture of war. As the historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote in his book Sartor Resartus (1831), one of the first to address the significance of dress with any degree of seriousness: “Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant.”
Cally Blackman

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