Artwork from the past offers a window into what life was like in different periods of history. Work, food, and fashion have all changed drastically over the years. For instance, the Belle Époque (which emerged in the 19th century) saw colorful floorlength gowns and the rise of avant-garde art, like Impressionism. Artist Pierre-August Renoir captured French life and leisure through his airy, feminine style. Among his favorite subjects were young girls at the piano, which he captured multiple times over his life. A contemporary seamstress based in Portland known as The SewLo Artist on TikTok shares the same passion for fashion of the 1800s. In one of her most recent projects, she recreated a dress from Renoir's painting with immaculate results.
The SewLo Artist, or Ivy Thompson, learned how to make historical costuming mostly on her own, which includes everything from dressmaking to corsetry. She discovered that through making clothes, she was able to connect to the past. Renoir's Impressionist painting appealed to her for its relatable qualities as well as its aesthetic beauty. “I was inspired by Renoir's Young Girls at the Piano because of the intimate feel of the portrait,” Thompson tells My Modern Met. “Renoir captured a comfortable, everyday scene of two young girls practicing their piano lessons together in the evening.”
The painting, which dates to 1889, depicts two young women in bright orange dresses. One of them sits at the piano to play, while the other stands beside her, turning the pages of the music book. There's a sense of domesticity in the interior, with a bouquet perched on top of the piano, and the girls seeming so preoccupied with their music. “Although I couldn't find any information on who his subjects were, I couldn't help but feel like I knew them,” Thompson adds. “They were like me in many ways. Practicing their lessons, spending their evenings with a sister. It's even possible that the dresses pictured in the painting were made by them. An orange and black afternoon dress made in 1889, and another orange and black dress exactly like it made 130 years later. I found something very appealing about the completion of that circle.”
Thompson's costume is a perfect replica of the orange dress worn by the young woman standing in the painting, featuring a black lace collar and black trim on the three-quarter length sleeves and hem of the gown. The bodice is fitted, with buttons going down the front, and there is a bustle in the back. “Many components of Victorian garments are very uniform between garments, so once you've made one or two they start to come together very quickly with practice,” Thompson shares. “I'd estimate the outergarments to have taken about 25 hours to complete, which does not include the petticoats, corset, and bustle.”
The designer also tells us, “The most challenging part of the project was locating an appropriate fabric. I spent nearly three months just trying to source the fabric! The gowns in the portrait are a very specific shade of reddish orange, what was difficult to match. In the end, after buying a few dozen swatches I was able to locate the perfect fabric.”
The end result was absolutely worth it. When Thompson poses beside the inspiration, she looks like she could step inside the frame and fit right in with the 19th-century women. “My goal when making the project was to bring the painting to life,” she explains. “We see these women in paintings, and they feel so distant, and sometimes it's easy to forget that they ever lived at all. By putting on the clothes, I want to make the portrait feel real. While I've always been a museum goer, for me this project was a completely new way to participate in art.”