Subverting Sartorial Norms

Earlier this month I travelled to Paris for a few days for a conference on Nomadic Objects in the early modern world. The last time I was in Paris for an academic event, a year ago, I made it to the Musée Cluny and the Musée d’Orsay; this time it was the turn of the Louvre and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The Louvre’s entry system for exhibitions is horrendously inefficiently, but after a lot of queuing I finally made it in to see ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting’, which was well worth the wait. The exhibition presents a range of paintings by Vermeer and his Dutch contemporaries and demonstrates the interconnections between their work, how certain themes and motifs were used by multiple different artists. It’s a good attempt to try and contextualise an artist who tends to be held up above others as a particular genius, and many of the works on display are both attractive in their own right and interesting depictions of seventeenth-century domestic life.

            Alongside wandering around the main painting galleries of the Louvre looking for portraits of use to my research, the other exhibition I had the opportunity to see was ‘Tenue correcte exigée: Quand le vêtement fait scandale’ at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. This exhibition is an exploration of clothing codes and fashion scandals in Western Europe from the fourteenth century to the present day, of the idea that throughout history fashionable dress has always been ridiculed and vilified, seen to be at fault. Indeed, the exhibition begins with a painting by Lucas Cranach of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and an explanation of dress’s connection to original sin. As the introduction to the exhibition states, the history of fashion is filled with outfits now seen as iconic, ‘But before they became emblematic, all of these garments marked a break with the norm; their arrival caused suspicion, virulent criticism, and sometimes even an outright ban. While these fashions seduced some, they offended others by transgressing the established order’.

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            The exhibition is split into three sections, the first of which examines the issue of clothing codes and the idea that in any given period, ‘people have always been bound by the rules and customs of dress’. It explores official laws that were instituted to control what people could wear, such as early modern sumptuary legislation, placing manuscripts and printed proclamations on display alongside examples of the lace and velvets whose use was restricted or prohibited. But the focus is mainly placed on social and cultural clothing codes, those that were dictated by prevailing ideas of taste, proper behaviour and social convention, including women changing their outfits multiple times a day in the nineteenth century, wearing particular styles of dress to court in the eighteenth century, and wearing certain types of clothing for events like weddings, funerals and communions. The exhibition shows instances of dress codes changing over time, such as trainers now being acceptable to wear outside of a sporting context and the fact that smoking jackets were rather relaxed items of menswear in the nineteenth century, but then evolved into the formal dinner jacket in the twentieth century. There are examples of the active subversion of sartorial codes, such as the influence of nightwear on fashionable dress, and there are also examples of the power of sartorial codes, as when the painter Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun tried to submit a portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing a robe chemise to the French Salon, only to be told that the Queen’s clothes were too scandalous and that she should submit an alternative portrait of Marie Antoinette, more conservatively attired.

            The second section of the exhibition is on the adoption and appropriation of dress usually worn by the opposite gender. It looks at instances of women wearing men’s clothes, like Joan of Arc, Frances Stuart, and the donning of trousers by women (featuring the extraordinary fact that in 1800 it was ordered that any woman who wanted to dress like a man would have to get a permit from the prefect of police in Paris, and that this law was only actually revoked in 2013). It also looks at the male adoption of skirts, the attacks on the perceived flamboyance and effeminacy of the court of Henry III, and eighteenth-century criticisms of men wearing make-up.

            The third section of the exhibition is about excess and garments being thought to be ‘over the top’ in some way, with each case themed around a different ‘extravagance’. So ‘Too large’ encompasses petticoat breeches, bell bottoms, Oxford bags, and the Zoot suit, while a case on dress that’s ripped and unkempt includes punk, sixteenth-century slashing and the eighteenth-century Incroyables, showing how while fashions have changed throughout history, similar faults have often been found. ‘Too tall’ focuses on high heels, ‘Too short’ on the miniskirt. There are also cases on ‘Too tight’, ‘Too much colour’, ‘Too low cut’, ‘Too transparent’, and ‘Too much fabric’, amongst others. The final case is on recent dress and fashion shows that have been (deliberately) uncomfortable and provocative, such as John Galliano’s ‘homeless’ collection for Dior, Alexander McQueen’s ‘Highland Rape’ collection, and Rick Owen’s A/W 2015 menswear collection where the models’ genitals were frequently visible.


A courtier changes his clothes following the introduction of a new sumptuary law. Abraham Bosse, ‘Le courtisan suivant le dernier edit’, c. 1633. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-2009-1052.

            The exhibition has thus been made up of a multitude of tiny case studies, and although some of them are a little less successfully tied to the wider theme than others, they allow for a wide-ranging consideration of the idea of clothing codes and acceptable dress throughout history. I found my visit to ‘Tenue correcte exigée’ really enjoyable and informative, and I felt that it was a much more accessible consideration of clothing that has been seen as difficult, distasteful or subversive than ‘The Vulgar’ at the Barbican. Given that a lot of exhibitions now focus on single designers, it was nice to see a themed exhibition, and one that covered both menswear and womenswear (there was far more than just the odd token bit of men’s clothing) AND which took a historical long view (and a long view that didn’t just begin in the eighteenth century). The exhibition is attractively designed, and has used a productive mixture of garments alongside supplementary materials such as paintings, prints, tapestries, books and photographs, combining items from the collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs with loans. My key quibble with the exhibition is the fact that although it acknowledges that clothing codes are constantly changing, it doesn’t fully examine how those changes occur or the role of fashion; it looks at the rebelliousness of the moment of fashion change, but not at the process by which fashions become accepted, widely adopted and the new norm.

            By taking an expansive approach, ‘Tenue correcte exigée’ effectively shows how – whatever the prevailing fashion or historical and cultural context – the castigation and control of clothing has always been a constant, even in the present day. For ‘Novelty is disruptive’, and though we now have more freedom in the way we dress than people in the fourteenth century, ‘certain sartorial eccentricities remain unacceptable’. As the exhibition remarks in its final gallery:

‘Don’t stand out; don’t draw attention to yourself; don’t wear clothes for the opposite sex; reject inappropriate forms and conspicuous colours; dress according to your age, sex, social status and activities: these are the basic rules to respect in order to avoid attracting inquisitive gazes, mockery or insults. Today, the codes have relaxed, but that doesn’t mean a sartorial scandal can’t break out at any moment. Are we really that free from our ancestors? Can we really dress however we wish?’

Images of the exhibition can be seen here