A La Mode at the Met

I’m at the Met.


Doo wop’ers belting out, “Words could never explain/I just wish it would rain!” What did the Temptations mean with that song?

doo wop

On my way to a stunning exhibit, to a series of rooms where I will swoon, I get clobbered by various objects I see. The Metropolitan Museum of Art really does have it all. There is no reason to ever go anywhere else.

A yellowed, carved ivory tusk, Byzantine 810. Jesus in your pocket.

carved tusk

Elsewhere, cloissone garnets glow in whorling brooches, made in the year 500 by mad German jewelers. I’m taking a scattershot approach to beauty this afternoon, ranging over continents in every hallway to find the loveliest things.

A golden girdle from Cyprus, hammered around the same time as the cloissone. Down the hall, skipping through an exhibit called “Plain and Fancy,” I stumble upon the designer whose work I encountered earlier this year: Christopher Dresser, urbane and brilliant Englishman who introduced a lovely angularity to objects in the second half of the 19th century. Here he has an 1880 tureen and ladle formed of electroplate and ivory, and a pronged letter rack of silver plate. Down the way, a taste of something completely different: a sugary pink and white Sevres tea service crafted in 1855 for some extravaganza of a tea party.

More fragments of created beauty on the way to the exhibit. Jean-Honore Fragonard, Monsier Rococo, one of my favorites for syrupy, cheeky pictures, and his “A Woman with a Dog,” from 1769. What an expression.


Then I reach the prize, “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” a new exhibit that has me under its spell before I reach the middle of the first room.

This is a show that displays paintings by the French greats of the late 19th century, Manet, Monet, etc., and then showcases the clothing worn in the paintings. Showcased in prismatic vitrines set up in the middle of the room. So there is Albert Bartholome’s “In the Conservatory,” for example, where he treats his wife coming in from the garden – and right there is her costume itself, all purple polka dots, stripes and pleats, with about a 24 inch waist, miraculously preserved by the family.

Albert Bartholome

I come upon a crisp photo of a woman posed in a spreading black dress, knock-out elegant, holding up a black and white fan, and displayed alongside, the actual intricate fan.

There are some paintings that have not been matched to the exact garment, but they are splendid even in two dimensions – like James Tissot’s portrait of Marquis de Miromon in 1866, her outrageous bubblegum-colored ruffle cascading to the floor.

But Tissot also painted a redhead by a window opening onto the sea, lounging in white flounces, with a pale yellow ribbon down her front, and the Met somehow found two specimens that are not this dress but quite close to it.

James Tissot 1836-1902 - French Plein Air painter - Tutt'Art@ (8)

Berthe Morisot’s paintings are on display, but she is also here as a subject, painted in white by Manet. She married his brother–and was also Fragonard’s grand niece!

Le Repose by Manet

A critic at the time wrote that she “grinds flower petals onto her palette in order to spread them later on her canvas, with airy, witty touches.”

Lady at her Toilette


Small gestures predominate, as in Carolus Duran, a woman in elegant black (black being greatly a la mode, suddenly) delicately pulling off her dove grey gloves.


The Met’s analysis of all this lusciousness: “The novelty, vibrancy, and fleeting allure of the latest trends in fashion proved seductive for a generation of artists and writers who sought to give expression to the pulse of modern life in all its nuanced richness.”

But I wouldn’t overthink it. Purple polka dots, the painted and the genuine. It gave me the shivery feeling that I could somehow walk right in to the paintings and live there.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Fashion, History

One response to “A La Mode at the Met

  1. Lori

    I love looking at these fashions, but I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t allow women to wear jeans. I like functional clothing too much, I guess.

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