The Impressionists adored clothes. They delighted in strapontins, polonaises and paletots; fans, hats and umbrellas were an extra treat. They were keen on couture, but they didn’t restrict themselves to painting grand ladies; it was the golden age of flânerie, and Paris had been transformed from a higgledy-piggledy labyrinth into an elegant public space of boulevards and parks. The artists got out of their studios and started studying the people in action.
Debra Mancoff looks at their paintings with a dressmaker’s eye. She can tell you not only what the outfits are made of, but also what’s under them, who made them and how they have held their shape despite the heat of an Impressionist picnic. She is fascinated by the technology of the clothes — the stays, the hoops, the crinolines that went into each silhouette. She notices an ingenious internal pulley system built into the dress in Renoir’s ‘The Swing’: ‘The white overdress has tapes inserted into the seams in order to allow the wearer to draw them up for a graceful, draped effect that adds volume without bulk.’
This is not just a clothing catalogue. Mancoff explains the codes of 19th-century fashion. The Impressionists conjured up fleeting moments that hint at piquant narratives. The quality and style of their subjects’ clothes may have been obvious to their contemporaries, but these days it can be useful to have Debra Mancoff at your side, whispering behind her fan that the woman in Manet’s ‘Argenteuil’ is dressed rather cheaply, or reassuring you that the woman in Alfred Stevens’s ‘Departing for the Promenade’ is wearing a shawl of fashionable dimensions, even if it is impossible to tell from here whether it’s real cashmere or not.
According to Mancoff, Renoir’s Charles le Coeur wouldn’t think of wearing a boater in Paris, but on holiday his get-up is jauntily dignified; in Manet’s ‘Répose’, Berthe Morisot’s dress is acceptable for receiving close friends at home, but not for going out in. Mancoff’s asides give a rapid guide to shopping, leisure and etiquette for 19th-century Paris.
Fashion works well as a selection criterion for an Impressionist collection, allowing for some striking full-length portraits — Monet’s magnificent ‘Woman in a Green Dress’, Manet’s mysteriously elegant ‘Young Lady in 1866’ (in a pink dressing gown), Sargent’s roguish ‘Dr Pozzi’ and Alfred Steven’s glamorous dog walker are highlights — as well as enjoyable crowd scenes and snapshots of Paris. Degas’s Vicomte Lepic striding through Place de la Concorde and Caillebotte’s ‘Pont de l’Europe’ give a sense of the elegance and attitude of stylish Parisians. The layout is good and the reproductions are high quality.
But the focus on clothing can seem a little blinkered: ‘The couple on the right embody the height of elegance. The man accessorises his sharply tailored suit with a walking stick, a monocle and a rose boutonnière.’ Mancoff’s description of the clothes in Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ is nothing if not thorough, but what about Seurat’s singular technique? The overall strangeness of the painting? What about that monkey? The author leaves that to the viewer, and resists the temptation to hold forth where so many others have been before.
Even if it feels slightly silly to be looking at these paintings for the clothes, it is a luxury to have an art book that sticks to its brief and doesn’t foist interpretation on its readers.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 September 2012