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Portraits of women who influenced fashion

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 16, 2022 5:00 am

Before social media and the internet, paintings of famous women by important artists were the visuals that influenced fashion. The portrait revealed so much — from the beauty of the sitter, to her family, wealth, religion, political beliefs, reputation and status in society, as well as what the painter would like to convey based on how he portrayed her and what details were chosen to be included, from jewelry to furniture, accessories, and even symbols. What she was wearing, of course, said a lot about her, as well as the fashion of the day or, if it was not current, how her influence could change fashion for the future.

The Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck, 1434

One such portrait from the Renaissance is the Arnolfini portrait of 1434 by Jan Van Eyck, featuring a couple in the bedchamber of their Flemish home. Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini was a prosperous merchant from Lucca and his wife, Giovanna Cenami, was the daughter of an Italian banker. Giovanna’s robe, trimmed in ermine fur, was made of an excessive amount of fabric that would require a personal maid to constantly lift the garment off the ground. Giovanni’s fur-lined robe was just as extravagant in velvet, which was luxurious at a time when cotton and linen were the norm. Taking his wife’s hand on his left indicated a “left-handed marriage” or marriage of unequals, requiring the woman to forfeit all rights of property and inheritance the way one would in a prenup agreement. The bump emphasizes the voluminous robe, which was fashionable then. It was also a trend to depict women with full midsections to project the hope of having children, a wish symbolized in the chair’s carving of St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.

“The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1767

“The Swing” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a risqué composition with a man, concealed in the foliage, watching a woman on a swing. The painting was commissioned in 1767 by the Baron de Saint- Julien, who wanted a picture of his mistress being pushed on a swing by a bishop while he was positioned below to be able to look up her skirt as she swung higher and kicked her legs apart for his benefit, sending one of her shoes flying towards Cupid, the Roman god of desire and erotic love. The artist replaced the bishop with a cuckolded husband since the swing was a symbol of infidelity.

Women’s fashion had many constrictions, from corsets to bustles, but the bottom hem of a skirt gave a certain freedom, as portrayed in the mistresses’ sense of liberation in allowing her lover to take a peek. It’s also a glimpse into the lives of the richest people at court, showcasing trends in fashion that used the most luxurious fabrics and an excess of embellishments — reflecting the spirit of aesthetic refinement and aristocratic decadence on the eve of the French Revolution.

Kathleen Newton in “Seaside” by James Tissot, 1878

Sometimes a dress obsesses an artist so much that he uses it often, but the context makes a big difference. James Tissot favored the narrower skirts and fuller back bustles of the late 1800s. The portrait of Miss Lloyd (1876) shows the subject wearing the dress as it should be worn out in proper society. But the other one of his lover Kathleen Newton in 1878 shows the subject lounging with the dress’s clasps undone. Kathleen was a disgraced divorcée with a chaotic romantic life and an illegitimate daughter. Tissot fell in love and was inspired by her, transforming her into an image of liberated elegance in his paintings. Victorian English collectors, however, were not amused by such openly illicit happiness boldly passed off as high art, resulting in Tissot’s damaged reputation.

“Madame X” by John Singer Sargent, 1883

In the case of “Madame X” by John Singer Sargent in 1883, both subject and artist were ruined. The portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau wearing a black gown with a plunging neckline, an extremely pointed corset pointing towards the abdomen and beaded straps barely covering her shoulders was a scandal because it was too provocative, especially for a married woman of her class, baring parts of the body considered too intimate to be exposed in public. The artist had to flee Paris and exile in London. He also removed the subject’s name from the portrait and gave it the anonymous name it has today.

“Una Bulaqueña” by Juan Luna, 1895

At about the same time in the Philippines, women had to wear the baro’t saya with tapis and pañuelo to keep their modesty. The traje de mestiza was the aristocratic version and the height of fashion, which Emiliana Trinidad de Santos wears in “Una Bulaqueña,” painted by Juan Luna in 1895. The artist supposedly wanted to court the subject, but her parents were against the union because of the big age gap.

“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Gustav Klimt, 1907

Sometimes a portrait defies trends, like with Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer in 1907, which portrays her as an otherworldly figure in a swirl of gold triangles, eyes, rectangles and symbols, enveloped by the background that brings to mind the Ravenna Byzantine mosaics, which made such an impact on the artist. Whereas fashion at that time featured corsets and layers of clothing, Adele appears unencumbered, floating freely in a celestial realm.

Tamara de Lempicka’s “La Musicienne,” 1929

In Tamara de Lempicka’s “La Musicienne” of 1929, her lover, Ira Perrot, also floats in space but wears the flapper look of the ’20s, a turning point in fashion that exemplified feminine independence — showing off legs and arms with pleated skirts that made it easier to move.

Chona Kasten by Fernando Amorsolo, 1943

By the ’40s and ’50s, star designers Balenciaga and Christian Dior emerged with a modern look of cinched waists and A-line skirts that made waves all over the world, including the Philippines, where Ramon Valera designed his own versions of couture pieces for the most elegant women like Chona Kasten and Elvira Manahan. Chona was immortalized in portraits by Fernando Amorsolo, the country’s first National Artist for painting who portrayed the most fashionable and prominent women of the time.

Imelda Cojuangco by Claudio Bravo, 1968

The Philippines’ society women were also portrayed in a series of portraits by acclaimed Chilean painter Claudio Bravo, who visited the country in 1968. A fan of Balenciaga, the artist was partial to the Renaissance-inspired looks of the Spanish designer, which he would recreate in yards of taffeta sculpted around subjects like Imelda Cojuangco and Baby Fores.

Tingting Cojuangco, however, was painted in the native kimona top in piña and a striped patadyong skirt. She was portrayed with such a pastoral innocence that the painting revived the look in so many incarnations that were even worn for cocktail parties where they appeared beaded and embroidered. Who would think that the “lavandera” outfit of rural women worn while washing clothes in the river would become such a fashion hit? But then again, it’s authentic, classic looks like these that capture the imagination and stand the test of time.