Stop sneering at fashion. It’s a wonderful form of expression

“This,” begins a one-star review of Tate Britain’s recently opened show, Sargent and Fashion, “is a horrible exhibition”. Poor Sargent, what can he have done to deserve such dispraise? 

The Tate’s exhibition displays spectacular portraits by John Singer Sargent, an American Royal Academician, alongside garments worn by his subjects. There is a swagger portrait of Lord Ribblesdale brandishing a hunting whip; the fashionable gynaecologist, Dr Pozzi, in a scarlet dressing-gown with a suggestively dangling tassel; and a scandalous portrait of the society beauty Mme Gautreau in a severely revealing black dress.

The critics are divided on Sargent’s merits as a painter, but it is the fashion element that seems to disturb them most. The author of the one-star review regards Sargent as a “great painter of identity”, traduced by the intrusion of macabre sartorial relics such as the robe embroidered with the wing cases of innumerable beetles, worn by Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth.
Others agree with the novelist D H Lawrence’s characterisation of Sargent’s portraits as “nothing but yards and yards of satin [with] some pretty head propped up on top”. It is an assessment that the Tate’s publicity material tends to encourage, with its claim that Sargent “worked like a stylist to craft the image of [his] sitters”. 

It is true that garments, however exquisite, lose much of their magic when separated from their human wearers. Ellen Terry’s 136-year-old beetle robe looks to modern eyes like an entomological crime scene, but also fails to convey a sense of the drama that her portrait strikingly depicts. Still, that’s not really what bothers the critics: the consensus of the reviews is that fashion is fundamentally frivolous and has no place in fine art. 

That Sargent was preoccupied with his sitters’ clothes is beyond doubt. But that is not the whole story: he began and ended his career as a landscape painter and served as a war artist. A cartoon by his friend, Max Beerbohm, shows the painter peering, aghast, though his studio window as a queue of fashionable ladies gathers outside. 

Nor was he the first artist to be fascinated by fashion. As far as we know, the pale-blue satin ensemble worn by the gloriously overdressed Hagar in the Desert shown at the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s recent Rubens and Women exhibition; or the sober but status-shouting fur robes – the stealth wealth of their day – of Holbein’s power-portraits of Thomases More and Cromwell at the King’s Gallery, do not survive. If they were discovered and exhibited next to their painted representations, would the artists dwindle into mere image-crafting stylists? 

Of course not. While both fashion and fine art are capable of egregious absurdity, it is just as silly to divorce identity from sartorial self-expression. Iris Apfel, the exuberant fashion maven who died last week aged 102, was the subject of several portraits in her lifetime. None, alas, aspires to the condition of a Sargent, but Apfel, whose personal style long predated her late-blooming viral celebrity, observed that: “You have to learn who you are first, and that’s painful”.  

Clothes, in short, are one of the ways in which we express ourselves. The Tate exhibition may focus, a touch heavy-handedly, on a single aspect of Sargent’s work. But if it temps fashionistas into thinking about the people behind the fancy clothes – what is the harm?

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