ART: ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Art, Fashion & Luxury in the Gilded Age’

I love to time travel. But since I’m still waiting for my time machine, along with the jet pack and self-driving car that science fiction said we should have by now, I travel in time the old-fashioned way — through books, movies and museum exhibitions. My recent excursion into the past landed me in the years 1870 to 1915, a time that oddly mirrors our own. I now know one of the reasons for our current frenzy of holiday spending that begins at 12:01 a.m. the day after Halloween. It’s the Gilded Age, the “birth of the modern American consumer culture,” according to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” currently at the Frazier History Museum. 

The Industrial Revolution did what it was supposed to do, making goods cheaper and more plentiful. It also made the rich richer and poor poorer, causing a gap that today’s 99 percent understand. A side benefit was more personal time, with people wondering how to fill it. Enter shopping therapy, one of the forms of entertainment that eased the void.    

This time period nestled between the Civil War and World War I coincides with a number of art movements, most notably impressionism. American expatriates Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent are some of the recognizable names in the exhibition. 

Cassatt, an experienced printmaker, has two works in the show. “Bill Holding the Back of a Chair” is an etching dating from 1889 to 1891, while “Mother, Child and Baby” is a drypoint created around 1908. Both feature her signature subject matter of family interaction. 

THE portrait painter of the rich and famous was Sargent. His oil on canvas, “Man Reading,” from 1904 to 1908, is more relaxed than his normal posed style. You can always count on Sargent to make the subject look splendid, even in a casual genre setting. 

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If there’s a Louis C. Tiffany work around, I take notice. I passed by a mirror before my radar kicked in. On loan for the exhibition from the Speed Art Museum, the art nouveau mirror from 1899 to 1920 is composed of metal peacock feathers, a popular motif. 

What this show does best is display clothing — for women, men and children — through the years. The timeline featuring silhouettes of women’s dress styles from 1870 to 1915 illustrates how women’s fashion, with its underlying social mores, was ever changing.    

Louisville had its own fashion star. Madame Glover was an Irishwoman who opened up her high-end store on Fourth Street in 1891. It was the place to shop for fashionable day wear, debutante gowns and wedding dresses.  

Today’s casual dressers would revolt against wearing these heavy and ornate fashions. Society demanded certain classes to change from a tea gown to an afternoon dress to an evening gown over the course of the day. Not that we could get our butts into anything anyway, as people were shorter and smaller during those years, corsets notwithstanding.

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