For Fashion’s Sake? Sargent and Fashion At Tate Britain

by Amy de la Haye on 27 March 2024

Exhibiting fashion is a highly-skilled and greatly contested practice. Tate Britain's Sargent and Fashion exhibition, showing art and garments side by side, caused a media furore.

Exhibiting fashion is a highly-skilled and greatly contested practice. Tate Britain's Sargent and Fashion exhibition, showing art and garments side by side, caused a media furore.

The title of Tate Britain’s recently opened exhibition Sargent and Fashion could not make the content, juxtaposition and narrative more explicit. In Boston, the exhibition was titled Fashioned by Sargent; the f-word employed, more conservatively, as a verb.

Exhibiting fashionable dress alongside painted portraits in gallery spaces is not a new practice. But, in this particular, show it has created a media furore.

Sargent and Fashion was the idea of Erica E. Hirshler, senior curator of American paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where John Singer Sargent left a fine collection of his work. Thanks to the pioneering dress curator Elizabeth Ann Coleman, it also houses an outstanding collection of luxury fashion from the late Victorian period and Belle Epoch. Sargent and Fashion is co-curated by James Finch, curator of British paintings at the Tate, which also houses some of Sargent’s finest works.

Sargent and Fashion installation view with 'Miss Elsie Palmer' (1889-90), and House of Worth dresses. Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan)

Sargent was entranced by the cut and silhouette of dress, sheeny silk satin surfaces, the volume of an organza sleeve and the precise placement of a tassel. And everyone wanted to be painted by him. Before placing an order for an haute couture gown, potential clients would enquire, ‘Will it paint?’ Here, we can draw obvious parallels with contemporaneous preoccupations with our own and others’ digital appearances. And the Tate are keen to harness such links.

The exhibition press release advises, ‘It reveals Sargent’s ground-breaking role as a stylist, fashioning the image his sitters presented to the world through sartorial choices…Sargent was working in a similar way to how an art director at a fashion shoot would today.’ Jonathan Jones - the man behind that one-star review for The Guardian must have been spitting feathers!

This pitch would have been unthinkable in the late 1980s. Then we did have to fight for fashion studies to be recognised as a rigorous, interdisciplinary, academic discipline and for the status and ‘worth’ of fashion within museum and gallery contexts. The critical issue here is to explore the curatorial interventions in this particular exhibition and evaluate if they enhance our understandings and enrich our exhibition experience.

Society portraiture is necessarily flattering and Sargent was a master of this oeuvre. Can garments that once adorned the animate bodies of his super stylish clients - and formed just one component of their dressed appearances – now displayed static in a glass case, possibly communicate as eloquently as full-length framed portraits created for a wall?

John Singer Sargent, 'Mrs. Hugh Hammersley' (1892). Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jones’ provocation titled ‘Tragicomic Travesty is a Frock Horror’, published 20 February, 2024, could not have been a greater press coup for the Tate.

He opined that, ‘Reconstructing the clothing his sitters wore seems as perverse as digging up their skulls and displaying them complete with forensic reconstruction of their faces to see how accurately he painted them. The crinkle silks look as macabre as that to me. They belong in an attic with a rocking horse that moves of its own accord.’

Whilst Jones adores John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) virtuoso portraits and engagement with identity – of which dressed appearance is of course a vital construct - he dismissed the exhibition as ‘horrible’ and gave it a one-star rating for their impertinent pairing.

Jones old-fashioned, elitist and arguably misogynistic melodrama made me shrug and laugh. But it ignited indignation and fury in others, resulting in a flurry of responses. Dress historian Cally Blackman retaliated, ‘Throw off the cloak of snobbery and treat fashion as a serious art form.’ (Guardian 23 February, 2024)

I don’t think fashion has to be described as an art form (arguably it’s not) to be taken seriously. And, in 2024, I refuse to argue its merits.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children, 1896. Photo © Tate

Exhibiting fashion is a highly skilled and greatly contested practice. As Jones rightly notes, ‘The painting is as old as the dress but in it a person lives.’ Excellent mannequinage is essential and in this show is mostly exemplary; particularly for the gowns that form part of Boston’s collection.

The curators have opted for ‘invisible’ mannequins (when a figure is cut away to follow the lines of the garment), which makes sense. You can’t display a theatre costume (a truly magnificent one covered with hundreds of iridescent beetle wings dating from 1888), worn by the great Ellen Terry in her role as Lady Macbeth on a full body modern retail mannequin with 21st century looks. But this strategy means forsaking a head, which I think is critical for proportion, and limbs which negates gesture. For conservation reasons, all garments are displayed in clear glass cases and they appear to float. These are positioned close to the gallery walls – but not too close to prevent us examining the garments in the round and are placed adjacent with ‘their portraits.’ They do not, as Jones grumbled, ruin sight lines.

Sargent and Fashion installation view with 'Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth' (1889), and Beetle-Wing Dress. Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan)

The number of true pairings is very impressive: many have been brought together for the first time. To evaluate the comparisons was a fascinating exercise. Of course Sargent took artistic liberties, but in many cases his depictions were faithful. This was especially apparent with the portrait of Carmen Dauset Moreno c.1890. It is not known who designed the perky, intricately metal thread embroidered golden yellow costume she wore. Costume designers have not enjoyed the same fame and status of fashion designers and their histories are often eclipsed over time.

For those interested in dress there are some outstanding exhibits. They include the brilliant red bohemian robe donned by ‘Dr Pozzi at Home’ (1881). Sargent was a liberal – he painted queer subjects, decadent dandies, suffragettes and the modern ‘new woman,’ as well as fashionable society beauties. I particularly admired his dark portrait of ‘Miss Jane Evans’ (1898), house mistress at Eton which hangs alone. Sadly, radical tailored garments of the type she wore every day were not deemed ‘valuable’ (materially, socially or financially) and rarely survive. There are also examples of fashion without matching portraits, exhibited as evidence of genre. I was delighted to finally view Worth’s citrine coloured silk damask evening gown, with a huge repeat design of roses with vicious thorny stems, dating c. 1895.

John Singer Sargent, 'La Carmencita', 1890. Paris, Musée d'Orsay. Photo © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais Patrice Schmidt
John Singer Sargent, 'Dr. Pozzi at Home', 1881. The Armand Hammer Collection

This is a stunning and intelligent exhibition which explores Sargent’s work in a fascinating new context. Jones's uproar is not new and fashion is all too familiar with scandal, as was Sargent when he exhibited a portrait of Virginie Amélie Gautreau, also known as Madame X, with a dress strap slipped off one shoulder.

Tate Britain, London, SW1 22 February – 7 July 2024.

'Madame X', 1883-84 installation view at Sargent and Fashion, Tate Britain 2024 Photo © Tate (Jai Monaghan)



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