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Parisiennes Dress to Thrill in Corsets, Bustles at Met

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'The Millinery Shop'
"The Millinery Shop" (c. 1882-86) by Edgar Degas. In the late 19th century, the individualized and expensive chapeau was the essential crown and status symbol of any respectable woman. Source: The Art Institute of Chicago/Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art via Bloomberg

March 4 (Bloomberg) -- I felt woefully underdressed taking in the sumptuous new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Here were enormous bustles and hoops, flowing trains and billowing, tent-sized dresses, plus parasols, gloves, slippers, fans, bonnets, shawls and canes.

Poised rows of hourglass-shaped corsets and regal men’s hats herald the dawn of abstract modernist sculpture and our penchant for the spare and unadorned.

In masterful figure paintings by Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir, ample bosoms and bare shoulders blossom from untold yards of satin and silk, iridescent flesh emerging from a sea of flickering fabric.

“Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” displays 79 paintings alongside 14 lavish evening gowns and day dresses, some actually worn by the models depicted.

In a gallery devoted to white, Renoir treats the woman’s gown as downy cloud and frost-licked snow.

In a gallery featuring black, which Renoir called “the queen of colors,” Manet turns his “Parisienne” into a charming feathered bird with yellow-gloved claws.

Haute Couture

Glamorous period fashion magazines, photographs and prints provide context for this ravishing show devoted to the intersection of French Impressionist painting and late 19th-century Parisian haute couture.

Though posed standing or sitting still, these uneasy women can also appear to be in constant motion -- conflicted. At times, galloping legs seem to be hidden under voluminous skirts.

Some dresses, solid as architecture, soar like cathedrals. Others trail roiling wakes. In many of these portraits, the figure almost disappears and clothing becomes the real subject.

Seen in profile, the prominent bustle of Corot’s pensive “Lady in Blue” turns toward the viewer, as if she is about to snub us. In several canvases by Manet, the women’s spreading lower bodies pour and roll like waves.

Monet’s portrait of his wife, “Camille,” tilts the ground plane upward beneath her beautiful gray and green striped dress, giving her the appearance of climbing stairs, of ascension.

Caillebotte’s large, misty-gray “Paris Street; Rainy Day” ends the show. That iconic foggy scene depicting sharply dressed, umbrella-wielding Parisians looks as wet as the day it was painted.

Easy Virtue

It will get a lot of attention, but the real showstopper here is Courbet’s “Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer).” This masterpiece features two women of easy virtue, one of whom, with fingers curled and eyes closed, lies on her stomach. Her legs are parted, exposing her petticoats, and her midsection is telescoped, pushing into the earth, as if her body were responding to an imaginary lover.

Erotic, pleasurable and informative, this exhibition chronicles the rise of the department store and off-the-rack clothing, as well as the birth and decline of the bustle.

It also shows the Impressionist love of depicting modernity by capturing changing fashion. As Monet painted “Luncheon on the Grass,” he swapped out dresses and accessories and changed color combinations to ensure that his elegant Parisians were au courant.

What “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” demonstrates is not simply the ongoing relationship between fashion and art and, by extension, the interaction of high and popular culture.

It gives permanence to the transient.

“Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” runs through May 27 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and Patrick Cole on philanthropy.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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