Modern Beauty: Art and Fashion in France

Mar.16 (Wed)- Sep. 4 (Sun), 2016


The Pola Museum of Art is pleased to present the exhibition “Modern Beauty: Art and Fashion in France.”
French fashion in the mid-nineteenth century was markedly transformed by developments related to the industrial revolution. These included the appearance of spinning machinery, mechanized looms, improved sewing techniques and new types of materials, the advent of department stores and improved merchandise distribution, and expanded information and mass media networks.
Poet Charles Baudelaire’s essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” (1863) extolled modernity. The contemporary scene and lifestyle became a new subject for painters, and they depicted the fashions of the time in their paintings. In fact, changing trends in fashion became an important theme in modern painting.
The shape of women’s dresses in particular changed greatly in the period from the mid to late nineteenth century. From 1850 to 1860, full skirts with crinoline petticoats were the fashion; from 1870 to 1880, bustles (tournures) were popular; in the so-called Belle Époque period around 1890, it was tight corsets and cinched waists, an ‘S’ curve silhouette echoing Art Nouveau design, that was desirable. At the beginning of the 20th century, the spread of a new lifestyle with leisure time for travel and sports created a growing need for comfortable clothing. Fashion designer Paul Poiret introduced an uncorseted high waist dress in 1906. Following that, and the momentum of women’s social advancement around the time of World War I, styles became simplified to accommodate active lifestyles. In the 1920s, the ‘flapper’ style of modern dress emerged as the emblematic ideal of beauty.
It was only around the 1880s, when attention to personal hygiene increased, that regular bathing became the norm. At the same time, women’s interest in beautification grew with the availability of new varieties of synthetic cosmetics and scents. Artists, painting from a vantage point as if invisible, depicted women grooming in private spaces such as the bath or boudoir. In such paintings, we can see that cosmetic utensils, like fashion, tended to become less luxurious and more functional and compact as women become more active. The designs of these perfectly reflect the styles of Belle Époque Art Nouveau and 20th century Art Deco fashion, architecture, decorative arts, and graphics.
This exhibition presents 19th and 20th century French paintings, sculptures, prints, decorative items, period dresses and jewelry, and cosmetic utensils from the collections of the Pola Museum of Art and other Japanese museums. It explores how artists depicted changing fashion during this time frame, the meaning of fashion in painting, and the background of fashion and women’s quest for cosmetics and beauty.

Section I. Fashion and Modernity: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Fashion Magazines

Both ready-to-wear and haute couture fashion appeared in mid-nineteenth France as industrialization and the mechanization of spinning and looming led to technical advances in garment manufacture, allowing for production of an array of new fabrics and commercialization of the fashion industry. In like manner, the development of printing technology advanced dissemination of information and brought about a proliferation of magazines with illustrations of current fashions. Stéphane Mallarmé published La Dernière Mode, a fashion magazine he wrote and edited himself on the occasion of the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.
Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” considers 18th century fashion illustrations and genre paintings by Constantin Guys, and extols modernity and contemporary manners. For Baudelaire, fashions of the time were the epitome of modern beauty. Contemporary paintings represented modernity with industrialized landscapes and urban customs associated with railways, factories, and suburban resorts. Impressionist painters depicted the railway stations of Paris and resort and seaside landscapes on the outskirts of the city, while painters at the beginning of the 20th century favored monuments such as the Eiffel Tower built for the Paris Exposition Uniververselle


Louis-Gabriel-Eugéne Isabey, Princess Mathilde in the Tuileries Garden, 1855
Yamadera Goto Museum of Art


Evening Dress, ca.1860 Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum


Claude Monet, Train Tracks at the Saint-Lazare Station, 1877

Section II. Representation of Modernity: Manet, Renoir and 19th Century Fashion

Many fashionable women appear in the Impressionist paintings of contemporary city life and suburban recreation. Painters intended to capture the beauty of modernity through women’s fashion. Women in the latest fashion were called ‘Parisienne,’ and were considered as models of beauty fashions. They were featured in paintings and sculptures as archetypes of civilization. Although the daily life of women became an important theme for Impressionist artists, their paintings were similar to the ‘fashion plate’ illustrations of the time.
Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and their circle, as well as Manet, who considered himself a dandy, chose and purchased dresses and hats for their models to wear to be painted as the beautiful ‘Parisienne.’ Renoir, who was the son of a tailor and seamstress, enjoyed painting women’s fashion and kept dresses, hats and ornaments for the models to wear when he painted them. Monet’s early portraits of women dressed in the latest fashion were well received at the Salon, and depictions of women in fashionable dress also appeared in his landscape paintings. The ballerinas by Degas and the prostitutes painted by Toulouse-Lautrec are depicted in natural poses but it is clear that these two artists were also interested in women’s fashion.


Édouard Manet, Portrait of Mademoiselle Isabelle Lemonnier, ca.1879
Yoshino Gypsum Co. , Ltd. (on loan to Yamagata Museum of Art)


Jules James Rougeron, Toilette, 1877
Tokyo Fuji Art Museum


Pierre Auguste Renoir, La Coiffure, 1888


Pierre Auguste Renoir, Girl in a Lace Hat, 1891

Section III. Lifestyle Adornment: Fashion and Toilette

Fashion and make-up have the common objective of personal decoration and there is also a relation between making-up and painting. Many paintings on the subject of dressing/making-up/toilette were produced in the latter half of the 19th century. The theme actually dates back to the 16th century, and appears in 18th century Rococo painting. It is also noteworthy in 19th century Orientalism and Japonisme.
Upper-class women of the 19th century favored fair skin and light natural make-up. The use of white powder and rouge was limited to stage actresses and prostitutes. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that make-up became tolerated more widely. In the 1920s, make-up became accessory to fashion. Toilette sets were a status symbol for the upper-class and were produced with care for the latest treatments and techniques related to hair-styles, fashion, and lifestyle. As women came to lead more active lives, the sets became more compact and functional. There was a heightened awareness of personal hygiene in the 19th century and regular bathing became a norm around the 1880s. Artists, painting from the vantage point of an invisible observer, depicted women grooming in private spaces. In paintings of dancers and their patrons, or prostitutes and their customers, the line of sight of the viewer overlaps with and emphasizes that of the men in the composition and their attitude towards women.


Edgar Degas Woman at Her Toilette, ca. 1894


Pierre Bonnard Woman in the Tub, Blue Harmony, ca. 1917


Wash Set with Floral Design, 1910s

Section IV. Liberation: Fin de Siècle and 20th Century Fashion

In the Belle Époque period, from the end of the 19th century to around 1910, cinched waists were de rigueur for ladies. Tight corsets worn to attain the popular graceful curve silhouette of Art Nouveau design, however, restricted movement and distorted body shape. The spread of a new lifestyle with leisure time for travel and sports, and the advancement of the position of women, around the time of World War I, saw fashion become more functional and active. Fashion designer Paul Poiret introduced an uncorseted high waist dress in 1906 that became the mainstay of 20th century fashion. He was also a pioneer of designer created fashion brand perfume, producing and marketing perfume as a finishing touch to attire.
The paintings of artists active in Paris at this time reflect changes of contemporary fashion. École de Paris painters also in their way captured fashion in their works but representation of the aesthetic sense and inner qualities of their models became important. In the 1920s, the essence of fashion was a short skirt and a simple straight silhouette. Painters depict the ‘new’ woman gathering at places of amusement and swaggering down the streets of Paris in modern fashion.


Raoul Dufy Poiret's Mannequins at the Race Track in 1923, 1943
Bridgestone Museum of Art, Ishibashi Foundation


Kisling Mlle Falconetti, 1927


Beaded Bag with Geometric Design, 1920s - 1930s


Spanish-style Celluloid Comb, ca. 1920-1925


Chained Quintuple Compact Case, 1920-1950