Fashion History in Art

We have been giving fashion history tours at the Metropolitan Museum for several months now, and the more we work on them, the more we see that fashion history is probably the biggest theme in the entire museum.  If you think about it, you might think thathttps://www.shadyladiestours.com/fashion-and-beauty-tour/beauty—human beauty—is the biggest theme in the art history.  But if you look carefully at the beautiful people in the museum, you will see that (aside perhaps from the Greek male nudes), the person’s features are only a secondary aspect of the images.  It isn’t their natural beauty that makes people beautiful in art.  Instead, the artworks focus on many other aspects of the beautiful person:  on hairdos and make-up and jewelry and clothing and accessories and shoes.  In short, human beauty in art consists not of beautiful features, but of costume or fashion. Continue reading →

Why were high foreheads once considered a sign of beauty?

This painting portrays Saint Justina of Padua as a Renaissance fashion plate. The pearls, rubies, and emeralds sewn onto her clothing, cap, and hair tie were the mark of an aristocratic lady; her embroidered stomacher (the triangular piece covering chest and stomach) was the height of fashion, as were her elegant green sleeves (as in the song!), separate from her bodice, with the blouse pulled through the gaps in a style called ‘slashing’. Most noticeable to a modern eye is her amazingly high forehead. Continue reading →

Courtesans and mistresses in art

Elegant women are a huge theme in art history, and people mostly assume, as they stroll through art museums, that they are looking at queens, duchesses, and the wives of the wealthy. But often enough, they aren’t. They are looking at royal “favorites,” mistresses, and courtesans. Courtesans are in fact a particularly large theme in art, probably bigger than queens and duchesses.  But people today pass by them without realizing who or what they were, because courtesans, if they exist today, are not important in our culture, so we’re unaware of them. Continue reading →

Courtesans of Paris tour

Courtesans of Paris tour—in the cemetery!

One of my favorite things to do in Paris—really—is explore the cemeteries. The most famous one is Père Lachaise, where a host of celebs are buried, including most famously Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. But it is also a great place for learning about the great courtesans of the Belle Epoque. As an example, Chopin is buried there, the lover of George Sand—a scandalous lady if ever there was one—and so is Colette, in whose novels, such as Gigi and Chéri, courtesans are a major theme. But the great cemetery for Paris courtesans is really Montmartre, which is also a lovely place to take a shady, quiet walk in central Paris—right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge —so we take our Shady Ladies Tours Courtesans of Paris tour there, as you can see in the feature photo. Continue reading →

nasty women museum of fine arts

Nasty Women of the MFA Boston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is of course one of the world’s great museums.  It is also a great place for a women’s history tour.  There are very few of the courtesans or mistresses that make up our Shady Ladies tour in New York:  I suspect that the Boston collectors of the 19th century were too prudish to buy pictures on themes they knew were racy.  But the museum has a great collection of what we’re calling (ironically) “nasty women“—feisty, ambitious women from many periods of history. Continue reading →

Madame du Barry Shady Ladies Philadelphia Museum of Art

Shady Ladies of the Philadelphia Museum

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is not as big as the Metropolitan, and it might not be possible to arrange all the theme tours that we can in NYC. However, it has some wonderful Shady Ladies in its collection.  Indeed, it has a great prize:  Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun’s iconic portrait of Madame du Barry, the last royal mistress of ancien régime France, whose famously seductive, almond-shaped eyes are the focus of the painting.

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Shady Ladies tour or Nasty Women?

People often ask me what the difference is between the Shady Ladies tour and the Nasty Women tour—whether the themes are really different, whether in short they should go on both tours or only one. In fact, the difference between the two tours is very clear, and there is almost no overlap between them. The Shady Ladies tour is about royal mistresses and courtesans, fascinating categories of women that were prominent in cultures distant from our own—and which are major themes in the art of all those cultures, from ancient Greece to Edo-period Japan to Renaissance Italy to Belle Epoque France. The Nasty Women, instead, is about feisty, path-breaking women—women who had more power and/or independence than we usually think women in the past had. Continue reading →

Fun, lesser-known sights on our Paris tour

Every Paris tour should include some major sights: even if you’ve seen them before, you can always see new sides. Plus some wonderful food of course. Our Shady Ladies Paris tour includes both of those, with a “Shady Ladies” tour of the Orsay Museum highlighting the racy sides of the collection (on the model of our well-known tour of the Metropolitan) and some truly excellent meals; also a tasting at the patisserie that is most famous for macarons. But we also include a bunch of sights in our Paris tour that you probably haven’t seen—lesser-known sights that even Parisians think it would be cool to see. Continue reading →

The Five Most Powerful Women in the Metropolitan Museum

My esteemed colleague Mary Beard has posted an article about the five most powerful women in the British Museum, as a celebration of Women’s History Month.  So since we are now doing a tour about that topic at the Metropolitan Museum, I thought I should answer with a post about the most powerful women in the Met.  Because the Met actually has a lot of powerful women, from the most powerful woman pharaoh of ancient Egypt through women of the 20th century.  And this year of all years, now is the time for some women’s history!

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“Nasty Women” are Everywhere—even the Metropolitan

We know them from work, family, public and private life—women who speak their mind, pursue their careers and even run for public office. They’re smart. They’re sassy. Some people call them “nasty.”  But we say they’re strong. And to celebrate them (and Women’s History Month) Shady Ladies Tours is launching a brand new offering: Nasty Women of the Metropolitan. Continue reading →

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