With ‘Dressing Up,’ an Alumna Reveals How Chic, Wealthy 19th-Century Influencers Shaped French Couture

Elizabeth L. Block

Elizabeth L. Block (Ph.D. ’11, Art History) already had her dream job when she started her Ph.D. — she is a senior editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she has worked for more than 15 years. At the Graduate Center, she focused on 19th-century American painting, specifically on images of women and the significance of their hairstyles. Now, with Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion, she is exploring how the consumers — newly wealthy American women, the daughters and wives of late 19th-century industrialists — were a fashion force during a pivotal time in U.S. history.

Block recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her new book, her career path, and how she became interested in women who were the Instagram influencers of their day:

The Graduate Center: What drew you to the subject of 19th-century French couture?

Block: I’m an art historian by training. And after my dissertation was out for a few years, I started writing articles, and one was about John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, which is here at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the painting she’s wearing a black, slender-fitting dress with a jeweled strap that famously slipped down her shoulder and caused a stir in Paris in the late 19th century. 

I sent a draft of the article to my adviser, Kevin D. Murphy, and he asked who made the dress. And I said, I think we need to find out. That took me on this long trail of research that brought me to [the Parisian design house] Maison Félix, which I wrote about for the journal West 86th. And I became very interested in all the designers who were making couture in this period.  

GC: How did fashion influence spread in the 19th century? 

Block: Newspapers and magazines were very involved in spreading the word about how Parisian fashion was catching on in U.S. cities. Paris had always set the trends and standards for fashion, even before the 18th century. U.S. women were becoming more and more wealthy in the 19th century as their husbands and fathers made all this money in the new areas of industry, like railroads, and they had money to spend.

They were also traveling more, as traveling became easier. They went to France twice a year and bought couture. They were getting custom fit for dresses that they would wear to all the events of the season in the big cities. And the press went to the parties and wrote about what the women were wearing, and this helped disseminate the influence of these women who I call the tastemakers of the period. 

GC: What led you to your current position at the Met, and what does it involve?

Block: I was always a museum person and I worked full time here at the Met while I went to the Graduate Center. I had secured my career earlier, which in art history is not the usual path. I’ve been in this department since 2006, and I edit exhibition catalogs, most recently the Inspiring Walt Disney catalog — that show is about to open.

I’m also the managing editor of the Metropolitan Museum Journal, which is our double-anonymous, peer-reviewed journal that comes out once a year. I work with a board of conservators, scientists, and curators to help select which articles we will publish. I’m very proud of how we’ve increased the visibility of the journal over the last several years. 

My first job here was as an editorial assistant in the merchandizing department, now the retail department. I was a copy editor, and I wrote information sheets about the original objects that our merchandise was based on — in a way, that was a beginner research position. I worked for that department for four years, and then as a research associate in the American Wing, and then as a web editor, but I finally got my dream job, and I’m extremely lucky that I did. 

GC: Why did you decide to get a Ph.D.?

Block: I first did a master’s in American Studies at Columbia University here in New York. I was always an English and art history person, but I became so interested in the material culture of the United States. My master’s thesis was on wedding dresses worn by Jewish women on the Lower East Side in the late 19th century.

After the master’s, I just wasn’t done. I knew I had more to say. I applied to the Graduate Center because it was such a friendly place for material culture studies in the Art History department, and that’s how I connected with Professor Murphy — I met with him when I was applying, and knew he would just immediately understand everything I was trying to do, and that’s held true all this time. I’m so grateful that he’s always understood my methodology.  

GC: What advice would you give a student who is just starting a Ph.D. program? Is there anything you wish you’d known?

Block: A piece of advice that really worked for me was to think of the dissertation as just a long paper. It wasn’t something that needed to take over your entire life. And what I wished I’d known? Not to be too stressed. The Ph.D. does not need to be the center of your world.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: DEC 9, 2021

Category: Alumni News | Art History | GCstories | General GC News | Voices of the GC