The Illustrations of George Barbier

The Illustrations of George Barbier

"The twentieth century opens with France, and especially the city of Paris, occupying a preeminent position in the art world...So important does Paris become in the early decades of the twentieth century with regard to the development of avant-garde aesthetics, that it is possible to speak of a School of Paris comprised of artists from many nations who are drawn to the city."

- From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History via The Met

One such artist in early 20th century Paris was the French designer and illustrator George Barbier. His imaginative drawings of women in decadent fashion contributed to the sartorial aesthetic of the time, with his prints appearing in French fashion magazines such as Vogue Paris and Gazette du Bon Ton. 

An early Vogue Paris cover

An early Vogue Paris cover

The first publication of the Gazette du Bon Ton (meaning the fashionable world)

The first publication of the Gazette du Bon Ton (meaning the fashionable world)

Barbier produced a large volume of illustrations, primarily of fashion. But he also designed costumes for the Ballet Russes, theater, and film, as well as illustrating and designing jewelry and wallpaper (this is literally the stuff I dream about). 

A George Barbier wallpaper design

A George Barbier wallpaper design

His fashion illustrations feature strong, modern women unapologetic about their femininity and glamour. 

In addition to being visually striking, Barbier's illustrations made quite a bold, modern statement about the role of women in society, a point raised in a New York Times piece about him: 

"Real" males seldom appear in the artist's oeuvre. When they do, they are usually abject slaves of haughty or indifferent females, or mere props, such as the husband or lover blithely ignored by the gorgeously and provocatively dressed, utterly self-absorbed creature putting the final touches to her maquillage in "Le Grand Décolletage."

- Roderick Conway Morris, The New York Times

I don't know if I see these women as utterly self-absorbed, but the point is, they're not apologizing for enjoying what they're wearing, and, really, why should they? That these prints are almost a hundred years old makes me feel Barbier was much ahead of his time in the way he viewed women, clothes, and the relationship between women and their clothes. In a few short years, Chanel would arrive on the scene in Paris with radical clothing designed to unfetter and empower women. I can't help but feel Barbier played a role in the arc from corsets to Chanel by celebrating the idea that enjoying getting dressed and indulging in one's femininity doesn't minimize a woman's inherent power.

Woman with a Fan

Woman with a Fan

Sources:

“France, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11&region=euwf (October 2004) 

George Barbier, Fashion Model Directory. Available at: http://www.fashionmodeldirectory.com/designers/george-barbier/

Morris, R. C. (2008, November 14). Forgotten art of French illustrator George Barbier is rediscovered at Fortuny Museum show. New York Times.

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