Paris to Providence: French couture and the Tirocchi Shop


American, New York
Beach Coat, 1930
Wook; felt, appliquéd

Gift of L. J. Cella III

Susan Hay
Curator of Costume and Textiles
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

The period between the turn of the twentieth century, when Anna and Laura Tirocchi were being trained as dressmakers in Italy, and the Second World War, which marked the end of their business in Providence, was a time of tremendous artistic ferment. In Paris, the origin of fashion for the Tirocchi sisters and their clientele, modernism was bringing a fresh breath of air to all the arts, including the couture. It seemed that everyone looked to Paris for fashion, for art, for contemporary life. Now, artists in all media were flocking to Paris from around the world, forever changing art, as well as fashion, which converged as never before during these years.

"Paris was where the twentieth century was," wrote American Gertrude Stein about the excitement generated by early modernism in the world of art and ideas. A perspicacious observer and participant in the Paris art scene, Stein came to Paris in 1903. She soon became friendly with Picasso, who arrived from Spain the next year and met Stein in 1905. Other young modernist painters, such as Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Francis Picabia, and Marie Laurençin, as well as poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, frequented the salon that Stein hosted at her house in the rue de Fleurus on the Seine's left bank. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse met one another for the first time there.(1) American photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, Spanish cubist painter Juan Gris, and American writer Carl Van Vechten were frequent visitors in the 1910s, testifying to the inclusiveness and international character of the art world. After the demise of the salon in 1913, Stein befriended the Americans novelist Ernest Hemingway and modernist composer Virgil Thomson, and the Frenchmen sculptor Jacques Lipschitz and poet and designer Jean Cocteau. In the 1940s, she counted among her friends couturier Pierre Balmain.

Gertrude Stein immediately recognized that fashion was an integral part of art and literature and a major factor in the electrifying ambience of Paris. "There is no pulse so sure of the state of a nation as its characteristic art product which has nothing to do with its material life," she wrote. "Fashion is the real thing in abstraction."(2) To her, fashion reflected the revolutionary ideas and excitement of the modernist movement without theorizing or fussing: it just was.

In Gertrude Stein's Paris, early modernism in the art world revolved about the concept of abstraction [fig. 96]. In 1905, Matisse and his fellow artists had shocked critics with their paintings. For their use of bold color in ways unrelated to realism, an unsympathetic critic dubbed them "fauves" ("wild beasts"). By 1911, Braque and Picasso were painting realistic forms abstracted by converting them to geometric components, by using nonlinear perspective, and by portraying them from several viewpoints at once. Cubism's iconoclastic vision and revolt against tradition gave impetus to many other artists, including the Russian Vasili Kandinsky, who, in an analogy to music, painted purely abstract geometric forms with no relation to actual objects. Futurists Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Gino Severini in Italy, Piet Mondrian and other artists of the De Stijl movement in Holland, and the Russian constructivists employed abstraction in many media, including architecture, painting, and printmaking.



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