When people ask me what I went to school for, they are surprised by how much I know about art history. Studying fashion requires consulting many primary sources, like paintings, books, and magazines since garments often do not survive the test of time. Clothing and accessories are fragile. Clothing was not so readily available until after the Industrial Revolution, so many garments were worn and altered by the owners until they fell apart or were outmoded.
Written descriptions, paintings, and photographs are very important to studying fashion history. In fact, many paintings can be accurately dated by the clothing silhouette, accessories, and hairstyles that the subjects wear. But it’s a real treat when a garment survives that can be linked to paintings from the time period.
One of my favorite portrait artists in William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). He created magical paintings of women from the 1880s-1910s that captured what was worn. Many of Chase’s portraits also give important hints to how the clothing affected posture and movement. His subjects all appear exceedingly fashionable, too! I couldn’t help but notice that the women seem to have been dressed in the best couture, like Charles Frederick Worth.
In the Studio Corner by William Merritt Chase, c. 1881. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of wikipaintings.org
Chase was born in Indiana, and later moved to New York to paint. He was always willing to grow as an artist, and used different elements from painting styles, like Tonalism (dark or neutral hues used to paint the atmosphere or mist), Impressionism (visible brush strokes, depiction of light and its changing qualities), and Realism (depicting the subject exactly as it is). His willingness to learn and adapt made him a revered teacher.
What I think made him an interesting painter, aside from sheer skill, was his ability to render the details of clothing. Garments from this time period are in many museum collections. The similarities between Chase’s portraits and the surviving garments are very strong. Take a look:
Portrait of a Lady in Pink by William Merritt Chase, c. 1888.
Kate Freemen Clack by William Merritt Chase, c. 1902. Image courtesy of bjws.blogspot.com
Advertisement for shirtwaists, c. 1901.
The Blue Kimono by William Merritt Chase, c. 1888. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of
Kimono, c.1800-1940. Image courtesy of http://metmuseum.org
I Think I am Ready Now by William Merritt Chase, c. 1883. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of askart.com