Shortly after the Museum of Fine Arts began promoting its “Fashioned by Sargent” special exhibition, Belmont-based attorney and hobbyist costumer Tanya Austin started getting Facebook messages from her friends in the costuming community. “They were saying, ‘You need to go to this!’” said Austin in a phone interview.
The show, which opened in October and closes Jan. 15, focuses on American artist John Singer Sargent’s depictions of clothing in portraits, and also includes a handful of the period items of clothing actually shown in the paintings. Already it was of interest to Austin, who has been making her own costumes for around 30 years.
However, there was one specific painting — and garment — that prompted the messages. For a costumers’ conference in 2019, Austin had worked on and off for nine months to create a replica of an ethereal green dress embellished with jewel beetle wings, as seen in Sargent’s portrait of actress Ellen Terry as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Both the painting and the original dress were on display, on loan from the United Kingdom’s National Trust.
“So it was definitely in the cards,” said Austin, 43. “I was going to go in the costume.”
Austin is just one of several museumgoers in the past three months who have arrived at the Sargent exhibition dressed to impress. Once the museum realized how the exhibition was inspiring these visitors, the social media team encouraged them to share their pictures in costume, but it hadn’t been part of the original plan.
“We just started seeing people doing it,” said MFA senior curator of American paintings Erica Hirshler, who curated the Sargent exhibit and wrote its wall text and labels. She has seen some like Austin who have come to match a specific painting, and others simply in period dress, she said. A few months ago, she saw a group of women in the museum café wearing dresses with bustles, which were most popular in the 1870s and 1880s.
“Really, it’s so satisfying,” Hirshler said. “One of my underpinning ideas for the exhibition is that portraiture really is a performance, and to see people making performances themselves really catches the underlying concept of the exhibition.”
Professional costumer Brooke Stanton expressed a similar sentiment. “It was like guerrilla theater,” she said of her Dec. 21 visit to the exhibit with a group of five people and a tote bag full of costumes.
In most of Sargent’s portraits, the faces are detailed and lifelike, but the costumes blur fantasy and reality. Sargent would often tell his subjects what to wear, add items to their outfits, or manipulate their clothing to hide or reveal certain elements once they were posed. “He pinned and draped, he changed or ignored decorative details, and sometimes he simply made it up,” Hirshler wrote in an exhibit label.
He was also particular about the quality of the textiles in his paintings, Stanton said. “He captured the finest satins, the most rich velvets. You could see his impeccable taste in each one of the costumes that they displayed,” she said.
“He can give the impression of fabric and embroidery and all the embellishments without necessarily producing them in fine detail,” Austin said. “I appreciate that, because you don’t have to be photographically perfect to convey the impression you want to give.”
When Austin visited the exhibit, she was able to see both Sargent’s painting and the Lady Macbeth dress — designed by Alice Comyns Carr — in person for the first time, and she was eager to find out how her work measured up to the original.
“The color probably faded over time, but I also think Sargent may have taken liberties with the original colors to make it more striking in the painting,” she said. “It was really neat seeing just how the beetle wings have been incorporated, and what the actual fabric looks like.”
As Austin moved through the gallery in the Lady Macbeth dress, some people “politely ignored” her, she said, but others were excited and asked her for photos, especially once she was standing in front of the painting. Coincidentally, Hirshler was in the gallery with friends when Austin visited, and the two connected.
Unlike Austin, Stanton didn’t have any specific replicas of the clothing in Sargent’s paintings, but as the costume shop director at Brandeis University, she had plenty of near matches, she said. Her extended family was in town for the holidays, and Stanton sewed bejeweled straps for a black dress so that her aunt, actress Julia Parker, could pose as the famous “Madame X.”
“She has the perfect profile,” Stanton said.
Even after the Sargent exhibition closes, Hirshler thinks museums can take away lessons about encouraging engagement with art. “I don’t think it has to be something that’s limited to a special exhibition,” Hirshler said. Some have told her that they’ve gotten into discussions with strangers about the portraits, who their subjects were, and why Sargent made the choices he did in immortalizing them on canvas. “I love that,” she said. “I love that it brings people together.”