Artemesia Gentileschi has been an art history darling for several years now, with a spate of major museum shows, biographies, acquisitions, and postmortem attributions bolstering her reputation as a standout figure among late Renaissance and early Baroque artists. It would have been unusual enough for a woman to follow in her father’s professional footsteps as a painter among courts from Italy to Great Britain, but Artemisia cultivated her own career and clientele, going on to become the first female member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. It’s no wonder she has found a devotee in the world of fashion, allegedly inspiring Chloé’s fall 2023 collection.
Invoking the idea of “a new Renaissance” and emphasizing the role that women must play, firmly at the controls of our bodies and the wider world, Gabriela Hearst, creative director of Chloé since 2018, cited Gentileschi as her inspiration for the Autumn–Winter 2023 ready-to-wear collection.
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“Since the beginning when I started to think about these things, I always thought that it’s science and creatives and artists that will take us out of this mess,” Hearst told Vogue. “So how do we do this in our design context? I have to find a muse, and that is Artemisia Gentileschi, the Renaissance painter.”
Hearst is hardly the only designer who has sought inspiration from or even appropriated the work of painters. Chloé probably has less to worry about than some of her contemporaries on a legal front, however, since the relationship between the collection and its muse seems … abstract at best.
Certainly, Chloé invokes the painter’s name as well as several of her choice quotes in promotional trailers for the line. Perhaps some of the silhouettes could be interpreted as “Renaissance-inspired,” such as the shoulder-baring black dress with billowing sleeves and a prominent bustline, or the gown with a black torso forking into white full skirting in a shape reminiscent of stomachers of the time — and maybe even the structured necklines, shearling collars, and bulky quilting on jackets that are Renaissance in a “Henry VIII” kind of way. But the main thesis of female Renaissance fashion was, as the Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Florentine noblewoman Ginevra de’ Benci asserts in an inscribed motto, “Virtutem Forma Decorat” — “Beauty adorns virtue” — whereas Hearst’s message seeks to harness Gentileshci’s legacy to her theme of empowered female leadership.
It’s difficult to reconcile ideas of female independence with fashion, which continues to hobble healthy self-image through the fetishization of bodies in general, but ultra-skinny bodies especially — and ones subjected to a great deal of abuse on and off the runway to achieve ethereal and aspirational (that is to say, impossible) aesthetics. Gentileschi, for her part, often presented work that featured women violently uprising against their oppressors, as in her several takes on the Old Testament story of Judith beheading Holofernes, or the Greek myth of Hercules and Omphale. Beauty does not, in these cases, adorn virtue — it is a tool that may be wielded to subdue and murder men — which, as most capable women can tell you, is one of the best things about beauty.
Arguably, the most direct reference to this kind of source material can be found in the collections-only non-neutral-tones piece, an elaborately embroidered dress with informal corset top and patchworked skirt depicting scenes of intrigue and perhaps violence (there seem to be some floating heads in there, whether the result of artistic gesture or decapitation is for you to decide). This stands out in such sharp contrast to the rest of the collection, which offers little narrative, though certainly a wearable array of lacy dresses, knitwear, and patchworked leather — one of which was worn by Quannah Chasinghorse, an Indigenous and tattooed model who was born into the Navajo Nation in Tuba City, Arizona, and who probably has as much to say about making a career as a standalone figure as Artemisia Gentileschi did.
Though her look has nothing to do with the Renaissance, it seems fitting that Chloé managed to send someone down the runway who is not just wearing clothes “inspired by” the idea of an outstanding woman, but demonstrating what it looks like to break into a field historically and deeply stacked against you.