Suits, dandyism and the Londoner’s sartorial choices are just some of the fashion topics that Christopher Breward is an expert on. The Edinburgh-based fashion historian and author is currently the director of collection and research at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). He is set to take up the role of director of the National Museums Scotland (NMS), the region’s national museum service, in April this year.
Breward was in Mumbai last week to deliver a lecture at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) on the history of fashion traced through the artworks in the NGS collection, such as those by society portrait painter John Singer Sargent. Ahead of the lecture, Breward speaks about the close ties between fashion and art, and why historic portraits contain some of the best clues to understanding the history of Western fashion trends. Edited excerpts:
What can Western art history and portraiture teach us about fashion?
We can learn a lot about fashion from paintings simply because these are the only surviving evidence of what was worn 600 years ago or 300 years ago, before the advent of photography. Historical fashion had disappeared. It was being reused for furniture items or accessories or went into second-hand clothing. So there was nothing really for historians to base their understanding on other than pictorial representations. Obviously, paintings are crucial records of how people in the past wanted to be seen by posterity.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent (Source: Wikicommons/in the collection of Scottish National Gallery)
The portraits largely show us the fashions of the elite. The clothes they were wearing were generally more expensive than the cost of the painting they were represented in. So, clothing and adornment were seen as the most important thing that a powerful person could spend their money on, portraiture and painting came much lower down the line, often seen as interior decoration and something more disposable. This shifted when the art market emerged and we have had a turnaround of value.
We can also learn a lot from just listening to people in portrait galleries. If you walk around and listen closely to what they are saying about the artwork, they are often not talking about the artist or the technique of painting. They often talk about the costume, what somebody looks like.
As a means to show-off the latest in fashion, were the sitters keen that their clothes be represented accurately or did the portrait artist often improvise?
A bit of both, I think. Often artists like John Singer Sargent, painting society women, were the predecessors of celebrity photographers then. They were styling an individual to represent something that was both contemporary and respectable. Sargent almost ruined his career because he painted a famous Parisian socialite in Portrait of Madame X. Her black dress caused a scandal because it pushed the direction too far towards nudity and the revealing of the body, so she appeared more like a courtesan rather than a society woman in the salon.
Sargent had to move to the UK from Paris to resurrect his career. Lady Agnew was one of the first commissions after he moved. Sargent is so deft at suggesting textiles in just a few swipes of paint. A light chiffon dress transformed by the power of paint, with highly fashionable mauve and purple in that period.
Portrait of Madame X by Sargent (Source: Wikicommons/ in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Lady Agnew was establishing a respectable identity for herself but she looks almost exhausted in the painting. The myth around the painting is that Lady Agnew is looking so floppy because she has just recovered from influenza. Somehow that inspires that late 19th century look of exhausted elegance.
If historical portraits mostly represented fashionable elites, were artists interested in the attire of the working class?
There are examples of painters of everyday life, of non-fashion sitters, of anonymous people, of the labouring poor. More than showing the (figure’s) personality or power, they were depicting how society was running as a harmonious whole. So often you find that the clothes of poorer people, people in great poverty, were made to fit in with the landscape. As much as the rich silks get glamourised, so do the rags of the poor.
Photography starts by the 1840s and begins to undermine this sense of romanticism of the rural scene and you start to get a documentary representation, particularly in terms of European class society.
You trained as an art historian at a time when studying fashion history through paintings wasn’t really heard of. Could you tell us more about this?
In the early 1980s, when I was an undergraduate student, art history and the fashion of history rarely combined. Those were hierarchical, segregated times in the academy and the museum world. By the 1990s and early 2000s, with the turn towards postmodernism and cultural studies, scholarly boundaries were blurring and breaking down. New academic journals such as Fashion Theory came into being and postgraduate courses in the history and curation of design, fashion and material culture were established in the UK, US and Sweden. These were golden times.
Have fashion designers often sought out art history to inform their designs?
Following the precedent of Yves Saint Laurent, designers at the end of the twentieth century, including Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano, were known for using art historical references in their collections. While Saint Laurent had looked to the abstracted modernism of Mondrian and others, Westwood and Galliano referenced the Rococo period and Romanticism in their work.