Loeb exhibit revives French fashions

Intricately constructed hats dating from nineteenth-century France. The craftmanship and materials are of the highest quality and the items have survived the passing of the centuries unscathed./ Courtesy of Susan Hiner

Exhibition “Accessorizing Paris: Fashion and Art in the Nineteenth Century” is currently on view through March in the Focus Gallery at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Juxtaposed with Chinese landscapes in the neighboring room, “Accessorizing Paris” provides a snapshot of the French fashion culture and allows viewers a glimpse of the past.

Organized by Professor of French & Francophone Studies (FFS) Susan Hiner with the assistance of Emily Chancey ’18, the exhibit showcases a diverse range of media such as prints, drawings and photographs in various styles. The artworks transport one to another era and offer insight into the life of French people from different status and social backgrounds.

Hiner revealed the secrets behind the making of “Accessorizing Paris” and acknowledged that it has been an exciting yet complex journey that involved contributions from many. Curator of Academic Programs for the Loeb Elizabeth Nogrady first invited Hiner to collaborate on this project. Together they worked with Drama Lecturer Kenisha Kelly and Costume Shop Coordinator Pam Prior to select an array of physical objects like hats, leather gloves and a parasol for display.

The preparation involved sorting through “a treasure trove of interesting pieces” and providing a detailed description that delineates the historical background and impact of every work of art. The labels remind the audience that accessories served not only practical functions but were also indicators of wealth, manners and taste. One of the labels reads: “Like hats, gloves reflected propriety and were essential accessories for nearly every occasion…[signaling] a lady’s non-working class status.”

Hiner elaborated on the significance of these commonly worn accessories in an emailed statement: “Both gloves and réticule (small handbag) are from the fin de siècle. These objects add a material dimension that helps shape our understanding of the artworks, a space for exploration and even fantasy between the material object–who used it? in what context? what is it made of? how did it feel? what impact did it have?–and the representation of the object in artworks.”

Hiner emphasized the rareness of the pieces due to their delicacy, saying, “It was amazing that the three nineteenth-century ladies’ hats that we used were as intact as they are. They are built on straw frames and are embellished with fragile silk ribbons, netting, feathers and artificial flowers.”

Associate Director of the Library for Special Collections Ron Patkus helped with providing the fashion plates featuring in the center case. The curators tried to maximize the variety of accessories illustrated while dealing with the limitations of space and practical concerns, in order to preserve the artifacts.

Often utilizing the Loeb’s resources in her teaching, Hiner noted that the exhibition corresponds to her FFS seminars and that the artworks themselves inspired this theme. Furthermore, she explained that the exhibit relates closely to her research field and subject of her first book, “Accessories to Modernity,” published in 2010. She argued that the prominence of accessories paralleled the decorative role of women, whose social function was to identify the standing of their husband and family.

Hiner explained: “In the book, I explore the cultural history of each of the accessories I analyze, paying special attention to the symbolic function of the objects in novels of the period and linking them to contemporaneous fashion journals. Bourgeois women were loaded up with fashion accessories in this period— shawls, fans, parasols, handbags, and of course, hats. Each of these objects contributed materially and symbolically to a mythology of respectable femininity, which ended up being the engine of a consumer revolution. Even though they were consuming ‘agents,’ bourgeois women were, essentially, ‘accessories’ to their male counterparts.”

At the same time, the exhibit highlights the societal and historical importance of accessories. According to Hiner’s research, fashion offered a legitimate career path to working-class women and over time became a powerful economic force, giving rise to the modern bourgeois shopper. The artworks depict comportment from all walks of life—from the aristocrats at the opera to the southern peasant and seamstress doing chores.

As part of her Independent Study in FFS, Chancey worked on researching and hand-picking the artworks on view. She spoke of her involvement via email: “My study abroad program in Paris involved a three-month internship working in fashion. A few of the projects I worked on while interning focused [on] the intersection of art and fashion. My experience there really piqued my interest in the subject.”

Chancey described “Accessorizing Paris” as an immersive experience. She shared: “I think the exhibition is quite interesting thematically, as each wall or section of it highlights a different aspect of fashion and accessories in 19th-century Paris: fabrication, public spaces versus private spaces, caricature, peasantry, etc.”

She added, “Having the chance to work on this project hands-on and to learn via experience was incredible. The learning experience, the opportunity to better understand the process of curation was the most rewarding part.”

Out of the various artworks, Hiner drew attention to Edouard Vuillard’s “La Couturière.” She stated, “I’m partial to the Vuillard lithograph from a purely aesthetic point of view. I love his evocation of the fabric and silhouette of a filmy dress with graceful lines and dots of ink on the skirt, the top of her dress more delicate than the skirt, the delicate puff of a big sleeve—indicating that she’s current with her fashions; the accoutrements of her work all around her—swatches of fabric pinned up along the wall next to the window, folded bolts of colored fabric next to her, more fabric on the work table.”

Hiner continued, identifying the sense of motion in the still image, “It has so much to say in spite of its quietness: we see a solitary seamstress from behind—anonymous in that we can’t see her face and she is called simply ‘the seamstress’—she is identified solely by her function, her job. And her posture signals her work, her concentration. She has a tidy hairdo and a graceful form, but she is not eroticized in the way so many fashion workers (and other working women) were throughout the nineteenth century in visual culture. The print reflects a respect for the work and shows us a woman actively at work—creating fashion and thus participating in one of the most important industries and economies of nineteenth (and twentieth) century France.”

On Feb. 21 at 4 pm, Hiner is going to present a Gallery Talk on “Accessorizing Paris,” focusing on a few objects from each genre and illuminating the connection between them. It will be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the exhibit and the history of French fashion.

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