History on Display: Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity

Édouard Manet. La Parisienne.

Last week, my writing pal Amy Sue Nathan and I headed off to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the hot new exhibit, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity. *

It wasn’t quite what I expected.

I was looking for what the museum describes as “a la mode as the harbinger of la modernité“. I wanted to know more about birth of the modern fashion industry, the impact of sewing machines, the development of aniline dyes, and the rise of that astonishing new institution, the department store.** What I got was clothes. Beautiful clothes, brilliantly displayed, but only lightly connected to what I think of as modernity.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a marvelous exhibit. It is fascinating to see real-life dresses displayed next to their painted doppelgangers. The curators do an excellent job of describing the social context of the clothes and the women who wear them in the paintings. I learned new things about paintings I love and discovered painters that I didn’t know. (I’m talking about you, James Tissot.)

The exhibit is open through September 22. Chicago is the last stop on its tour. If you’re interested in the Impressionists or nineteenth century fashion, it’s worth the trip. To quote a fellow visitor: “It’s the best stuff!”

*It was members’ preview day and it was packed. I shudder to think what it will be like on a Saturday afternoon–or free day. Consider yourself warned.

**All of which are mentioned in passing in the exhibit. I just felt a bit like Oliver Twist: please, sir, I want some more.


  1. Amy Sue Nathan on July 2, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Well, I learned a lot that day–from the exhibits and from you. Not the least of which was a new lunch spot!

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