In Opera, and at the Museum, Clothing Makes the Character

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After publishing an article on May 10 about the sensorial blandishments of Aix-en-Provence and a documentary film about a production of La Traviata done there in 2011, I decided to spend the rest of the day at New York’s other Metropolitan, the magnificent art museum. At the heart of the word museum is the suggestion of a gathering of the muses. What better company could I ask for on my birthday? There is no finer gift than inspiration, something this Metropolitan can dole out with unstinting generosity.

I decided to visit the spanking-new exhibition, “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” that documents the evolution of fashion and style three and four decades ago, especially punk music’s influence on fashion. The show is meant to shock (the first room contains a recreation of a Punk-era public toilet) but I found it a bit disappointing because there was a sameness about the clothes, most of which ask to be noticed rather than admired.

I discovered another exhibition in a nearby gallery. “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” gave me so much more to think about than I would have expected. It is only up until May 27 and is worth getting to. You should see it after visiting the Punk exhibition.

The Impressionism exhibition made, well, more of an impression on me because it is more ambitious in scope and better curated. It posits that in 19th century France there was an interaction between painting and fashion, one in which these art forms drew from and inspired one another. The key word in the title of the show is “Modernity.” While most of the clothing in Impressionist Paris covered more skin than in Punk New York or London, it was at least as sensual and provocative. At its best, it shocked much more than a Punk woman in torn black tulle.

In my mind as I walked through this exhibition was that I was looking at clothing and paintings made at a time when Paris was the world capital of opera. The clothing I saw might have been worn by men and women attending a performance at the Opéra Garnier. It was intended not only to look good and confer a sense of occasion but also to subtly send out signals of flirtation and attraction.

Charles Baudelaire, in "The Painter in Modern Life" (1863), wrote, "sometimes in the diffused radiance of opera or theater, young girls of the best society, their shoulders, eyes, and jewels catching the light, resemble gorgeous  portraits as they sit in their boxes, which serve as picture frames. Some prim and proper, others frivolous and fair...they are theatrical or solemn like the play or opera they pretend to be looking at."

Two paintings by Mary Cassatt made me think of how Parisian audiences dressed. Both depict women attending performances. One, In the Loge, shows a woman with binoculars deeply engaged in what she is viewing. The other, Woman with a Pearl Necklace, shows a woman being admired as she sits in a box at the Paris Opera (right).

In front of two paintings by Édouard Manet, I scrawled a note to myself: “It is one thing to have a fashion eye and quite another to have a style eye.” In general terms, many of the Punk clothes were fashionable, as were some of the older Parisian garments, but many other of the French clothes had style because they expressed the aesthetic of the wearer at least as much as of the designer. I don’t think that the Punk fashions did much to reveal an inner self but, instead, were costumes that were worn on the street by real people rather than by performers playing characters on the stage. 

The two Manet paintings stopped me in my tracks. One is called Repose (ca. 1871) in which a woman in a black and white dress is seated, perhaps leaning, on a divan in a position that does not seem logical but is all about character and provocation. We see just a glimpse of her ankle but that, and her eyes, are enough to transfix the observer. The sexuality is unmistakable but it is also understated.

The other painting, from 1875, is called La Parisienne (left). The subject was the actress Ellen Andrée, almost fully clothed in black but oozing a compelling allure that only a charismatic person and a superb painter can communicate. She is so much more interesting than many current fashion models whose vacant poutiness is prized more than real personality.

Renoir once remarked that “Black is the queen of colors.” We think of it in “the little black dress” as well as in the tuxedo, that most iconic fashion for males. Paul Valéry referred to the color this way: “Before all else, Black, absolute black...the black that is Manet’s alone.” Indeed, the variety of tones and textures Manet found in the color, as evidenced by the paintings at the Met, makes one think that no other color is necessary.

These paintings, and many others in the exhibition, made me think of how opera characters are clothed and how singers wear those clothes. Sad to say, most people nowadays (including many singers) have no idea how to wear clothes. Singers, onstage, need to be taught how to wear costumes, not only for proper movement but for creation of character.

Beverly Sills once told me that she created her interpretation of Massenet’s Manon based on five pairs of shoes, each pair relating to a different phase of the character’s life. She said that the way they felt, what they did to her posture, and the way she felt walking in them, was the secret to understanding Manon. The clothes were left to the designer, but Sills bought her own shoes.

In the best paintings and photographs, you can always tell who is merely adorned with clothes and who is actually wearing and living in them. What we see, or sense, in the wearers is posture, skin, bones, musculature, and torsion. The same thing applies to how opera singers and actors wear clothing. The difference is that when we dress in “real life,” we express our own style and aesthetic and, by extension, our views of ourselves. In contrast, opera costumes—even in contemporary dress—are intended to convey the story and backstory of the characters they are designed for.

At the museum, La Traviata kept passing through my mind. It is the rare opera which, I believe, effectively makes an easy transition from traditional to contemporary costumes. Verdi intended it to mirror the values (romance, hypocrisy, etc.) of his own society and its characters wore clothes similar to what the audience wore. And so it can be today.

At the start of Terrence McNally’s play, Master Class, the actress playing Maria Callas steps to the edge of the stage and chides audience members she considers slovenly: “You have to have a look,” she insists. She is right, to the extent that if we have a signature garment or color that is a marker or enhances our presence, that is good.

As the muses continued to work their ways on me, I thought of Ruth Morley (1925-1991), a highly influential costume designer, and friend of mine, who has been unjustifiably forgotten. Ruth was probably best known for her costumes for films, ranging from The Hustler (1961) and The Miracle Worker (1962) to Taxi Driver (1976), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Ghost (1990) and Prince of Tides (1991).

Two films Ruth worked on had costumes that became legendary. In Tootsie (1982), Dustin Hoffman played a struggling actor who finds more work when dressed as a woman than he did as a man. Ruth’s clothing for him needed to be humorous, attractive and believable, and she succeeded on all counts. Hoffman built his character of Michael/Dorothy on many things, including his voice and body language and, above all, Ruth’s priceless costumes.

Her other achievement that forever changed the way we see costuming was Annie Hall (1977). Here is one of those rare examples in which fashion and style converged. When we think of Diane Keaton in the title role, there is her expert delivery of Woody Allen’s lines but also the fact that Annie, and Keaton, have a look. It is a convergence of Keaton’s own style and Ruth’s ability to capture that and transform it into the character of Annie. What was remarkable at the time was that fashion designers (as opposed to costume designers) and millions of women copied the Keaton/Annie Hall look and, amazingly, almost all of them became stylish.

At the museum, I noticed that so few people were fashionable, stylish, or had a look. I mused that those riveting figures in the paintings by Manet and Cassatt were looking at all the people wearing mass-produced ill-fitting clothing in a limited palette of drab colors and thought to themselves, “if only these people could have a look!”

Images: Wikipedia Commons; Hei-Kyung Hong and the company of 'La traviata' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera); Dianne Keaton and Woody in 'Annie Hall'