How to Dress Like You’re in a John Singer Sargent Painting

How To Dress Like Your Novel is a series in which we explore what Creative Director Raquel calls “the pursuit of literary aesthetic coordination.” In this edition, Mary Hitchman turns away from strict literature and towards the aesthetic of an artist who inspired many writers of the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, John Singer Sargent.

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth , 1889.

Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889.

The first painting I remember seeing by John Singer Sargent was not his ‘Portrait of Madame X’ but was instead ‘Dame Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,’ painted in 1889. I was 14 and bookish, the archetypal misfit, and I was all-too aware that I stood out amongst my blonde sporty peers in the worst way possible. So I looked at Lady Macbeth. Her pale skin emerged triumphant from her dark sleeves and collar. She looked vibrant and volatile, a Victorian version of Florence Welch, utterly and defiantly different. I was smitten. 

Growing up in a small Midlands town, I had little by way of sartorial options beyond a small New Look and an Oxfam. The latter was infinitely preferable, as the bandeau dresses and electric-blue tights provided by the former made me an unsightly blight upon the fringes of the Year 9 disco. But I looked to Sargent’s work and saw him sweep lace and ruffles onto would-be awkward teenage limbs; the dark velvets and the ghostly, immaterial chiffon provided an antidote to the brightness I faced in the late 2000s. I sought to emulate the quiet confidence of his sitters and their knowing looks.

Looking to art for sartorial inspiration leaves room for personality and nuance.
Miss Elsie Palmer , 1890.

Miss Elsie Palmer, 1890.

Taking inspiration from portraits, a habit which I have maintained, is different from imitating a person. My mother is effortlessly glamorous. I remember her picking me up from school wearing a dark suit and leather gloves, her hair cut short like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. We read Vogue together, and when I left home she would read it to me over the phone, taking delight in describing a particular shoe or bag. Yet there was no question of my inhabiting her powerful style; it was impossibly grown-up, beyond aspirational. To wear her clothes seemed somehow sacrilegious. 

Obsessed as we are with fast fashion, appreciating someone’s style can easily slip into buying what they’re wearing. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it removes the excitement of searching for something that is ours, a thing that leaps from shelf to hands in greeting, saying hello again. Looking to art for sartorial inspiration leaves room for personality and nuance. Take, for example, Sargent’s painting of Miss Elsie Palmer. Its rose-filtered light may encourage you to embrace a softer colour palette, laying aside dark tailoring and instead opting for a gentleness eloquently conveyed by the layers of ivory and pink beneath her folded hands. Or perhaps you are more literal: you will forgo mascara and set out in search of the perfect knife-pleat skirt. 

My advice is that you cast your eye over these paintings – or indeed any painting – and take from them what appeals to you. Whilst I have little time for the reticence and subservience that Sargent sometimes depicts, and I have no intention of inhabiting the Victorian ideal of femininity, I love the unbridled glamour; the excess; the carelessness with which these women drape themselves over furniture. This attitude appeals to me as much as the clothing. With a wry smile and tousled hair, I’ll be wearing a ruffled shirt and lace-up boots for the foreseeable future.

Mary Hitchman is a writer living and working in Oxford. She is fond of direct prose, medieval hagiography, and irony.