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Clothes, from "Bathers at Asnieres, a painting by Georges Seurat

Subthemes: Stupendous Variety, Specific Occasions, Uniforms, Protection from the Elements"

Bathers at Asnières, a pointillist painting by Georges Seurat that graces the National Gallery in London, fills its canvas with — clothes! The seven boys and men enjoying the sunshine on the banks of the Seine River have on a variety of outfits that prompt several subthemes.

Bathers at Asnières

Stupendous Variety: The painting includes shoes, boots, short-sleeve shirts and long shirts, sarks, pants, farmer hats and bowler hats, tank tops, bathing suits – a range of clothing, but still the merest tiny inch within the huge closet of humankind’s clothes. People wear every imaginable fabric, color, flourish, and style. An ambitious hierarchical taxonomy of clothes, found at FashionBrain, identifies 671 classes of fashion items. Within each class, for example “shoes”, innumerable sub-classes proliferate (boots, flats, sandals, sneakers, high-heels, slippers….) and each of them in turn offers variations common or esoteric. Plus, the names affixed to equivalent items of clothing vary by marketer, language, region, stylistic variant, and popularity: blouse, camisole, chemise, jersey, muscle shirt, polo pullover, shirt, tank top, t-shirt, tunic, turtleneck. What they are made of varies from silk to synthetics. With all the proliferation, encyclopedias of clothes would need to be vast.

Specific Occasions: Swim trunks are denizens of the water. Thus, the river boys in the painting have on the right garb for the right purpose. The four men lounging on the grass are not dressed to plunge into the Seine but they must feel immune to grass stains. Likewise, fancy outings, weddings, proms, funerals, tennis whites, black tie affairs, and Olympic beach volleyball, to note a few instances, dictate the clothes an attendee should wear. Stated differently, it is frowned upon to wear torn denim culottes to the Metropolitan Opera Gala. Certainly, one’s tuxedo can be formal black or can flash color, but the basic style (studs, cummerbund, peak lapels, no vents, striped trousers, and all) follows the sartorial protocol of the event. Just imagine all the thought about impressions and social proprieties that goes into a nominee’s attire at the Oscar presentations!

Uniforms: The word “uniform” in its most common use describes clothes that an employee is required to wear. Custom, regulations, and history dictate what soldiers, security forces or prison guards, police, nurses and doctors, flight attendants, circus ringmasters. and others don when they go on duty. Uniforms are distinctive, such as the Buckingham Palace guards or private school students. Others can immediately identify someone’s role by their uniform.

What the Seurat painting suggests, however, is a broader connotation of the term “uniform”: such a widely accepted style of clothes that those who wear it could be said to be in uniform: coat, white shirt and narrowed ties for the ‘50s businessman, torn jeans and sassy t-shirts for the skateboard crowd, poodle skirts for teen girls who had a crush on Elvis, simple greys and bonnets for the Amish. Not employers’ requirements but peer expectations and the desire to fit in suck all of us into unconscious clothing conformity: if we belong to a strata, we find comfort in the uniform look around us.

Buckingham guard

Protection from the Elements: The adults and children in this pointillist masterpiece knew nothing about SPF levels or melanoma, but at least the adults kept themselves mostly covered from the sun’s damage. More broadly, a fundamental purpose of clothing is to keep people warm in the cold, dry in the wet, cool in the heat, protected in the wind, sturdy on surfaces, or pale in the rays. The helmsman in van Rysellberghe’s painting can brave the storm because of the slicker he wears. Fashionable or not, clothing helps keep us comfortable and safe.

 

Seurat’s painting of summer repose and fun incidentally includes a wardrobe of clothes. Notably, bathing suits suit cavorting in the river and presumably conformed to the waders’ look of the day, plus the expected appearance of young men lounging by the water who want to avoid sunburn.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept “Clothes,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other paintings discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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