Artful Nature: Fashion and Theatricality 1770-1830
Between 1770 and 1830, both fashionable dress and theatrical practice underwent dramatic changes in an attempt to become more “natural.” And yet this desire was widely recognized as paradoxical, since both fashion and the theater were longstanding tropes of artifice. In this exhibition, we examine this paradox of “artful nature” through the changing conception of theatricality during these decades, as mirrored and expressed in fashionable dress. Theater and performance practices in the late eighteenth-century, including the vogue for private theatricals, reinforced the blurred lines between the theater and everyday life. Classical sculpture became a reference point for women, as its artistic excellence was acclaimed precisely because it seemed so “natural.” But when actresses, dancers, painters, or just regular fashionistas posed themselves as classical statues come to life, they acted as both Pygmalion and Galatea, both the genius artist and the living artwork. “Artful Nature” refers simultaneously to the theatricality and deception typically attributed to fashionable women in the late eighteenth century, and at the same time to the potential survival strategies employed by women artists, authors, and actresses to craft their own parts.
Laura Engel, Professor of English, Duquesne University
Amelia Rauser, Professor of Art History, Franklin & Marshall College
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Published June 2020