May 1–August 3, 2003

Pygmalion's Galatea: Art to Life

The Roman poet Ovid recounted an ancient myth in which Pygmalion, a sculptor disenchanted by mortal women, created an image of feminine perfection. When he became enthralled with his own sculpted ideal, Venus—the Greek Aphrodite—responded to his prayers and brought the statue to life as Galatea.

Through the centuries, art and fashion have achieved their own transformations, adding elements not present in the original garments. Even in the most naturalistic representation of Hellenic dress, subjective and prescribed stylistic qualities are inevitably introduced. In depicting details of ancient Greek attire, later artists and designers have changed, as much as preserved, the actual qualities of ancient garb. Among the stylizations that have most influenced fashion designers is wet drapery, a term used by art historians to describe fabric that seems to cling to the body in animated folds while revealing the contours of the form beneath. This sculptural style—evidenced in figures from the Classical and Hellenistic periods—has emerged in fashion as a signifier of classicizing intent. From the nineteenth century to the present, designers have utilized a variety of techniques and materials to replicate its effects.

In some artistic renderings from antiquity, textiles appear fragile, and even ephemeral, qualities that are described in ancient literary texts. Gossamer robes, shawls, and veilings became one of the most potent associations with the antique, as exemplified by the popular use of light mull, a sheer cotton fabric during the Empire period, and also of tulle and chiffon. The classicizing effect is further underscored if the fabric is white, since there has been a longstanding convention that classical styles should be achromatic. This misconception, thought to derive from the faded and abraded surfaces of originally polychromed Greek statuary and architecture, is perpetuated in fashion to this day.

Drapery of the Classical and Hellenistic periods sometimes appears purely as a foil for nudity, clinging and spiraling around the body. Frequently, trhis effect is a stylistic preference rather than an actual manner of dress or response to natural phenomena. Such animated drapery frequently takes on a schematic form, with fluted edges regularized into a rhythmic pattern of handkerchief-pointed "swallowtail" folds, a characteristic that has inspired fashion designers in the twentieth century.

In Greek art, fabrics are rendered with the texture of both regular folds and irregular pleating. Such differentiated representations have also found expression in later fashion designs. By employing a variety of techniques, designers as disparate as Mariano Fortuny, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès, Mary McFadden, and Norma Kamali have achieved effects redolent of the stylized characteristics of cloth seen in the art of ancient Greece.