Clothing Art: The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600–1914
Aileen Ribeiro, Yale University Press
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Five years ago, the Musée d’Orsay staged the revelatory exhibition ‘Impressionism and Fashion’. While Aileen Ribeiro was just one of a number of contributors to the accompanying catalogue, she seemed to be the enterprise’s presiding spirit having done so much over several decades to prepare the ground. Since the early 1980s Ribeiro has written on the history of clothing. In doing so she has encouraged greater interest in and appreciation of this area of material culture. Fashion by its nature is preoccupied with the future, with the next trend, the next season. Accordingly the past can be neglected, other than as a source to be pillaged for ideas. However, successive books by Aileen Ribeiro have proven that fashion history is a subject deserving of scrutiny, not least for what it can tell us about the lives both corporeal and intellectual of our forebears.
Such is the case with Clothing Art, a series of essays exploring Western European fashion as it appears in the visual arts between the 17th and early 20th centuries. Whether discussing the role of costume in establishing hierarchy at the court of Louis XIV or the advent of the Rational Dress Society in late Victorian London, Ribeiro is able to draw on a wide range of sources and stitch them together leaving not a thread out of place. Her prose, as elegant as many of the clothes illustrated, is blessedly free of academic jargon, and abstract theorising finds no place in her work.
Authoritative but never authoritarian, despite being a repository of knowledge she does not claim to know everything. On the contrary, she is happy to pose a question to which she has no answer. Thus in an afterword she ponders whether fashion can ever really be considered art. Unlikely is her conclusion, although she makes a special plea for the clothes created in Venice a century ago by Mariano Fortuny. Does fashion merit a place in art history? Most certainly when it is written by Aileen Ribeiro.