This volume presents fifty very well known Impressionist canvases in which clothing is an obvious feature-- either individual or small group portraits or entertainment scenes involving multiple participants. The author organizes the material around the venues where Parisians would have been likely to spend time ( "On the Street," "At Home," "On Holiday," etc.), because location was a deciding factor in determining what one would wear: what was demanded for a daytime visit was of course taboo at the opera, etc. These sections are divided by "Interludes," thumbnail sketches of aspects of the fashion industry ("The Dressmaker and the Draper," "At the Department Store," "Corsets and Crinolines," etc.). There is a good balance between commentary on the fashions depicted in the paintings and remarks on the settings, but both discussions are for the most part too general and superficial to be informative or illuminating. Occasionally there is some specific analysis of the clothing, and one can understand why a fashion historian might find the book appealing: if, for example, you want to know the difference between a "tournure" and a "strapontin," this is a place to find out (they are types of bustles). But more often we are superfluously told things like "the handsome young man [is wearing] a buff-coloured smock" (112) or "Madame Gaudibert is defined by her marvellous clothes" (60). The attempts to locate the figures in their surroundings are generally equally unconvincing, as obvious narrative associations are allowed to take the place of social analysis: Caillebotte's man "In a Cafe" (1880) "has nothing better to do than stand there and take in the scene" (109); Caillebotte himself, in Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (1880-81), is "an avid and accomplished rower, [who] shows the nonchalance of the passionate amateur" (137), etc. What little attempt at social analysis there is is even more suspect: if the blue-clad figure in Caillebotte's "The Pont de l'Europe" (the jacket illustration) is "a general hand on a construction site," then he is certainly not "part of the middle classes" (13f.), but a solid working class laborer; the same error is repeated on p. 49. And we do not need to be reminded every few pages that the Seine is a river, that Haussmann's revamping of Paris changed the face of the city, and that a "flaneur" is a leisurely gentleman stroller.
Fortunately, those seriously interested in this topic have an alternative that is not only acceptable, but highly recommended. That is the large and excellent catalogue of the current exhibition "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity" edited by Gloria Groom for the Art Institute of Chicago (see the review on this website). It covers exactly the same material: almost half the paintings presented here are featured there also, and the method of fashion-trade "interludes" between the discussions of the art is the same. Only everything there is much more specific, informative, and interesting. It's not only a question of size (336 pp. as to only 158 here) or the number of contributors (fifteen there and only one here), but of the general level of discourse, which is far more sophisticated in the larger volume. That being said, I can see a place for this book; it is handy, the plates are iconic and well chosen and well reproduced, and it might be appropriate as an introduction to the subject for a younger or less experienced reader who could be intimidated by the larger volume. For all others, though, that is the one to have.