Chris Breward, Director of Collection and Research at National Galleries of Scotland, takes a closer look at the fashion of the Belle Époque…
As the great fashion historian Valerie Steele has remarked, modern fashion and the modern city emphasized the libido for looking, and fin de siècle Paris served as a stage on which to act out the drama of seeing and being seen. Looking at Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic images of the dancer Jane Avril certainly reminds us that Paris in the 1890s offered itself up as an experimental theatre in which a new understanding of both art and fashionable dressing was performed, with striking effect.
In ‘Le Divan Japonais’ (1892), Avril assumes the sinuous black silhouette of the modern Parisienne; a provocative call to simplicity, pioneered by other uncompromising society beauties and actresses. John Singer Sargent had, scandalously, captured the look in his 1884 portrait of socialite Virginie Gautreau, ‘Madame X’ and Giovanni Boldini reprises the theme in his 1897 portrait of the infamous Lady Colin Campbell. The ‘little black dress’ was a symbol of elegant daring long before Chanel or Givenchy.
The following year Lautrec produced that most iconic of Avril’s portraits, in which she hoists her leg high in the air, revealing to the audience of the Jardin de Paris a froth of lacy underwear. Music Hall performance was perhaps at the extreme end of the erotic spectrum in its fetishisation of items (stockings, petticoats and corsets) associated with the boudoir, but its titillating scenes echoed contemporary fashion’s obsession with light, revealing garments designed entirely for the purposes of seduction. In the 1890s Marcel Proust’s Madame Swann – Odette de Crecy – received her suitors ‘in the bright and billowing silk of a Watteau gown whose flowering foam she made as though to caress where it covered her bosom’. Fashion had suddenly become uncompromisingly ‘sexy’.
And, in Lautrec’s final unpublished representation of Avril in 1899, he shows her, dramatically posed in stage dress, a shimmering snake, coiling around her body.
Here is the quintessential theatrical celebrity, demanding attention, professing her modernity and calling to mind the manner in which by the turn of the century fashion leaders were more likely to come from the stage than high society.
In Britain, Musical Comedy performers such as Marie Tempest were also taking on the same role, carefully controlling and publicising their image.
As a contemporary critic noted in a description that could equally have been applied to Avril, Miss Tempest, ‘adds a new terror to simplicity… Her polished brightness is inhuman for she has improved nature out of existence. She is an absolute amalgamation of the body and the soul…. A continual effervescing triumph of calculated harmony and sharp design and flawless symmetry.’
Here was fashion fit for the 20th Century.
For the fashion historian then, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, in his ephemeral posters, economy of line and brilliant flashes of atmosphere, demonstrates that it was the alliance between art, publicity, commerce, clothes and the sexual allure of personality that helped position Paris as the Capital of Fashion for the next hundred years; far more than the skills of the couture houses or the genius of French fashion designers. Even in the twenty-first century his enduring images continue to signify those edgy, bohemian, dangerous tendencies that we still associate with fashion in its rawest state.