You Should Be Reading: Dress in Paintings

One of my first assignments in my M.A. program was to visit a museum and select a painting for study and analysis. Having always been drawn to medieval scenes, I chose the triptych panel, “Young Woman with a Pink,” by Netherlandish painter Hans Memling. Research into the smallest elements of our woman’s dress revealed historical and social context that would never fit onto a tombstone label. In her fascinating account of dress in Vermeer’s domestic interiors, fashion historian Marieke de Winkel contends that interpretation of dress is not ancillary to the study of art history, but a key element in understanding art. Linked below are analyses of fashion in paintings, including de Winkel’s explorations of Vermeer and of Rembrandt, an essay on the controversy surrounding Sargent’s “Madame X,”  and the catalog for the recent exhibition Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity. Note to readers without institutional affiliation: JSTOR is testing a new program, “Register and Read” that allows free read-online access when you register for a MyJSTOR account. 

 1. de Winkel, Marieke (1998). The Interpretation of Dress in Vermeer’s PaintingsStudies in the History of Art, 55, 326-339.

Art historians traditionally treat the history of dress as an ancillary discipline, helpful mainly in the dating of works of art. In the case of painters such as Vermeer, where only a few works are dated, this is certainly a useful approach. In the interpretation of dress, however, art historians tend to rely on their personal, usually general, knowledge of clothing, with often unfortunate consequences. Accurate analysis requires knowledge of the material culture and historical context of the period in question, and the challenge to the historian of costume is to connect the visual and written evidence, although frequently there seems to be no apparent link between the two. Another essential problem is the question of whether or not genre painting depicts clothes that were actually worn. In addition to documentary and literary evidence, the comparison with surviving items or dress can be valuable in this respect. Unfortunately, few seventeenth-century garments have survived in the Netherlands itself. Some examples in England, however, can be related to costumes seen in contemporary Dutch painting. Another interesting source of information is seventeenth-century dollhouses, three of which are on display in Dutch museums. –Article Excerpt

2.  de Winkel, Marieke (2006). Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s PaintingsAmsterdam University Press

Until now dress has played only a subordinate role in the research of Rembrandt’s paintings, despite the fact that few artists are as intensively studied as this Dutch master. The lacuna is all the more surprising since Rembrandt obviously delighted in rendering clothes, which, for him, not only communicated the character and social status of his sitters but also clarified his narratives and heightened the drama in his historical pieces. Here, Marieke de Winkel offers a fascinating and much-needed study of dress and costume in the works of Rembrandt. – From the publisher

3. Groom, Gloria Lynn, ed. (2012). Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity. Art Institute of Chicago. 

This volume is the first to explore fashion as a critical aspect of modernity, one that paralleled and many times converged with the development of Impressionism, starting in the 1860s and continuing through the next two decades, when fashion attracted the foremost writers and artists of the day. Although they have depicted fashionable subjects throughout history, for many artists and writers, including Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Émile Zola, Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, fashion became integral to the search for new literary and visual expression. In a series of essays that examine fashion and its social, cultural, and artistic context during some of the most important years of the Impressionist era—years that also gave birth to the modern fashion industry—a group of fifteen scholars, drawn from five interdisciplinary fields, examine approximately 140 Impressionist-era artworks, including those by dedicated fashion portraitists, in light of the rise of the department store, new working methods for designing clothing, and new social and technological changes that led to the democratization of fashion and, simultaneously, its ascendance as a vehicle for modernity. – From the publisher

 4. Sidlauskas, Susan (2001). Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X”American Art, 15(3), 8-33.

In this essay, I try to understand the social and cultural circumstances of the creation and reception of Sargent’s Madame X in light of recent ideas about the presentation of the self-the various ways we display who we are and who we want to be-at its most fundamental level, in and through the skin of the body. My hope is to explore more fully why the painting inspired such intense reactions when it was first exhibited, and why it continues to fascinate. –Article Excerpt

Image credit: Vermeer’s The Art of Painting from Google Cultural Institute.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.