The importance of dress: A sense of style is never out of fashion


Just like the 2021 Met Gala ― fashion’s biggest night of the year to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute ― this year on 13 September rather than first Monday in May, a sense of style is never out of fashion.

Clothes function not just as a personal expression, but also as an outward sign of aspiration and values, influence relationships, and act as a material code for interpretation by others. Throughout history, artists have shown an inexhaustible capacity for creativity, using their technical mastery to capture the sitter in their studio, creating a permanent record of period and place, fashion and textiles.

Here we highlight three artists making the most of every opportunity to expand our appreciation of their subject through fashion.

LIST OF WORKS: Discover the artworks in ‘European Masterpieces’

DELVE DEEPER: Read more about the exhibition

Jean Honoré Fragonard ‘The Two Sisters c.1769–70

The Two Sisters, painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard between 1769 and 1770, reflects the freedom of the French Enlightenment and the Rococo movement.

Educated at the Academy in France, Fragonard was considered a promising artist. He studied to be a history painter, the most prestigious category in the Royal Academy’s hierarchy of painting. However, he preferred not to paint in that Academic genre, which he found too structured, and so he worked for private patrons rather than take Royal commissions.

Fragonard embraced the Rococo style, popular with the French aristocracy of the mid-1700s, which featured theatrical displays of luxury, ornamentation and intricate detail. The artist favoured light-hearted themes and delighted particularly in painting children in works that exude playfulness and innocence. In The Two Sisters, young girls dressed in the latest fashion pose perched on a toy horse, which sat on wheels and pushed by the older girl. Underneath lies a discarded Polichinelle doll, a child’s version of the street theatre character known as Punch in England.

Fragonard was an innovative artist, and his joyous recordings of everyday life and domesticity made him popular with contemporary collectors. He used expressive brushstrokes and emphasised the effects of light, and his preference was for simple compositions and scenes that were bright and cheerful.

In 1770, Fragonard’s patron and friend, the Abbé de Saint-Non, created a pastel copy of the full composition, documenting that this painting was originally about twice its current size.

The Two Sisters was painted a couple of decades before the events of the French Revolution. The Enlightenment, a philosophical movement of the eighteenth century, had promoted individual rights, but there was little social reform in France and the peasants and workers protested against the heavy taxes they were forced to pay to support aristocratic decadence, as well as against many other social injustices.

Fragonard’s extravagant approach fell out of favour during this period. He was not critically appreciated until well after his death, and his light-filled palette was admired by the Impressionists.

Jean Honoré Fragonard, France 1732–1806 / The Two Sisters c.1769–70 / Oil on canvas / 71.8 x 55.9cm / Gift of Julia A Berwind, 1953 / 53.61.5 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Pastel copy by Jean Claude Richard, Abbé de Saint-Non ‘The Two Sisters’ 1770

Jean Claude Richard, Abbé de Saint-Non, France 1727–91 / The Two Sisters 1770 / Pastel on paper, laid down on canvas / 80.3 x 63.5 cm / Gift of Daniel Wildenstein, 1977 / 1977.383 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘Lady Smith (Charlotte Delaval) and Her Children (George Henry, Louisa, and Charlotte)’ 1787

Sir Robert Smith, fifth Baronet of Upton and Member of Parliament, commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint his family portrait to reflect his position among eighteenth-century British nobility.

Reynolds was renowned for portraits created in the ‘Grand Manner’, a high-art style that referenced poses from classical art to illustrate the noble qualities of the noble classes of Georgian England. So popular were Reynold’s portraits that, to keep up with commissions, he sometimes completed only the face of the sitter, leaving the remainder of the painting for completion by his apprentices.

The Smith portrait Lady Smith (Charlotte Delaval) and Her Children (George Henry, Louisa, and Charlotte) won approval at the Academy’s 1787 Summer Exhibition for its expression of cultural ideals of femininity and upper-class childhood. Comfortable in a natural setting, the fashionably attired Lady Smith gazes reflectively into the distance while her three children actively engage the viewer.

Young George Henry, who later changed the family name to Smyth with a ‘y’, appears confident of his place in the world. Sisters Louisa and Charlotte demonstrate feminine family virtues as they support and elevate the future heir. In time, Louisa and Charlotte married brothers Thomas and Charles Este, and George Henry became a Member of Parliament and fulfilled his destiny as sixth Baronet.

Sir Robert’s commission earned £314 for Reynolds, achieved lasting fame for the Smith family and reinforced Reynold’s artistic influence.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, England 1723–92 / Lady Smith (Charlotte Delaval) and Her Children (George Henry, Louisa, and Charlotte) 1787 / Oil on canvas / 140.7 x 112.1cm / Bequest of Collis P Huntington, 1900 / 25.110.10 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun ‘Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762–1848)’ 1789

Painted during the French Revolution, the portrait shows the Comtesse de la Châtre, daughter of Louis XV’s premier valet, whose influential position in the royal household paved the way for her aristocratic marriage. The Comtesse wears clothing popularised at the time by Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the Revolution who regularly sat for Vigée Le Brun. Like the artist herself, and many of her sitters, the Comtesse was a loyalist close to the Crown, and was forced to flee France during the Revolution.

Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762–1848) was painted in 1789, when Vigée Le Brun was 27 years of age. She studied and revered the Italian masters displayed in the Palais Royal, and in 1783 was admitted to the French Royal Academy. Vigée Le Brun enjoyed Marie Antoinette’s patronage, and her glamorous portraits became very popular among the nobility of Europe.

The casual elegance of this portrait was probably inspired by English portraiture of the time. Vigée Le Brun has used an innovative pose to portray the Comtesse as a woman of style in a white muslin summer dress and fichu, or shawl for the shoulders and neck, made fashionable by Marie Antoinette. Textural and tactile qualities include the brunette ringlets that cascade down the model’s back, the ruffle-cuffed long sleeves of her gown and the folds of the ribbon that is tied at her waist.

A sense of privilege is emphasised by the green upholstered and ornately carved sofa that frames the subject’s figure and highlights the appeal of her naturalistic pose.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, France 1755–1842 / Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762–1848) 1789 / Oil on canvas / 114.3 x 87.6cm / Gift of Jessie Woolworth Donahue, 1954 / 54.182 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This Australian-exclusive exhibition was at the Gallery of Modern Art from 12 June until 17 October 2021 and organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.

Featured image detail: Sir Joshua Reynolds Lady Smith (Charlotte Delaval) and Her Children (George Henry, Louisa, and Charlotte) 1787