Accessorizing Paris: Fashion and Art in the Nineteenth Century

Women’s fashion accessories were ubiquitous in France during the nineteenth century, especially in the undisputed seat of fashion, Paris. The accessory was essential to a lady’s toilette, signaling status in a world where, following the Revolution of 1789, class was an ever more fluid category. Different accessories were worn for different occasions, both public and private. Parasols, gloves, shawls, fans, and, of course, hats had practical functions, while also indicating wealth, manners, or taste. Artists served as keen observers of these trends and regularly incorporated them into their work – often harnessing or critiquing corresponding social associations.

Empress Joséphine by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, ca. 1808, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire at Palais Massena, Nice France

Some accessories were indirectly connected to political or cultural activities. The popularity of cashmere shawls, for example, can be traced to Napoleon I’s soldiers, who brought them to Paris from Egypt. Meanwhile, the prominence of such accessories paralleled the decorative role of women themselves, whose social function oftentimes was to identify the standing of her husband and family. 

While fashion is never without its detractors, it emerged in France in the nineteenth century as a dynamic industry. It offered a legitimate career path to working class women and over time became a powerful economic force, giving rise to the modern bourgeois shopper. Drawing from the Art Center’s collection, this exhibition places selected works of art in conversation with pieces from the Vassar Costume Shop and Archives & Special Collections, inviting viewers to consider women’s fashion accessories and its their representation in fine art, satirical prints, fashion journals, and advertisements.

This exhibition was organized by the Art Center and Susan Hiner, Professor of French & Francophone Studies, with the assistance of Emily Chancey ’18. Susan Hiner's 2011 publication, Accessories to Modernity, Fashion and Feminism in Nineteenth-Century France is available here


Les Baigneuses: Dans l'été ce n'est qu'ici que réellement je me trouve bien (The Bathers: In the summer, it is only here that I’m really myself), Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery Poster for La Revue blanche (The White Journal) Studies of a Southern Peasant Woman Cover for Le Rire (The Laugh) Afternoon Tea Party Study of a Peasant Woman Woman Mending La fontaine de jouvence (The Fountain of Youth) Carriage Day at the Races, Auteuil, Paris Croquet La couturière (The Seamstress), from Album de la Revue blanche Sur la scène (On Stage) from the portfolio Yvette Guilbert La Muse de la Brasserie (The Muse of the Brasserie) Cover for Le Rire (The Laugh) Gloves Installation Muff Selection of Hats Portrait of Standing Girl

Fashion Plates from Vassar College Libraries, Special Collections


Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton: Journal de Modes (Good Manners: Journal of Fashion) Fashion plate from Le Bon Ton: Journal de Modes (Good Manners: Journal of Fashion) Fashion plate from La Belle Assemblée, or, Bell's Court and Fashionable Magazine Fashion plate from Le Monde élégant (The Elegant World) Fashion plate from Le Monde élégant (The Elegant World) Fashion plate from Le Monde élégant (The Elegant World)