Lifestyle & Culture

Clothing as Culture

December 1, 2023

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An installation view of “Mood of the Moment: Gaby Aghion and the House of Chloé” at the Jewish
Museum, NY, October 13, 2023-February 18, 2024. / Photo by Dario Lasagni. Image courtesy the
Jewish Museum, NY.

By Nancy McKeon

THE CLOTHES we put on our back when we go out into the world are “signifiers,” markers of our social status, our personality, announcements of our sexual availability (or not), the codes of our tribal membership. All true, but yada-yada. They’re also just plain fun to look at and dream about (otherwise why would we still have couture?).

Museums, always looking for ways to engage with us upper masses  (a term I just learned*), have in recent years embraced clothing as a draw. Here are three current exhibits that hope to entice holiday travelers to their halls, in New York, Pittsburgh, and Boston.

To take Boston first, there’s Fashioned by Sargent, a mounting of portraits by John Singer Sargent at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, organized with Tate Britain. Aside from just being downright gorgeous, the show has a premise, that Sargent had a hand in choosing the garb of the estimable (or just rich) people who sat for him and was sending out messages by way of clothing (“The coat is the picture,” he apparently told one of his subjects). Maybe. But why not just enjoy the sumptuous gowns and gentlemanly dressing gowns and riding clothes—and especially a very modern-looking, almost casual, portrait of John D. Rockefeller, painted in 1917. The nice thing for winter travelers is that the show runs through January 15, 2024. (If you get to Boston before January 7, you can also see MFA’s multifaceted Strong Women in Renaissance Italy.)

Left, Madame Ramón Subercaseaux, 1880–81. Oil on canvas. Sarofim Foundation. Photograph © the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Right, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892. Oil on canvas. National Galleries of Scotland, purchased with the aid of the Cowan Smith Bequest Fund, 1925.





At left, John D. Rockefeller, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1917. Oil on canvas. Kykuit, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Pocantico Hills, New York. Bequest of John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Laurance S. Rockefeller, David Rockefeller. Photo by Ben Asen. Right, Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel, 1903. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Rachel Warren Barton and Emily L. Ainsley Fund.









Fashioned by Sargent, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02115; phone 615-267-9300; General admission for adults is $27; general plus the Sargent exhibit is $34. Timed ticket required. On view through January 15, 2024. 

This winter the Jewish Museum in Manhattan dives right into the House of Chloé: There never was a designer named Chloé. The design house is the brainchild of Gaby Aghion, an Egyptian emigré, and Chloé was the name of a friend. Aghion launched her line in 1952 Paris, but more than a designer, she was a woman with a desire to breathe a new spirit into the clothing of the moment—not couture, not copies of couture. And it happened, arguably because she evolved the business to embrace a young Karl Lagerfeld, who went on to head the design for 25 years, in two different stints; Martine Sitbon (“the first young girl to be named designer for the house”; Stella McCartney, who went on to create her own empire; Phoebe Philo, who launched her own first fashion line last month; Gabriela Hearst, who also has her own label and has prioritized sustainability in fashion. There are others, also represented in the show. The historical overview explore the ways in which each subsequent creative director after Aghion uniquely interpreted the Chloé ethos and echoed the needs of their time, from the development of ready-to-wear to embracing sustainable practices in fashion.

Two Chloe pieces designed by Karl Lagerfeld, who headed design early in his career and then a second stint. Left, “Angkor” dress designed by Karl Lagerfeld, spring–summer 1983. © Chloé Archive, Paris. Right, “Astoria” dress, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, spring–summer 1967, hand-painted silk crepe by Nicole Lefort. © Chloé Archive, Paris. Both photos by Julien T. Hamon. Courtesy the Jewish Museum, NY.

Left, dress designed by Martine Sitbon, spring–summer 1990, silk crepe, black chiffon, plastic
pellets, and beads. © Chloé Archive, Paris.
Right, blouse designed by Stella McCartney, autumn–winter 2001. © Chloé Archive, Paris.
Both photos by Julien T. Hamon. Courtesy the Jewish Museum, NY.

Left, blouse designed by Phoebe Philo, spring–summer 2002, silk crepe. © Chloé Archive, Paris.
Right, Puffcho designed by Gabriela Hearst, autumn–winter 2021. © Chloé Archive, Paris.
Both photos by Julien T. Hamon. Courtesy the Jewish Museum, NY.

Mood of the Moment: Gaby Aghion and the House of Chloé, Jewish Museum,  1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street. Phone 212-423-3200; Admission for adults is $18, for seniors $12. Times ticket required. On view through February 18, 2024.

“14 years. 380 Embroiderers. 51 countries. Millions of stitches. 1 dress.” That’s how the Frick Pittsburgh announced this collaborative embroidery project. The Red Dress was conceived by British artist Kirstie Macleod as an artistic platform for women around the world, many of whom are vulnerable and live in poverty, to tell their personal stories through embroidery. The dress, which has toured the globe since 2009, features contributions from 380 artists from 51 countries. Incorporated into this exhibition are the Calico Dress, Pittsburgh’s own version of The Red Dress, created by local embroiderers, craftspeople and imaginative Frick visitors, and a paper dress by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave inspired by a Frick holding, Peter Paul Rubens’s Portrait of Charlotte-Marguerite de Montmorency, Princess of Condé. If you cannot get to Pittsburgh to view The Red Dress, it will next be exhibited at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts (February 17 through May 19, 2024).

The Red Dress worn by UK artisan Freya Lusher. / Photo by Sophia Schorr-Kon.

The Red Dress embroidery detail. / Photo by Sophia Schorr-Kon.

Artisan Ayo Amon Demi holds a piece of The Red Dress. / Photo by Chloe Townsend.

The Red Dress, The Frick Pittsburgh, 7227 Reynolds Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15208. Phone 412-371-0600; Admission is free ($5 contribution suggested). On view through January 28,2024.



* My understanding is that it means those who have hit millionaire status only to discover that that really isn’t a lot of money anymore.

3 thoughts on “Clothing as Culture

  1. Nancy G says:

    Clothing as culture really nails it. We dress not just for ourselves, but for the times we live in, as well. I love the Red Dress, and the idea behind it, but don’t think we’ll get there to see it in person. As for the Boston show, we’re going up for a wedding, but not until June 1, and the exhibit will be gone. But we’ll definitely get to the Chloe one in NYC, right??

    1. Janet Kelly says:


  2. Barbara Kreger says:

    I was lucky to see the scrumptious Sargents at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A huge treasure, room after room of gorgeous paintings. Yes, it was a surprise to read the museum labels next to a great many painting indicating Sargent selected and often rejected a garment to be worn by the subject.

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