Art and Fashion: 9 Famous Dresses in Painting That Advanced Women’s Style

Through time, art and fashion have influenced one another. Here are 9 famous dresses that changed fashion, as seen first in paintings.

Sep 17, 2020By Adrienne Howell, BA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel Design
madame x la musicienna symphony in white
Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent, 1883-84 (left); with La Musicienne by Tamara de Lempicka, 1929 (center); and Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl by James McNeill Whistler, 1862 (right)


For these women, everything from their wealth, character, and political/societal stances became indicative of who they were based on these paintings. Whether they knew it or not they influenced fashion trends, outraged critics, and used fashion in order to present themselves to the world around them. Below are nine paintings with famous dresses that range from the Renaissance all the way to modern times


Renaissance Paintings With Famous Dresses


The Renaissance was a time of cultural and artistic reinvigoration, as classicism made a revolutionary comeback in European societies. However, this period also saw significant changes in fashion; take a look at how famous dresses in paintings influenced fashion during the Renaissance.


The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan Van Eyck

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait is a staple in the study of fabric in portraiture. Van Eyck’s technique leaves nothing to the imagination as his approach to painting fabric creates a realistic and three-dimensional experience. The jewel-toned emerald green of her wool garment and ermine lined sleeves showcases the families’ status, as only wealthy clients could afford the fabrics pictured above.


Wool, silk, velvet, and fur were rare and more expensive to produce, compared to cotton or linen, and were a status symbol of how much one could afford to buy. It also displays her husband’s wealth as it shows that he could afford to buy many yards of fabric to create her gown. One of the most debated questions surrounding the painting is whether or not the woman pictured (presumably Arnolfini’s wife) is pregnant. Renaissance skirts were so full and heavy that women would lift their skirts up so that it would be easier to move.

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Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry April by The Limbourg Brothers, 1412-16, in Musée Condé, Chantilly, via The Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (left); with Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry The Garden of Eden by The Limbourg Brothers, 1411-16, in Musée Condé, Chantilly, via The Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (right)


The added voluptuous folds of her gown also reveal a trend in depicting women with curvier midsections as it showed the hope of conceiving children during marriage. Another example of this is the Limbourg brothers’ Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. In both images, females are depicted with rounder bellies. The image on the left depicts a wedding and it is comparable to the Arnolfini portrait as both women project the image of motherhood in expectation of pregnancy. Without looking at the painting with a modern lens one can see this as a record of what women wore and what was important for people to reveal to others. 


Baroque And Rococo Paintings


The Baroque and Rococo periods can be characterized by elaborate decoration, decadence and playfulness. These trends were seen not only in art but also in fashion through intricate ornamentation and lavish gowns. Take a look at some of the famous dresses inspired by artwork. 


Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary (1674)

Elizabeth Clarke Freake (Mrs. John Freake) and Baby Mary by an Unknown Artist, 1674, Worcester Art Museum


This unknown artist’s attention to detail and focus on clothing is what makes this painting an important record of life for New England Puritans. In this image, Elizabeth is decked out in fine fabrics and accessories of 1600s America. Her white lace collar is indicative of the popular European lace found among aristocratic women. Peaking from her dress is a golden embroidered velvet underskirt, and her sleeves are decorated with ribbons. She is adorned with jewelry from the pearl necklace, gold ring, and garnet bracelet. This painting offers a unique look into the Puritan life of Elizabeth and her family.


The artist is able to blend images of their wealth within a modest setting. The painting clearly demonstrates Elizabeth’s wealth as she chooses to wear her best garment and jewelry. It also reflects the wealth of her husband, John Freake, to be able to afford these luxuries and to commission this portrait as well as one of his own. The painting would also signify their Puritan attitude of gratitude towards God, as without His blessing they would not be able to have these luxuries.


The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honore Fragonard

The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard, 1767, via The Wallace Collection, London


Jean-Honore Fragonard’s The Swing is an example of the rococo style in French aristocratic circles. The painting was a private commission where a French courtier asked Fragonard to create this painting of himself and his mistress. While the painting was placed behind closed doors it reveals the luxury, frivolousness, and clandestine nature of the French royal court.


The pastel pink dress stands out amongst the lush garden and is the central focus of the piece. Fragonard paints the dress with loose brushstrokes that emulate the sweeping skirts and ruffled bodice of her dress. His loose brushwork coincides with his subject matter of this idyllic garden scene that is filled with coquettish and whimsical imagery. With all of the constrictions of corsets, bustles, and enclosures of female garments, the one place that had none was the bottom hem of a women’s skirt. Fragonard used this to his advantage as he portrayed the woman swinging up in just the perfect place so that her lover can look up her skirt. The private commission permitted Fragonard to experiment with his subject matter and allowed the viewers to uncover what life would have been like for the wealthiest people at court. 


Robe à la Française, a gown from 18th-century France, 1770, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


His painting also showcases trends set in French court for fashion. Rococo transcended fashion, art, and architecture to create something that is uniquely French. Rococo fashion included the most luxurious fabrics, including pastel-colored silks, velvets, lace and floral patterns. It also included an excessive amount of bows, jewels, ruffles and decorative adornments to create looks to turn heads at court. Style defined the difference between the poor and the rich as the aristocracy could afford the luxuries of fine fabrics and adornment. For the women wearing such Rococo finery, the painting is the epitome of the French royal court before the revolution. 


Famous Dresses In 19th-Century Paintings


The 19th century saw an artistic shift from Neo-Classism into early modernism, giving way to styles and schools of thought. This century also saw changes in fashion; read on to see how paintings influenced the introduction of famous dresses and styles that were notably more modern than before. 


Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl (1862) by James McNeill Whistler

Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl by James McNeill Whistler, 1862, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


“Art for art’s sake” became connected to Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl as James McNeill Whistler intended the painting to have a spiritual meaning. Critics, however, did not see it this way because the woman portrayed is Joanna Hiffernan (his mistress at the time). More importantly, it was the garment that Whistler chose to paint Hiffernan in that sealed the deal and made this dress stand out amongst his other paintings.


This portrait was scandalous at the time because of Whistler’s portrayal of the women’s pure white dress. During the 1800s, a woman’s attire often included a cage crinoline underskirt made of steel to keep their skirts afloat. Women also wore corsets among numerous other undergarments to be able to create wider skirts.


The woman in white is the exact opposite of that standard of respectable dressing at the time. Her tea-gown is a garment only her husband (or lover) would be permitted to see as it could be easily removed. It was a day dress worn in private and would not become more popular until the early 1900s for everyday wear.


For Whistler, his muse was meant to be part of an overall scene that was pleasing to the eye. He portrayed Hiffernan as he saw her and for viewers at the time the painting was both confusing and a bit indecent.


Portrait of Miss Lloyd (1876) and July: Specimen of a Portrait (1878) by James Tissot

Portrait of Miss Lloyd by James Tissot, 1876, via The Tate, London (left); with July: Specimen of a Portrait by James Tissot, 1878, via Cleveland Museum of Art (right)


James Tissot created numerous paintings depicting women’s fashion during the late 1800s. He was ahead of European fashion and is well known for painting his subjects with the latest fashion trends. Women’s fashion began to take a turn amongst the young ladies in Paris and London during the late 1800s. The wide and heavy skirts of their Victorian predecessors were replaced with narrower skirts and full bustles at the back. What makes this particular dress stand out is Tissot’s continual use of it in his paintings. Tissot uses it in another one of his paintings The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) and in all three he uses it in completely different contexts.  


Miss Lloyd on the left is wearing the dress as it would be worn out in society. This dress would have been in fashion at the time as the tight waist and hourglass figure are accentuated by her dress. The straight lines of her dress also show the rigidity of her pose unlike the portrait on the right.


The right is a portrait of Kathleen Newton (his companion at the time) seen in an intimate setting during the summer months. Compared to the first portrait, everything about the way he has portrayed the dress exudes languor and seductiveness. Newton is seen lounging on a couch and her dress appears disheveled and undone. Her skirts flow freely on the couch, and various bows and clasps are unfastened. 


Both women have their own distinct charm and mystery surrounding them. The dress itself signifies the differences in popular culture during its time. One is traditional and conventional while the other is blatantly intimate yet scandalous for the viewers during the 1800s.


Portrait of Madame X (1883) by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent, 1883-84, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Whoever stands in front of Madame X is taken aback by the stature and radiance of her portrait. John Singer Sargent created an image of a woman that, while it was unacceptable for his time, has become one of his most recognizable and revered paintings. It is a portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, an American beauty mixed in French high society. It created such a scandal that John Singer Sargent himself had to leave Paris for London.


While dresses similar to hers would have been worn as costumes or for parties, they were not worn out in everyday society. There are certain details that make this dress so scandalous. Her corset is extremely pointed towards the lower half of her abdomen. The sharp plunging v-neckline and beaded straps are barely covering her shoulders and exposing what were considered intimate parts of a woman, therefore inappropriate to showcase in public. 


Evening Dress designed by Hoschedé Rebours, 1885, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


After Sargent submitted the painting to the Paris Salon of 1884 it raised outrage among critics and viewers. It stirred controversy for a married woman of her class to be seen publically in such a provocative way. To viewers at the Salon, it looked as if she is wearing undergarments rather than an actual dress.  The painting was damaging to Mme. Gautreau’s reputation as people saw her portrait as a reflection of a salacious personality.


It was originally not supposed to be a literal translation of Mme. Gautreau’s character. Sargent himself selected the dress and her posture, and props resemble ancient Roman statues alluding to Diana, goddess of the hunt and moon. This creation would damage both of their reputations. Sargent eventually removed her name from the portrait, renaming it Madame X


Famous Dresses In 20th-Century Paintings


Art in the 20th century focused on abstraction and expression, undergoing significant changes with new styles and themes. This also brought on the exploration of new forms and syntheses of fashion and art. Here are famous dresses seen in paintings during the innovative century. 


Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) By Gustave Klimt

Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, 1907, via Neue Galerie, New York


The golden dress of Adele Bloch-Bauer shows Gustav Klimt’s portrayal of a woman unrestrained by the world around her. Compared to other portraits of high-society ladies of her time, this portrait stands out amongst the rest. Instead of painting an upper-class woman lounging in gardens or reading on sofas, Klimt transforms Adele into an otherworldly figure. Her dress is a swirling figure filled with triangles, eyes, rectangles, and iconography. There are no signs of straight-laced corsets or layers upon layers of clothing. Instead, she is exemplified as uninhibited as she floats in her world of gold. Art Nouveau contains themes of nature and mythical imagery. It also relates to the bohemian fashion that Klimt wore himself and used in various other paintings.  


Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt in the Garden of Villa Oleander in Kammer on Lake Attersee, 1908, via The Leopold Museum, Vienna


Klimt often painted designs created by the fashion designer Emilie Flöge. She is not as well known as her contemporaries or predecessors in the fashion world, but she took resounding steps in creating fashion for the women of her time. At times it was a collaborative effort as Klimt used her famous dresses in many of his other paintings as well. Flöge’s dresses have loose silhouettes and wide sleeves, which did not include corsets or other restrictive undergarments. The works of both Klimt and Flöge advanced a bohemian way of life with blurred boundaries between the traditional and unconventional as seen in the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.    


La Musicienne (1929) By Tamara Lempicka

 La Musicienne by Tamara de Lempicka, 1929, via Christie’s


Tamara Lempicka created portraits that explored femininity and independence during the 1920s. The art deco painter became known for her portraits of celebrities that explored a stylized and polished form of Cubism that became her trademark. Ira Perrot (a close friend and lover of Lempicka’s) is seen as a literal manifestation of music in La Musicienne. What makes the painting stand out is her rendering of the blue dress. Lempicka’s technique of casting sharp shadows with her saturated color palette gives movement to the dress so that appears that she is floating on air. The dress’s short hemline and cascading pleats are still reminiscent of 1920’s fashion, which was a turning point in women’s fashion. Women wore famous dresses that showed off their legs and arms while wearing pleated skirts that made it easier to dance in.


Lempicka was inspired by and studied the works of Master Renaissance Artists and used similar themes with a modern approach. Traditionally the color blue can be seen on the gowns of the Virgin Mary in Medieval or Renaissance paintings. Ultramarine blue was rare and was used sparingly for significant paintings. Here, Lempicka is unafraid to use the color as the dominant focal point in the portrait. It is this blue, along with her exceptionally strong use of smooth paint, that amplifies the luminosity and grace of her flowing dress.  


The Two Fridas (1939) By Frida Kahlo 

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo, 1939, in Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, via Google Arts and Culture


The colorful and hand-woven textiles of Mexico are entwined with the legacy of Frida Kahlo. She embraced these garments as part of her heritage and is seen wearing them in multiple self-portraits and photographs. The famous dresses shown in Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas symbolize her connections to both sides of her European and Mexican heritage. 


The Frida on the left is reflective of her upbringing in an upper-middle-class family. Her father was originally from Germany, and her childhood home life contained western customs. The white lace of her dress is symbolic of the style popular in European fashion. This westernized version is in contrast to the right Frida’s desire to embrace her Mexican heritage by wearing a traditional Tehuana dress. This clothing is something that was encouraged by her husband Diego Rivera, especially in their fight for change in their country. It showcased her pride in wearing indigenous and traditional clothing from Mexico.


Kahlo’s clothing is an important aspect of her life and work. After contracting polio as a child one of her legs was shorter than the other. Her colorful skirts became a way for her to conceal her leg in a way that protected her from scrutiny. Her wardrobe included Tehuana dresses, huipil blouses, rebozos, flowered headpieces, and antique jewelry. These garments are important to note when looking at works by Kahlo, as they are an illustration of her love, pain, and suffering that she incorporates in her work.

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By Adrienne HowellBA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel DesignAdrienne currently works as a photographer and visual artist in the Midwest. She earned degrees from Iowa State University with a BA in Integrated studio arts, focusing on drawing & painting, and a BS in Apparel Design with an emphasis on fashion and textiles.