In addition to studying Rebecca Arnold’s MA at the Courtauld, I also work as a gallery assistant at Christie’s. In this part time role I work across various sales, engaging with clients, specialists and a wide range of art and historical objects. By lucky and unexpected chance, I occasionally come across wonderful treasures relating to dress history. It was on my shift attending the ‘Old Master & British Drawings & Watercolours’ December sale viewing, that I discovered an illustration by George Barbier. Made in 1925, the costume study, likely intended for a theatrical production, depicts a poised lady drinking a cup of tea, wearing a dramatic gown in a buffoon-style 19th century silhouette. Dress historians may well be familiar with Barbier’s Art Deco style illustrations, made famous by his collaboration with Paul Poiret. The graphic artist was also involved in creating and documenting sumptuous costume and set designs for the theatre. Though I had previously encountered printed examples of Barbier’s work, this was the first time I had seen an original drawing. What struck me about this sketch was the paradoxical play between and historical accuracy and dramatic artificiality.
The gown’s silhouette, tightly corseted at the waist, with a ballooning skirt, reminded me of an earlier sketch our class encountered in the Courtauld’s prints and drawings room. A half body watercolour portrait of Lady Adelaide Stanhope by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860), shares many similarities with the upper section of Barbier’s illustration. From the straight cut across the bust, to the unnatural slope of the shoulders, the use of sugary floral adornments, tight shiny ringlets and passive gaze. Barbier’s graphic illustration disrupts this representation of soft femininity through the dramatic explosion of floral motifs cascading down the thick black band at the hem of the skirt. Barbara Matorelli, who has written about Barbier’s work, believed his conception of staging design consisted of uniting simple scenes with sumptuous costumes that were intended to stand out against the neutrality of a dark background. These costumes were perceived to be ‘theoretically accurate’ through their silhouettes, however their surfaces functioned like a canvas, through which Barbier could theatrically renew past styles, cleverly evading anachronism. This is particularly evident with the sketch sold at Christie’s, which fuses historical dress construction with a contemporary graphic illustrative design style.
Reference: Matorelli, Barbara. George Barbier: The Birth of Art Deco. Italy: Marsilio, 2009.