The Age of Undress: Art, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s

Yale. Mar. 2020. 216p. ISBN 9780300241204. $50. FINE ARTS
The aesthetic virtue of Greek statues is reflected in the white muslin, high-waisted style of neoclassical dress. This fashion trend, often called empire style, began in the 1790s and was effectively outdated by 1820. Nevertheless, it marks a fascinating period of study of costume and social ideals about women, sensuality, and individual expression. As sculpture come to life, women who wore neoclassical dress were both admired for their beauty and fortitude while also mocked for seemingly appearing undressed and sexually indecent. Rauser (art history, Franklin and Marshall Coll., PA; Caricature Unmasked) carefully examines these responses to empire style within social, artistic, and racial contexts. She identifies individual women who influenced the style within continental Europe and England. Between chapters are short essays about the materiality of the dress, such as muslin’s transparency and ability to drape. Chapters and essays include ample illustrations of neoclassical dress in painting, drawing, and sculpture, providing a subtext on late 18th–century visual culture.
VERDICT This title will engage readers of costume scholarship as well as historians focused on the turn of the century. There is much to learn from the well-researched text, and the book is easy to browse for its rich images that exemplify the time period.
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