Dress Code

Grand Street Brides, Grace Hartigan, 1954

Art records, glorifies, questions and, at its best, sends us somewhere deep inside ourselves. Researching nudes, https://kimmie53.com/2020/07/09/what-naked-women-can-tell-us-about-us/#more-14968 I was surprised at how one type of painting could reveal so much about sexual politics, changing artistic styles, and my own prejudices. I wondered what I might find if I researched paintings of women who are not nude.

Clothes give us clues about a person’s place in the world, self-image and expression. They also tell us something about time and place. Of course, I found plenty of paintings of people in clothes, but surprisingly few stories about their subjects’ attire.

Here is the best of what I found of women in clothes that tell a story.

The Elegant Togas of Ancient Egypt

Tomb painting, Egypt, c. 1400 BC

This is the oldest painting I could find of clothed women. Like so many women during ancient periods, these Egyptians are wearing what we call togas. Most paintings of the time were either of gods or the elite because, if you were neither, you probably didn’t have the time or the resources to paint, and it’s unlikely that anyone wanted to paint you. You can tell these are members of Egyptian elite because the fabric of their togas is sheer, and therefore refined, and adorned with colorful — and therefore expensive — collars and arm bands,

Botticelli’s Ode to The Power of Feminine

Pallas and the Centaur, Sandro Botticelli, 1482

This incredible painting by Botticelli shows the goddess Pallas Athena taking charge of the mean Centaur just before he shoots something with his bow and arrow. She is wearing a beautiful, sheer gown and a richly-dyed sash. A most striking feature of the painting is the contrast between the delicate, feminine gown — revealing the goddess’ sexuality and adorned with olive branches — and the subject’s powerful presence and control of a fearsome beast who probably represents our species’ less refined instincts. We can be girlish and powerful at the same time?


Frans Hals Channels Mennonite’s Inner Superiority

Feyntje van Steenkiste, 1635

Although it’s hard to imagine now, the Dutch were very buttoned-down in the 17th century. One of the best Dutch painters of the time was Frans Hals. In this portrait, we see Feyntje van Steenkiste, a Dutch Mennonite. Mennonites were pacifist Christians committed to living modestly and simply. They wore black and covered their hair.

But Frau van Steenkiste doesn’t let her religious views get in the way of making sure you know she is wealthy. Her dress is obviously something like a silk brocade and she is wearing a “millstone ruff.” According to Artsology, “The collars required several yards worth of linen, and had to be starched and ironed into pleats… The amount of fabric and time needed to create these collars made them very expensive, and therefore owning and wearing such an item reflected upon one’s wealth and sophistication.” All that money and not much fun.


Frida Kahlo’s Homage to Her Peeps

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Wa DC.

Mexico’s favorite artist, Frida Kahlo, famously wore the traditional dress of Mexican indigenous people at a time when the women in her circles were wearing flapper dresses. In this painting, Kahlo expresses her connection to her heritage as well as her modern views. The shawl or “rebozo,” was used by women revolutionaries in Mexico and has come to represent the empowerment of Mexican women. The letter she holds is to Leon Trotsky. It’s personal — the two had a brief affair — and also political, since Trotsky was a Communist leader of the Russian revolution. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/frida-kahlo-mexican-fashion/index.html

Gustav Klimt’s Fashionista Muse

Gustav Klimt’s paintings are famous for elaborate gowns, often layered with gold, flashy appliques or needlework. The woman behind the gowns is Emilie Floge, a Viennese fashion designer during the era of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. Floge’s designs were mostly “reformkleider,” flowing, free-form constructions that were dramatic departures from the corseted styles of the period. They  were too bohemian and flamboyant for most, but not for Klimt. His paintings celebrated them — and her. Klimt’s most famous work, “The Kiss,” is, you might say, autobiographical.  https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/art-books-music/a12241915/klimt-muse-emilie-floge-forgotten-fashion-designer/

Monet’s Failed Attempt at Cultural Appropriation

La Japonaise, Claude Monet, 1876.

Claude Monet’s portrait of his wife in a kimono reflects the “Japonism” movement in the US, a fascination with all things Japanese that followed Japan’s agreement to open trade with the US and Europe. This trade “agreement” was Japan’s response to a threat by the US to burn Tokyo to the ground.

There are many wonderful paintings of the period that incorporate Japanese design and themes. This is not one of them, but it has an interesting story.

The painting belongs to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which, in 2015, did a dumb thing. It invited visitors to “channel your inner Monet” by dressing up in red kimonos and blond wigs for a photograph with the painting. Predictably, this PR stunt motivated protests by demonstrators who accused the museum of treating Japanese culture as caricature and ignoring the complicated history that is the painting’s context.  https://news.artnet.com/art-world/outrage-boston-museum-of-fine-arts-disgraceful-kimono-event-314534

The museum rebounded. The following year, it hosted an exhibit that offered a more nuanced history of Asia’s influence on arts and culture in other parts of the world. This Monet painting, however, remains an artistic embarrassment.

Basquiat’s Holy Trinity

Mater, Jean-Michele Basquiat, 1986

Jean-Michele Basquiat is one of the 20th century’s most important artists, and was wildly successful even before he died at age 27. I love his paintings, which are full of spirits and emotion, speaking to issues of race and history. Although he painted many women who appear nude, “Mater” is the only work I could find of a woman who might be even partially clothed.

Because of its title, I first assumed “Mater” is a portrait of his mother, Mathilde, who always encouraged her son’s talent and passion. But the blue attire on the figure suggests this might be a reference to the Virgin Mary, perhaps as a metaphor for his adoring mother (who was Puerto Rican and probably Catholic) as well as another important woman in his life — the singer Madonna. The painting explodes with joy and sexuality.


That’s all for now….



“Creativity takes courage.”
— Henri Matisse


  1. Very interesting and informative, Kim. I had no idea that the “millstone ruff” worn by the Mennonite woman was so intricately designed and costly. Very austere female attire. I agree when you say, “All that money and not much fun.”

  2. Querida Kim — I’m loving taking your online Art Appreciation course. Really, you must propose it to a university so that many other hungry minds will have the pleasure.

  3. Thank you Kim for sending this very interesting info
    Reading your thoughts makes me feel closer to you

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