In viewing the collection of portraits by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, one can't help but be reminded of how fashion that ostentatiously celebrates wealth, position and class has all but faded from view.
Call it society fashion. Love it for its beauty. Loathe it because of what it represents: impenetrable class lines.
In the hyper-perfection of Ingres' paintings of wealthy and titled ladies and gentlemen, satin and lace are not merely part of a frock. They are distinct subjects within the work, competing with the people for attention and in many cases overshadowing them.
Consider the image of "Princesse Albert de Broglie" from 1853. The glorious sheen of her pale blue gown is more enchanting than her placid face. Her elaborate bracelets and dramatic pendant are more compelling than her almond eyes. She is what she wears. She is formality, appropriateness and reserve.
The clothes are not merely exceptional because of their grandeur, but also because of their inaccessibility. Money alone would not give a person access to these garments. Obtaining them required position, clout and connections. In the same way that Ingres carefully selected those he would paint, there was a time when couturiers could select their clients, when one needed a letter of introduction to book a fitting.
The princess also represents every pretense that the fashion industry, in recent years, has been shedding in order to survive. To be sure, fashion still lovingly polishes its patina of exclusivity. That, after all, is what propels prestige brands such as Gucci, Chanel and Prada to consistent profitability.
But what has allowed fashion to, if not flourish, at least survive has been the industry's ability to absorb the culture of the hoi polloi, to shatter the rules, to become increasingly more relaxed and to laugh at itself. Designer jeans, deconstructionism, lifestyle marketing and youth culture all have aided the fashion industry in stepping down from its pulpit to listen to its customers and stop preaching to them.
While Ingres' work dates to the 19th century, remnants of the fashion world he portrays lingered into the 1980s, clinging tenaciously to protocol with its array of elaborate ball gowns and flamboyant prestige jewelry. But in the last decade, the emphasis has changed dramatically. Instead of the immediately recognizable designer handbag, the fashion industry brought customers the impossibly discreet Prada backpack. And when designers do resort to obvious markers of wealth, such as the logo, the insignia is often oversize or delightfully garish so everyone knows they shouldn't take things too seriously.
Fashion and its place in society have shifted dramatically. Instead of social swells seeking wardrobes that suggest an elevated station in life, they look for soigne clothes that evoke leisure, ease and simplicity. Ivana Trump has given way to Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. Those who once made the rules of dress and decorum now obliterate them. Few folks can even remember the rules. The first lady wears trousers to official events; tousled hair is more desirable than perfectly lacquered bouffants; body-shaping hardware like industrial girdles has gone by the wayside; pantyhose is shunned by the voguish set.
Socialites such as Blaine Trump and Nan Kempner continue to keep the likes of Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and others in business. And a younger generation of social women--Aerin Lauder, Pia Getty, Crown Princess Marie-Chantal and Alexandra Von Furstenberg among them--are regularly hailed in fashion dispatches as the saviors of the bit of antiquity known as haute couture. But whenever these names are uttered as proof that this art will survive another generation, it is impossible not to hear the barely contained desperation.
The days when folks really cared about what such women wore are over. No one outside Seventh Avenue is concerned with Lauder's style, for instance. Outside Seventh Avenue, few could even identify her as a scion of the Estee Lauder cosmetics family.
Society fashion is dead. A Hollywood starlet or a hip-hop performer is more likely to define appropriate attire than the clench-jawed set.
Fashion survives in the form of Helmut Lang's undershirts, Gucci's ripped and beaded jeans, Camper's bowling shoes and Louis Vuitton ponchos. There is nothing overtly grand about these clothes at all. Their magic is in their ability to elevate the mundane through design, marketing and luck.
In some ways, it is sad that fashion has lost its ability to reflect protocol and formality. One can't help but get a bit nostalgic for a time when people put their best foot forward because society required such effort. But that longing is balanced by the realization that fashion no longer is party to class constraints and unalterable assumptions.
For better or worse, everyone has access to a pair of Chanel sneakers or a Gucci dog bowl, and no one has to know whether they were purchased on a whim or after months of dutiful saving.
CAPTION: Ingres' portrait of Princess Albert de Broglie: The garments outshine the woman.
CAPTION: The Vicomtesse Othenin d'Haussonville, part of "Portraits by Ingres: Images of an Epoch" at the National Gallery.
CAPTION: Portraits from the days of fashionable ostentation: From left, Madame Aymon, known as La Belle Zelie; Louis-Francois Bertin; and Madame de Senonnes.