When Life Imitated Klimt, and other times Fashion appropriated old paintings to gorgeous effect

Hieronymus Bosch on hand bags, Byzantine icons on platform shoes, and Nicki Minaj cast as Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour; A look at Fashion’s love affair with old paintings!


January 25th, 2017  by M. Elise Hillestad

Fashion week is upon us, and as we anticipate the artful collections which will inspire our sartorial selections in the new year, let’s take a glance at all the gorgeous ways fashion designers, editorialists, stylist and photographers have delved into the Renaissance and to other moments in painting history for inspiration. Whether it be sumptuous fabrics imitating a Netherlandish painting’s impasto, a model’s hair done in Baroque braids with a Leonardo headband, or platform shoes with Byzantine icons marching regally down the runway, it comes as absolutely no surprise that Fashion turns back, time and time again, to history’s most beautiful paintings.


Photographer Steven Meisel recreated John Everett Millais’ 1851 painting of Ophelia, with actress Saoirse Ronan for Vogue, 2011


The simultaneously erotic and religious fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch continue to be reproduced in motifs for bags, shirts, and dresses- a trend that reappears every year or two in fashion collections, and shows no sign of going away. Why creative minds seem so ubiquitously infatuated with the weird works of Bosch, remains a mystery, but his designs feel fitting for textile.


Carven Fall 2012, Hieronymus Bosch 1503-1515
Carven Fall 2012, Hieronymus Bosch 1503-1515
L to R: Alexander McQueen F 2010, Jun Takahashi SS 2015, Valentino SS 2017


Several years ago, Dolce and Gabbana who’ve long been known to revere all things Roman Catholic and traditional, dove head first into history and used its trove of gilded, mystical relics as the entire inspiration for that season’s collection. Centuries old, Norman-Byzantine Monreale cathedral in Palermo, Sicily and its mosaic iconography were replicated onto frocks and slippers, tunics, and jewels. The results are incredible!

Dolce & Gabbana FW 2014, Monreale Cathedral
Dolce & Gabbana FW 2014, Monreale Cathedral
Dolce & Gabbana FW 2014, Monreale Cathedral
Dolce & Gabbana FW 2014, Monreale Cathedral


Fashion in editorial print and in advertising relies often on the icon: a composition, pose, garment, an element of style that’s emblazoned in our cultural memory because of how classic it is- how well it works. Rapper Nicki Minaj looked pretty, reimagined as Boucher’s Marquise de Pompadour in a 2011 W magazine shoot, complete with book and smart bows.


Nicki Minaj in W magazine, Madame de Pompadour painted by Francois Boucher, 1756
Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo c. 1490, Vogue Italia 2005


The classical proportions, graceful lines, and harmonious palette of the best paintings, make the best pictures. Fashion photography is no different. Look how little our ideals of beauty have really changed from Bronzino’s over the centuries!


Bronzino 1503-1572, Valentino Resort 2015
Jean-Marc Nattier 1685-1766, Laboutin handbag ad 2011


Perhaps the most astonishingly beautiful appropriation of historical paintings is this series of photographic recreations of Gustav Klimt’s Gold Paintings done by Austrian photographer Inge Prader. Nothing is being sold here, and there is not a stitch of irony in the reproductions. For beauty’s sake alone, she masterfully recreated the scenes of flesh-embracing, gilded garments, and geometric body shapes the painter is known for.


Gustave Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1901
Inge Prader’s Beethoven Frieze, 2015


Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1901
Inge Prader’s Beethoven Frieze, 2015


Gustave Klimt’s Medicine, sketch, 1900-1907
Gustave Klimt’s Medicine, 1900-1907
Inge Prader’s Medicine, 2015
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Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1901
Inge Prader’s Beethoven Frieze, 2015


To me it’s delightful to imagine we can represent craftsmanship, classical aesthetics, and cultural best in how we present our physical selves; even in the clothes we choose to wear. Now if only I could afford Dolce & Gabbana!



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