White

Fashion and costume curator Andrew Bolton talks about the many meanings of the color white.

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I think even when it comes to pure abstraction I look at art and I see fashion. It's just a way into art.

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  • "White" by Andrew Bolton
    1280852
  • Sabine Houdon (1787–1836)  |  18th century (1788)  |  Jean-Antoine Houdon (French)  |  Marble  |  Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.66)
    8481024
  • Broken Eggs  |  1756  |  Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920 (20.155.8)
    1280993
  • Beauty Revealed  |  1828  |  Sarah Goodridge (American)  |  Watercolor on ivory  |  Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006 (2006.235.74)
    12011024
  • Bird in Space  |  1923  |  Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania)  |  Marble  |  Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab)  |  © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    7241024
  • California  |  1850–55; this carving, 1858  |  Hiram Powers (American)  |  Marble  |  Gift of William Backhouse Astor, 1872 (72.3)
    412711
  • Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle, as a Monk  |  1866  |  Paul Cèzanne (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1993.400.1)
    8531024
  • Portrait of a Man in White  |  1574  |  Monogrammist LAM (French)  |  Oil on wood  |  The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 (32.100.119)
    5991024
  • Repose  |  1895  |  John White Alexander (American)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Anonymous Gift, 1980 (1980.224)
    12451024
  • Flag  |  1957  |  Jasper Johns (American)  |  Oil on paper, mounted on paperboard  |  Partial and Promised Gift, in honor of the artist, 1999 (1999.425)  |  © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
    1280937
  • The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant  |  1899  |  John Singer Sargent (American)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1927 (27.67)
    7451024
  • The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant  |  1899  |  John Singer Sargent (American)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1927 (27.67)
    10991024
  • Wedding dress  |  spring/summer 2000  |  Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese)  |  Natural cotton muslin  |  Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
    6631024
  • Wedding dress  |  spring/summer 2000  |  Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese)  |  Natural cotton muslin  |  Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
    7681024
  • Wedding dress  |  spring/summer 2000  |  Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese)  |  Natural cotton muslin  |  Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
    7681024
  • Wedding dress  |  spring/summer 2000  |  Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese)  |  Natural cotton muslin  |  Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
    6631024
  • Dress  |  spring/summer 2003  |  Alexander McQueen (British)  |  Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza  |  Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    7681024
  • Dress  |  spring/summer 2003  |  Alexander McQueen (British)  |  Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza  |  Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    1280860
  • Dress  |  spring/summer 2003  |  Alexander McQueen (British)  |  Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza  |  Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    1280876
  • Dress  |  spring/summer 2003  |  Alexander McQueen (British)  |  Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza  |  Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    1280813
  • Dress  |  spring/summer 2003  |  Alexander McQueen (British)  |  Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza  |  Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    7681024
  • Statue of Eirene (personification of peace)  |  ca. 14–68 a.d.; Julio-Claudian  |  Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Kephisodotos  |  Marble  |  Rogers Fund, 1906 (06.311)
    7581024
  • Evening gown  |  ca. 1965  |  Madame Grès (French)  |  White silk jersey  |  Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)
    4411024
  • Evening gown  |  ca. 1965  |  Madame Grès (French)  |  White silk jersey  |  Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)
    6841024
  • Evening gown  |  ca. 1965  |  Madame Grès (French)  |  White silk jersey  |  Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)
    7361024
  • The First Communion  |  Eugène Carrière (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Gift of Chester Dale, 1963 (63.138.5)
    8421024
  • The First Communion  |  Eugène Carrière (French)  |  Oil on canvas  |  Gift of Chester Dale, 1963 (63.138.5)
    1280751
  • Wedding dress  |  1898  |  House of Worth (French)  |  Silk, pearl  |  Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)
    8141024
  • Wedding dress  |  1898  |  House of Worth (French)  |  Silk, pearl  |  Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)
    1280827
  • Wedding dress  |  1898  |  House of Worth (French)  |  Silk, pearl  |  Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)
    8141024
  • Andrew Bolton
    1280852
  • My name's Andrew Bolton and I'm a curator of fashion and costume at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I chose white primarily because of its contradictions.

  • It can represent youth

  • or it can represent age.

  • Is it audacious?

  • Is white bold?

  • Is it bashful?

  • Is it abstemious?

  • Is it ostentatious? I love how fashion is accessible and it's democratic and I always see it as being a way into art. I think when it comes to any paintings I always see

  • the clothes first and foremost, more than anything else, even when it comes to pure

  • abstraction, I look at art and I see fashion or frocks. It's just a way into art.

  • But, when it comes to painting, whenever I think about white I think about Sargent. Particularly his Wyndham Sisters the 1899 painting

  • where all the sisters are wearing these sort of frothy white gowns. And apparently Sargent played a very critical role in choosing the clothes for his sitters. He really understood the power of fashion to communicate messages.

  • Here's a wedding dress by Yohji Yamamoto. It's actually a toile that's made up as a finished garment. Toiles are

  • samples, which are made in muslin from which the final pattern for a garment is taken. What Yohji's done, is made visible all the details of creating a toile.

  • So he's made visible the stitches that establish the grain lines under the cloth, the spiraling of the fabric, which indicates the draper's process. And he's also indicated the control of fullness through the use of tucks and darts which we see at the front of the dress.

  • I love it because it looks like it's a dress poised near the point of resolution or completion. I think it projects the sort of spontaneity, the sort of energetic spontaneity of a sketch, more like a schematic of an idea rather than a conclusive work.

  • And another dress I've looked at is made by Alexander McQueen. And it's from his Spring 2003 collection. And the premise of the collection was of a shipwreck at sea.

  • And it's comprised of a fitted boned corset to which is attached a sort of voluminous skirt which is comprised of hundreds

  • and hundreds of graduated layers of ivory organza.

  • All the layers of the silk have been left with like an unfinished raw edge and it always reminds me of a mille feuille sort of pastry. And

  • I love the way the silk chiffon sort of extends at the shoulders and it sort of reminds me of kelp. And also the way McQueen's draped the silk chiffon over the bodice reminds me of classical statues.

  • Like this one which actually shows a figure dressed in a chiton and himation. And these clothes would originally have been brightly colored. But whenever fashion undergoes a classical revival, white is forefronted.

  • Like this one by Madame Grès which looks like a caryatid. Grès always ended her fashion shows with pleated white silk jersey gowns. And this one has

  • like a himation-like draped swing to it, and the swag is actually a continuous and unbroken panel of fabric

  • and it sort of suggests a natural body, but in actual fact it has a built-in corset.

  • Oh, it's actually The First Communion! I read this as a bride. But, hmm, yeah, but I read this as a bride! And as a result of reading it as a bride, I thought it had this like haunting quality to it. And it also reminded me

  • of Miss Havisham. You know, she sort of seems old and young at the same time. And again it sort of captures that sort of contradictory nature of white, you know white is both demure but it's also attention-grabbing.

  • I wanted to end with another wedding dress. It's all about distortion. It's not about the natural body at all. It's really about being against nature.

  • And it reveals the sort of fashionable silhouette of the 1890s. It has enormous gigot sleeves and a very tight corseted waist. And I think what I love about it being

  • in white is it just underscores its sort of extravagant silhouette. Plain colors always enhance the sort of visual impact of garments. So, I love the sort of like contradictory nature of white and

  • how one views it or sees it in both painting and fashion.

  • 50.145.66
    Sabine Houdon (1787–1836), 18th century (1788), Jean-Antoine Houdon (French), Marble Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.66)
  • 20.155.8
    Broken Eggs, 1756, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French), Oil on canvas Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920 (20.155.8)
  • 2006.235.74
    Beauty Revealed, 1828, Sarah Goodridge (American), Watercolor on ivory Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006 (2006.235.74)
  • 1996.403.7ab
    Bird in Space, 1923, Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania), Marble Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
  • 72.3
    California, 1850–55; this carving, 1858, Hiram Powers (American), Marble Gift of William Backhouse Astor, 1872 (72.3)
  • 1993.400.1
    Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle, as a Monk, 1866, Paul Cèzanne (French), Oil on canvas The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1993.400.1)
  • 32.100.119
    Portrait of a Man in White, 1574, Monogrammist LAM (French), Oil on wood The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 (32.100.119)
  • 1980.224
    Repose, 1895, John White Alexander (American), Oil on canvas Anonymous Gift, 1980 (1980.224)
  • 1999.425
    Flag, 1957, Jasper Johns (American), Oil on paper, mounted on paperboard Partial and Promised Gift, in honor of the artist, 1999 (1999.425) © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
  • 27.67
    The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, 1899, John Singer Sargent (American), Oil on canvas Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1927 (27.67)
  • 2003.573.8a,b
    Wedding dress, spring/summer 2000, Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese), Natural cotton muslin Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
  • 2003.462
    Dress, spring/summer 2003, Alexander McQueen (British), Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
  • 06.311
    Statue of Eirene (personification of peace), ca. 14–68 a.d.; Julio-Claudian, Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Kephisodotos, Marble Rogers Fund, 1906 (06.311)
  • 1994.192.12
    Evening gown, ca. 1965, Madame Grès (French), White silk jersey Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)
  • 63.138.5
    The First Communion, Eugène Carrière (French), Oil on canvas Gift of Chester Dale, 1963 (63.138.5)
  • C.I.41.14.1
    Wedding dress, 1898, House of Worth (French), Silk, pearl Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)
  • Sabine Houdon (1787–1836), 18th century (1788), Jean-Antoine Houdon (French), Marble Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.66)
    Broken Eggs, 1756, Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French), Oil on canvas Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920 (20.155.8)
    Beauty Revealed, 1828, Sarah Goodridge (American), Watercolor on ivory Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006 (2006.235.74)
    Bird in Space, 1923, Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania), Marble Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab) © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    California, 1850–55; this carving, 1858, Hiram Powers (American), Marble Gift of William Backhouse Astor, 1872 (72.3)
    Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle, as a Monk, 1866, Paul Cèzanne (French), Oil on canvas The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1993.400.1)
    Portrait of a Man in White, 1574, Monogrammist LAM (French), Oil on wood The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 (32.100.119)
    Repose, 1895, John White Alexander (American), Oil on canvas Anonymous Gift, 1980 (1980.224)
    Flag, 1957, Jasper Johns (American), Oil on paper, mounted on paperboard Partial and Promised Gift, in honor of the artist, 1999 (1999.425) © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
    The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, 1899, John Singer Sargent (American), Oil on canvas Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1927 (27.67)
    Wedding dress, spring/summer 2000, Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese), Natural cotton muslin Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
    Dress, spring/summer 2003, Alexander McQueen (British), Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    Statue of Eirene (personification of peace), ca. 14–68 a.d.; Julio-Claudian, Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Kephisodotos, Marble Rogers Fund, 1906 (06.311)
    Evening gown, ca. 1965, Madame Grès (French), White silk jersey Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)
    The First Communion, Eugène Carrière (French), Oil on canvas Gift of Chester Dale, 1963 (63.138.5)
    Wedding dress, 1898, House of Worth (French), Silk, pearl Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)
    8000–2000 B.C.
    2000–1000 B.C.
    1000 B.C.–1 A.D.
    1–500 A.D.
    500–1000 A.D.
    1000–1400 A.D.
    1400–1600 A.D.
    1600–1800 A.D.
    1800–1900 A.D.
    1900–Present

    Works of art in order of appearance

    Last Updated: August 19, 2013. Not all works of art in the Museum's collection may be on view on a particular day. For the most accurate location information, please check this page on the day of your visit.

    Sabine Houdon (1787–1836)
    18th century (1788)
    Jean-Antoine Houdon (French)
    Marble
    Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950 (50.145.66)
    On view: Gallery 552
    European Sculpture and Decorative ArtsFirst Floor
    Broken Eggs
    1756
    Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French)
    Oil on canvas
    Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920 (20.155.8)
    On view: Gallery 615
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Beauty Revealed
    1828
    Sarah Goodridge (American)
    Watercolor on ivory
    Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006 (2006.235.74)
    Not on view
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Bird in Space
    1923
    Constantin Brancusi (French, born Romania)
    Marble
    Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.7ab)
    © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
    On view: Gallery 903
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    California
    1850–55; this carving, 1858
    Hiram Powers (American)
    Marble
    Gift of William Backhouse Astor, 1872 (72.3)
    On view: Gallery 700
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle, as a Monk
    1866
    Paul Cèzanne (French)
    Oil on canvas
    The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection, Gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 1993, Bequest of Walter H. Annenberg, 2002 (1993.400.1)
    On view: Gallery 822
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Portrait of a Man in White
    1574
    Monogrammist LAM (French)
    Oil on wood
    The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 (32.100.119)
    Not on view
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Repose
    1895
    John White Alexander (American)
    Oil on canvas
    Anonymous Gift, 1980 (1980.224)
    On view: Gallery 768
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Flag
    1957
    Jasper Johns (American)
    Oil on paper, mounted on paperboard
    Partial and Promised Gift, in honor of the artist, 1999 (1999.425)
    © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
    Not on view
    Modern and Contemporary ArtSecond Floor
    The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant
    1899
    John Singer Sargent (American)
    Oil on canvas
    Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1927 (27.67)
    On view: Gallery 771
    American Paintings and SculptureFirst and Second Floors
    Wedding dress
    spring/summer 2000
    Yohji Yamamoto (Japanese)
    Natural cotton muslin
    Gift of Minori Shironishi, 2003 (2003.573.8a, b)
    Not on view
    The Costume InstituteFirst Floor
    Dress
    spring/summer 2003
    Alexander McQueen (British)
    Shredded ivory silk chiffon and tiered silk organza
    Purchase, Gould Family Foundation Gift, 2003 (2003.462)
    Not on view
    The Costume InstituteFirst Floor
    Statue of Eirene (personification of peace)
    ca. 14–68 a.d.; Julio-Claudian
    Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Kephisodotos
    Marble
    Rogers Fund, 1906 (06.311)
    On view: Gallery 153
    Greek and Roman ArtFirst Floor and Mezzanine
    Evening gown
    ca. 1965
    Madame Grès (French)
    White silk jersey
    Gift of Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, 1994 (1994.192.12)
    Not on view
    The Costume InstituteFirst Floor
    The First Communion
    Eugène Carrière (French)
    Oil on canvas
    Gift of Chester Dale, 1963 (63.138.5)
    Not on view
    European PaintingsSecond Floor
    Wedding dress
    1898
    House of Worth (French)
    Silk, pearl
    Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)
    On view: Gallery 354
    The Costume InstituteFirst Floor

    © 2011 The Metropolitan Museum of Art