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Is Black the New Black?

When I started to think about an exhibition devoted to the way the artists of the Impressionist circle (the avant garde of their time) used fashion as a way to advertise themselves as "moderns," I entered a brave new world. On the one hand, the idea garnered immediate enthusiasm because, well, who isn’t interested in fashion? It's in our genes. Or our jeans. (Sorry.) On the other hand, the idea of fashion as an artistic catalyst sits at the center of a complex intersection of social, political, and aesthetic issues that first emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. So while I'm having a ball delving deeper into this convergence of art and fashion, I'm also acutely aware that I’m wandering further and further afield from my personal art history and curatorial trajectory.

I have experience mounting an exhibition on a famous artist, such as a retrospective—as we did with Odilon Redon (1994) and Gustave Caillebotte (1994)—or an aspect of an artist's oeuvre (Manet and the Sea in 2003) or even on one work of art (Seurat's La Grande Jatte in 2004). But an exhibition that includes the physical reality of fashion, such as mannequins with period costumes, is a new hybrid, one that has led me to meet authors, journalists, contemporary designers, and a performance artist very much in Vogue this fall. It has also connected me to many historians (of art, architecture, economics, industry, design) who are as excited as I am to be thinking about the potential of an exhibition that looks at Art (Impressionism) through the lens of fashion and the fashion industry.

As I research the exhibition, I'm picking up equally fascinating (if not entirely useful) trivia that shows how fashion trends repeat themselves. Who knew that the banality of a shoe for both left and right feet (as opposed to a one that fits both) was only a nineteenth-century invention, while the retractable parapluie was invented at the end of the seventeenth century? Granted, it wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that the black retractable umbrella, so prominently on display in Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day (which, by the way, is on loan to the Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany for the next three months), was relatively cheap and available through the increasingly ubiquitous department stores. The seventeenth-century version was a coveted and costly accessory allowing the ladies at court to walk their gardens in inclement weather without soiling their silks and velvets. The point is that as a fashion statement cum rain defense, the umbrella existed pretty much as it looks today.

And our current fetishizing of second-hand "vintage" clothes? Nothing new! Stay tuned.

—Gloria G., The David and Mary Winton Green Curator of 19th Century European Painting and Sculpture