Regardless of time or place, fashion has been an unmistakable facet of portraiture. What someone is wearing in their depiction can tell the viewer the period in which it was painted, the economic standing of the sitter, their relative age, and much much more. While the faces of the subjects are important for identification, their clothing gives further insight to their lives. In John Trumbull’s portrait of Reverend Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright (1820) we can assess what kind of man he is without ever knowing his title. He is clothed in traditional clergyman robes—an austere black and white. The overall lack of color in his wardrobe signifies a devotion to his religious practices while the singularly bright book indicates his passion for the scriptures.
In John Sargent Singer’s portrait of the young Cara Burch (1888), we see at first a young lady. She is clothed in a stark white frock against the back of a bright red chair. The dress is pristine and modest, hiding her neck and arms as a sign of prudence. The stark whiteness of her dress also hints to her social standing; white was not a color of the common class for it dirtied easily and was more difficult to get completely clean. Therefore, we can assume she comes from an affluent family that was able to afford such a rare commodity. Though not explicitly stated, the white represents her purity and youth. Her hair is also down, rather than tied back—a signifier of both her youth and her privileged circumstances. If she were painted in a more common fashion—duller colors and less extravagant—the underlying tones of the portrait change completely.
However, fashion isn’t just for the rich—in fact, typically, it was what could be afforded and complemented one’s occupation. In John George Brown’s The Prospector, the subject’s wardrobe isn’t particularly outlandish nor does it draw attention for being traditionally “fashionable,” yet it is almost exactly that which makes it important. This man is shown in comfortable work-type wear that almost blends in with his surroundings. It is a far cry from the stark whites or true blacks seen in the aforementioned portraiture, rather, he is dressed in subtle earth tones. It is unlikely the subject had any care or attention to what he was wearing, but as an average worker, one can assume his dress was more or less standard and utilitarian. It is this prevalence that, I argue, would qualify this “look” as a trend—perhaps not motivated by “style” but one more of practicality.
Lastly, in Robert Henri’s Spanish Girl of Segovia (1918), we can see a glimpse of the way fashion and trends differed from region to region in the early 20th Century. Because the global market was still in development, styles tended to differ greatly, especially in countries that didn’t necessarily follow the Anglo-American tradition. Though the viewer might have little knowledge of the Spanish tradition, the bright and festive colors suggest immediately a person of a higher class. Her fan, a common aspect of the Spanish social hierarchy, might be indicative of her social standing. However, because of the lack of detail on the fan, one might assume that she is of the middle class.
While fashion is in today’s world is considered to be the latest, most up to date trends, it can be analyzed in artworks to reveal more about the sitter. It can be used to date and identify aspects of a sitter’s life, even if the subject is long gone–proof that fashion trends (when preserved through art) are lasting and can be truly informative. What do current trends say? What does your wardrobe tell other people about you? What will it tell people in 100, 200, or even 300 years? Do you think it will be accurate? Can we really get concrete information out of art based on the subject’s clothing?