Wearable Art

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Impressionists, Fashion and Modernity at the Met

A big show founded on a simple idea, "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" is like taking a gander at the walk-in closet of some very elegant people, only they're expecting you. The dresses, also a few men's frock coats, are there, as well as hats, corsets, even dressing table accoutrements of hairbrushes and hand mirrors. It's not voyeuristic though, but showcases the colors and textures in various lights (sometimes in plein air) of fashion that inspired the great painters of the 19th Century in and around Paris. Just some are Renoir, Monet, Manet, the token Mary Cassatt, the surprisingly impactful Tissot. His paintings of white "day dresses" trimmed with yellow, on humans naturally, are exquisite. There's a dress, too, in a glass case; museum folks call it a vitrine. It looks like the dresses worn by the women in the portraits, but it's not.

All curtsy now to Diana Vreeland, in many ways the show's godmother, the first to raid the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute to fulfill her vision. This exhibit is a bit more reality-based, if just as crowd-pleasing.

Some gallery rooms are organized around colors. Black. Manet was so good with black dresses, and his "Lady with Fans" of Nina de Callias so enticing, that her estranged husband asked that it not be shown. More white, a section for blue, all following the stunning opener of the green and black/brown striped dress as modeled by Camille, Monet's not-quite-yet-wife (the artist-model-mistress pattern runs throughout). The focus is on the voluminous skirt which gleams--perhaps because Monet was clever enough to add a touch of white-and seems to practically move out of the frame.

The paintings of ball gowns and evening dresses are charming, mirrored in a dusty rose number decorated with imitation rosebuds and leaves, under glass, from the "House of Worth," the premiere design house of the time. A even closer tie-in is a greige gown with a cashmere paisley shawl, a near lookalike to the painting of "Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert."

What was the attraction? Did the artists know they were "painting fashion"? New shapes must have appealed: the bustle for instance. Color of course. And the living mise-en-scene of urban life. People were out and about-in the streets, on the lawn. You might quarrel with the curators' working definition of modernism as democratic, but not with "Paris Street; Rainy Day" with each figure using a standard umbrella, though in a fancy arrondissement. Some of the artists even responded to the new phenomenon of the department store, and ready-to-wear: in The Ball on Shipboard Tissot shows two women-mon Dieu!-wearing exactly the same dress.

The exhibit of 79 artworks and 17 dresses, which should have been titled "Impressionists, Fashion and Modernity," isn't new; but the crowds haven't thinned out. One reason might be art historical: the crowd-drawing Luncheon on the Grass by Monet, with its two panels shown side-by-side for the first time. Perhaps less significant--fun if you can afford it--is that you can leave the show as a living museum piece yourself. One of those Metropolitain shops that seem to spring up like mushrooms in the spring is at the exit of the show, with knock-offs of the gloves, boaters, those wonderful paisley shawls, all pictured in the art.

"Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 27 in the Tisch Galleries, second floor of the main building. The Museum is open Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The museum is located on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street.

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