I remember what I was wearing that day. A tight pink and white striped “French sailor” t-shirt from Old Navy, with buttons along the boat neck. Too loose, Army-green cigarette pants from Target, purchased prior to my ex asking me for a divorce – before the weight slipped off of me, seemingly overnight. A thin, woven belt, and my yellow peep-toe wedges with ankle straps.
I felt like a page torn from Glamour –“Great Looks for less than $50,” or something like that. Minus the shoes. The shoes would put me “over budget.”
The shoes always put me over budget.
“What calls for the most care in a woman’s costume is unquestionably the foot gear and the gloves.”
The words are stenciled on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago, along with numerous other pithy statements about dress. I am here for a member lecture and pre-viewing of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” – Artist Date 28.
Sometimes I feel light, superficial, because I am delighted by statements like Joanne’s. I feel that it should not matter.
And yet, I am at a show that has toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris before landing in Chicago, a show that is focused on fashion. Earlier this year I saw another, “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” at the Chicago History Museum.
I consider that, perhaps, how I choose to cover my body might not be a simple matter of practicalities and aesthetics. That fashion – how we dress ourselves, individually and as a culture – is in fact, a statement of sorts. A reflection of time, mood, politics. Think hemlines rising as the economy upticks.
Or, as Gloria Groom, the show’s curator says in her lecture, “clothing is not fashion.”
The exhibit is bursting with paintings and sketches. Advertising, bits of clothing and accessories. Bustles, corsets, shoes. Costumes for walking the boulevards of Paris. For going to the sea.
“As fashion was an integral part of Paris’ character, some places – the boulevard, parks, racetracks and theatres – were constructed with the idea of it’s well-dressed pubic in mind.”
Groom ends her lecture with a joke, a “warning.” That those experiencing a bad hair day, clothing day, face day, might do well to avoid the exhibit. That mirrors and reflective surfaces abound.
I am standing in front of a collection of hats. Fifty or more. jeweled. Feathered. Contained in a single square of plexiglass spanning floor to ceiling. I see myself admiring the millinery. Recognizing one that reminds me of the hat I wore at my wedding. I mention this to the woman standing next to me. She asks me about it.
It is made of tightly woven straw, pinned up into corners, decorated with ribbon flowers and glass fruit. I had to have it.
I do not mention I am divorced. It does not feel germane. We are talking about hats. This is progress.
My marital status creeps in later, standing in front of an Edouard Manet painting of Nina de Callais, called “Lady with Fans.” She is lying on her side, looking straight into the camera. If there were a camera. Her eyes are big, dark, open.
She is dressed in black, but she is not mourning. She is wearing jewelry. If she were in mourning she would not be, Groom explains. Groom adds that de Callais is divorced. That perhaps she is “re-baiting the trap.”
The placard next to the painting notes that de Callais was known for hosting salons of writers and artists.
A woman next to me says, to no one in particular, “She is ugly.” I do not agree. “Don’t you think she looks and sounds like fun?” I say.
“Perhaps. But she is ugly. At least she is painted that way.”
I say nothing. Like my friend Julie says, “You can’t argue with crazy.”
I wonder if I am re-baiting the trap. Maybe. Not long after I moved back to town, my friend Tori commented that I dressed differently – sexier, more body-conscious. I wasn’t conscious of it. But now I am.
There are corsets. Boudoir paintings showing seductively naked shoulders and upper backs, napes of necks teasingly exposed.
“A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction. But for us, fiction is better than reality.”
I think of a party I attended in San Francisco in the mid- 1990s. There is a poster of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, circa 1976, hung in the bathroom. By today’s standards, and even those of almost 20 years ago, the women – once considered the pinnacle of beauty in America – would be seen as flabby, soft. Their breasts, saggy. Their thighs, heavy.
Like the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that was recently popular on Facebook. She’s in a yellow bikini. Boy short bottoms. Tie halter top (I covet this suit.). She is reclining. Folds of skin naturally line up across her belly in horizontal rows.
I have folds across my belly.
I am acutely aware of the phenomenon of Photoshop. Of airbrushing. That no celebrity would willingly allow this photograph to surface. But that it might show up in The Star or The Inquirer, with a headline like “Monroe Hits Maximum Density.”
It is a little after 4. I have given myself an hour to tour the exhibit. It is not long enough. I have somewhere to be.
I want to stay and stare at the woman in the Frederic Bazille family reunion painting. The one in the polka-dot dress staring out at me. Her face is sweet. It is shaped like mine.
I want to take off my shoes and run my feet through the fake grass covering the floor in the Plein Air (open air) room.
I want to scroll through Henri Somm’s sketchbook, digitally brought to life.
I want to see the related exhibits: “Undressed: The Fashion of Privacy” and “Fashion Plates: 19th-Century Fashion Illustrations.”
I return home and there is a message from my friend Joanne. A different Joanne. She was at the lecture too. She saw me. I saw her. But we didn’t see each other seeing one another. She says, “You looked lovely in that dress.”
I wonder what this dress – its halter-style, plunging neckline and flirty skirt, covered in large red and navy flowers – says. Is it a sign of optimism, worn the day before the Supreme Court overturns the Defense of Marriage Act? Or is it nothing more than a response to a sticky, summer day in Chicago?