At the National Gallery

Peter Campbell

Being a species with no fur, scales or feathers, oddly disposed hair and unique self-consciousness about our sexual parts, we turn to clothes. Clothes, by clinging, squeezing, covering, exposing, draping and padding, by following the body here and billowing away from it there, by making what is round straight, what is soft firm and what is dull bright, offer a critical commentary on the flesh beneath. Bodies differ from place to place and race to race, from person to person and from fat times to lean. Clothes battle against these differences. They help bodies to conform to norms of what is decent, impressive, dignified, lovely, erotic or charming. Fashion history studies the way the norms change, and how in doing so they can shock, titillate or coerce. Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting, an exhibition at the National Gallery until 8 September, engages with what happens when the presentation of self by clothing is itself represented in pictures. The historical range is wide: from Byzantine linear patterning to Cubist prismatics, and from draped toga-like cloaks to modern suit and tie.

The pictures easily assert their status as something more than pertinent examples. Anne Hollander’s book accompanying the exhibition (which she also curated) is perfectly comprehensible on its own,[*] but that is no reason to be ungrateful for a well-mannered reshuffling of some of the Gallery’s most remarkable pictures and the chance to look at them alongside significant borrowed ones. While the art does a good deal more than illustrate the argument, nothing does the argument more credit than the unforced happiness of the groupings.

In the end the pictures have more to say about fashion than fashion has to say about the pictures. For example, what Hollander as a philosopher of fashion can explain about the elegant black evening wear of Louis-Auguste Schwiter doesn’t get you much closer to Delacroix’s genius, but his painting tells infinitely more than any fashion plate can about the thrill of the denial of colour, lace, frogging, slashed sleeves – all the extravagances through which the costume of rich males had gone on its journey from peacock display to this raven-like sobriety. The painting itself, without commentary, has always offered that thrill. All the commentary can do is document it.

It is not news that the stuffs in 15th-century paintings, in particular Northern ones, look real, so that when they are crumpled their weight is well realised, and when they are patterned the patterns are fully recorded, but in this context one is encouraged to work out the detail: how a veil was folded by Rogier van der Weyden’s neatly and richly dressed women, how they arranged the layers of their garments. These clothes would behave decorously if the women stood up and walked away, but any move by Zoffany’s Mrs Woodhull (shown as Flora) would probably end with her tripping over a tangle of scarves and scattering her basket of roses, narcissi and passion flowers. It is the difference between reality and play-acting.

Portraits in which allegorical attributes have been gathered from the attic and the dressing-up box mix the real and the fanciful so inextricably that they tell next to nothing about what people really wore. One can believe that when Venetia, Lady Digby came to van Dyck’s studio to pose as Prudence she brought her own white shift and pearls; her voluminous cloaks, on the other hand, surely came from the studio prop box (if not from imagination). But in van Dyck’s portraits, as in Rubens’s allegories and religious paintings, heavy drapery forms a matrix which twists and puckers, agitated by some life of its own. Its function is dramatic, not descriptive – to set off graceful figures who make elegant gestures in an entirely different, slower rhythm. Sometimes the fabric gets out of hand; the drapery that whips itself round the Countess of Castlehaven seems to grasp her like an ectoplasmic tentacle.

If you have ever wondered whether pictures of clothed and naked bodies from any given period suggest similar physiques you will find pairs of canvases here that remove any doubts. A slim Bonnard nude hangs beside van Dongen’s portrait of the equally slim Comtesse de Noailles; a Jacob Ochtervelt genre piece that centres on the silk-covered bottom of a young lady, glossy as a well-groomed pony’s rump, is put beside Jordaen’s King Candaules of Lydia Showing His Wife to Gyges, which is dominated by the Queen’s broad naked back and buttocks. The exposed upper chest and widely separated breasts of Raeburn’s Mrs Scott Moncrieff are set beside Etty’s Venus, who still seems to be pulled in and pushed up and out by tight stays even though she’s naked.

More complicated – and this does teach you to look at pictures more intelligently – is the distinction Hollander draws between real dress, legendary costume and mythic drapery. Piero’s Madonna del Parto is in modern dress; later, in Leonardo’s Annunciation she is in a ‘new version of the fourth-to-14th-century kirtle and mantle’. Giotto’s shepherds suggest contemporary clothes, his nobler figures are caped much as classical statues are. ‘Jesus and his disciples,’ Hollander explains, ‘continued to wear long, loose fourth-century-style gowns in works of art, in Masaccio as in Giotto and their successors, and in everybody’s imagination ever since, along with the saints and martyrs of the early Christian centuries and many hosts of angels.’ That is legendary costume. Mythic drapery isn’t just what Rubens bundles around his figures. Floating or constricting, it can also become an actor in the drama. The best example is Titian’s Louvre Entombment (one of the pictures illustrated in the book but not exhibited). Grief is expressed more in the weight of the dead body, shown by the strained creases of the shroud, than in the faces. The dark red drape across the top of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, which, Hollander says, ‘unifies the group, confirms the sanctity of the event and claims our spiritual attention’, is less clearly a player. But here and elsewhere drapery’s role is powerful when it writes, in what amount to abstract shapes, tensions and rhythms that echo or run counter to those of the picture.

Drapery provides a good opportunity for a one-to-one relationship between brush strokes and the thing represented: the painter is never more free from constraint – and never more in danger of being flash – than when using a single stroke to show the crease in a sleeve or a rumpled twist of bedspread. In Fragonard’s A Young Girl on Her Bed, Making Her Dog Dance it is not just the naughtiness of the subject, but the bustle of the brushwork that makes you smile.

[*] National Gallery, 207 pp., £25, 12 June, 1 85709 907 9.