How Madam X Became a Modern Red Carpet Icon

How the painting that scandalized Paris became a fashion icon.

When American portraitist John Singer Sargent first displayed his portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (exhibited for some time under the name Madame XXX, though she's better known now simply as Madame X) in Paris's renowned jury-selected exhibition, the Salon, in 1884, the painting's opulent sensuality caused such a scandal that Sargent was forced to flee the country. While the painting, depicting the New Orleans-born socialite unabashedly wearing cosmetics and a sleek black gown with a plunging neckline and spindly gold straps, horrified the bourgeois public, it also made the artist's name.

“I suppose it is the best thing I have done,” he told the director of the Metropolitan Museum when he sold it to them in 1916, following Gautreau's death. The fashion world, it seems, agrees.

For nearly 100 years Sargent's painting has been inspiring designers and fashionistas alike with its seductive elegance. Though the crowds at the Salon in Paris may never have expected it, some of the most beautiful women in the world have emulated Madame X's timeless style on the red carpet; here are a few of our favorites.

Madame X

The painting that launched a thousand fashion designs, John Singer Sargent's masterpiece depicts Madame Pierre Gautreau, born Judith Avegno. After an argument with Gautreau following the original exhibition in 1884, Sargent requested that her name be disguised for future showings due to her devastation over the public ridicule the painting received.

Painted without commission but with Gautreau's consent, the portrait originally depicted the dress's right strap slipping off of the subject's shoulder, though Sargent ultimately repainted that detail.

Cate Blanchett

Blanchett turned up to the premiere of "A Star is Born" at the 2018 Venice Film Festival ready for, as Tom and Lorenzo put it, "her Madame X moment" in a black Armani Prive gown with feathered detailing.


Charlize Theron

The barely-there straps of the inky Dior gown that Theron wore to the 2014 Academy Awards evoke the same sultry yet sophisticated look that Madame X exemplified more than a century before.


Parisians of the 1880s expected to see wealth in the form of elaborate lace and masses of fabric: part of the reason that they were so shocked to see Madame X's paired down, sultry display of luxury. We have a feeling they'd be just as surprised by the body-skimming velvet Atelier Versace gown that Beyoncé wore to the 2005 Academy Awards.

Brie Larson

The dramatic winged neckline on this Oscar de la Renta gown that Larson wore to the 2017 Oscars is a direct descendant of Madame X's plunging bodice.

Taraji P. Henson

The chain straps on Henson's Alexander Wang dress for the 2015 Emmy Awards harken back to Madame X while strategic cut-outs and lace give it a modern edge.

Angelina Jolie

Like Madame X before her, Jolie showed a salacious swath of skin in this leg-baring Atelier Versace dress at the 2012 Oscars.

Emma Roberts

Despite the portrait's disastrous debut, it looks like Madame X slipped into the sensibilities of Parisian design house Lanvin, who crafted this classic black dress for Emma Roberts to wear to the 2014 Academy Awards.

Lady Gaga

The sensuous femininity of Madame X shocked the Salon and inspired generations of fashion provocateurs. Exhibit A: Lady Gaga, who took the feminine shape up to 11 at the 2016 Golden Globes in an Atelier Versace dress with an exaggerated curve at the hips.

Toni Garrn

The neckline of model Toni Garrn's bodice at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival looked sharp enough to cut; perfectly in keeping with Madame X's untouchable facade.


Christina Hendricks

With a lace-strapped Christian Siriano dress and expertly coiffed auburn curls, Christina Hendricks looked like a modern-day Madame X at the 2013 Emmy Awards. 

Julia Roberts

To accept the award for her Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich, Roberts brightened up her luxe black Valentino gown with a touch of white satin and sheer paneling. We think Madame X would approve.

Scarlett Johansson

Sargent may have painted Madame X's falling strap back into place, but this elegant Versace dress that Johansson wore to the 2013 Venice Film Festival makes a case for keeping shoulders bare.

*This story originally appeared on

*Minor edits have been made by the editors

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Lauren Hubbard
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