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What Can Fashion Tell Us About Art?

The Blue Silk Dress” (1868), by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti.CreditSociety of Antiquaries, Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire.

The Visual Culture of Fashion, 1600-1914
By Aileen Ribeiro
Illustrated. 572 pp. Yale University Press. $60.

One of the perennial yet unresolved debates in fashion concerns the question of whether fashion is art — or, to be fair, whether some fashion can be described as art. Does its ephemeral nature, its roots in consumerism, frivolity and (sometimes) vulgarity, preclude it from achieving such transcendence? Or are the most conceptual, time-intensive, elaborate, original and expensive garments deserving of that designation?

Since I’m a critic, people generally assume that I come down on the “art” side, though I’ve always hewed more to the museum interpretation of the issue, which tends to view fashion as a decorative art rather than a fine art. It turns out, however, that we may have been framing (pun intended) this question improperly from the get-go. We shouldn’t be asking whether fashion is art, but how fashion relates to art, and vice versa — or so Aileen Ribeiro, a professor emeritus at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, suggests.

And she’s not talking about the relatively superficial approach of designers who pay “homage” to paintings by literally putting them on their clothes (see Saint Laurent’s Mondrian dress and Jeff Koons’s Masters Collectionbags for Louis Vuitton). Instead, she’s suggesting a deeper, more synergistic connection between the way artists use clothes for their own painterly purposes, and what such use can tell us about the role of clothes in a particular society. To that end, her book is divided into five sections, covering everything from the use of clothes in portraiture, including artists’ self-portraiture, to depictions of national identity and the drives for modernization and liberalization.

Effectively an academic treatise masquerading as a coffee-table tome, “Clothing Art” is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, tour through just over three centuries of masterworks and the looks within them, for both men and women. Though Ribeiro is the author of numerous other books, including “Dress and Morality” and “Fashion in the French Revolution,” this is one of her broadest and most ambitious works, filled with sumptuous reproductions and lots of small type. Populist, however, it is not. Ribeiro isn’t using fashion to make Rembrandt, Hogarth and Delacroix accessible; she’s trying to get you to think about how artists use fashion. How, for example, van Dyck “conjured up clothing that was firmly based on the fashions” of his day “but that was also, so to speak, smoothed out,” and how Klimt “reinvents” fashion and “dramatizes it on the canvas.”

Ribeiro may be a historian of dress, but she’s also a cultural omnivore, and she pulls from the letters of figures like Dante Gabriel Rossetti to support her points, as well as from the writings of Roland Barthes, John Berger, D. H. Lawrence, Le Corbusier, Marcel Proust and Thorstein Veblen (among many others).

Reading her book start to finish can be a little overwhelming, not to mention hard on the arms; it’s heavy, in every sense of the word. Those who are fooled by the glossy presentation into thinking they’re getting a picture book are in for a surprise. It’s easy to get lost among the references, not to mention the gorgeous imagery, and it’s possible — and tempting — to dip in and out. That’s O.K. But Ribeiro’s argument, sustained over many pages and built on an accumulation of detail and evidence, is worth taking the time to consider. After all, it engages not just the eye and the mind, but the closet.

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