Last week, I hopped to Les Arts Décoratifs museum to visit the Fashioning Fashion: Deux Siècles de Mode Européenne 1700-1915 exhibition before its imminent closure. Our fellow American readers may recall this show that was held at LACMA in 2011 before travelling to Germany in 2012, at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum and finally stopping here, in Paris.
The display was preceded by its strong reputation and was much awaited by French scholars and myself.
It had been quite a long time since I visited a historical costume exhibition (I very lamentably missed the Impressionism and Fashion exhibition held at the Musée d’Orsay and now at the MET) and I entered the exhibition space quite intimidated. I suppose this may be linked to the fact that costumes from the past seem very far from what I know: I cannot relate to them at all.Visitors often acknowledge the fit of garments by intuitively imagining wearing them. I’d obviously love to inhabit these costumes but they would play the role of disguises rather than pieces of clothing. That is why I look upon them as bizarre and enchanting objects coming from a surreal world.
Moreover, when I observe costumes, the art historian in me cannot help connecting them to paintings. 18th-century dresses evoke Watteau‘s gracious scenes (contemporary costume historians relate to “Watteau pleats” when describing the plunging pleats visible on the back of 18th-century dresses that the painter so perfectly rendered) or Fragonard‘s Rococco feminine depictions. Later, Ingres‘ strong portraits testified of the Empire’s aristocratic taste and Winterhalter superbly depicted the 19th century European crowned heads.
Pedagogy is certainly the key word that comes to mind when visiting this show. I was surrounded by groups of very young children as well as fashion school students…
The Parisian institution chose to present the objects in a traditional scientific chronological order whereas the LACMA as well as the Historisches Museum had preferred to privilege themes.
The Arts Décoratifs’ choice enhances a didactic approach. Non-specialists are therefore benefited by this coherent display which enables a strong understanding of the evolution of fashion, from extravagant ornamentations to simplicity of shapes alongside focuses on contextual explanations that enable them to comprehend turning points of the society: trades, the expansion of seaside tourism, the evolution of transport, the place of women in society, construction techniques…These precise explanations are described on screens within each glass case as well as on the luminous wall panels.
With the help of these two parallel guiding lines, we comprehend how much clothing constantly balance ceremonial representation and everyday use, ornamentation and simplicity, aesthetic trends and constraints with a solid focus on Paris.
The story behind this display is remarkable: Martin Kramer and Wolfgang Ruf were both competitors in the historical textile and costume market. At the end of their career, they decided to unite their forces and assemble their collections representing 50 years of collecting. LACMA acquired this exceptional and perfectly conserved collection of clothing and accessories. Their collection is a marvellous statement of men’s and women’s aristocratic and bourgeois dress that highlights exquisite craftsmanship and unconditional beauty.
The scenographer, Frederic Beauclair tells the stories of these garments, and the high society attached to them, with simplicity and enables visitors to fully admire the objects with the help of lighting tricks, mirrors, and the curved glass panels that make possible a wide look upon the display. I am very sensitive to the notion of three-dimensional examination within fashion displays (this was the theme of my MA dissertation). To me, it is crucial that visitors can observe garments in their whole. Some glass cases and mirrors facilitate the comprehension of back details, the width of a crinoline, the tournures…
Texts explain that the 18th century shimmering silks were made to be visible at candle light, when aristocrats would entertain themselves at the royal court. At the same period, noblemen’s shoes had red soles: a very Louboutinesque attitude!
The garments are presented in clusters where gentlemen and gentlewomen seem to enjoy a conversation while allowing visitors to interact with them, helped by an equal levelling.
The visitor’s eye clearly observes the typology of 18th century garments that oscillate between the solemnity of French court costumes and the budding influence of English elegant simplicity.
The accessorized white mannequins strongly participate in this interaction. They have defined faces and paper styled wigs . They look soundly incarnated and natural. By interacting with these realistic figures, visitors can easily compare body shapes and proportions.
Therefore, this display also highlights the evolution of attitudes, taste, beauty and silhouettes.
Anglomania in France gives birth to suppler and more comfortable costumes. An aesthetic that will know its peak under the Empire period during which the empress Josephine will popularize high waisted muslin dresses.
I particularly appreciated the installation dedicated to the French Revolution during which the clothing became, for a rebellious minority, a privileged support for opinions, as the exceptional embroidered waistcoat (one of my favourite pieces from the display) below demonstrates.
Around 1830, this lightness disappears and the romantic woman wears a corset while men’s clothing become simpler.
The second Empire sees the domination of crinolines that reflect the industrialisation of production means in the 19th century. Sewing and embroidery machineries evolve as well when new artificial colourings are imagined.
Some isolated garments are suspended with the help of invisible wire or moulded on invisible forms. Doing this, the curators suggest the visitors to proceed to a case study, to concentrate on a technique and an aesthetic.
I did however deplore the labels installed at the far ends of the glass panels. I had to do numerous round trips between the garments and the labels: difficult when the exhibition is crowded!
At the end of the 19th century, silhouettes change dramatically with the introduction of the tournure (1870) that focuses the volume at the back of the dress, or the S shaped line.
At the turn of the century international influences, particularly from Japan, are crucial in the making of new shapes. These new aesthetics incarnate the Belle Epoque that opens the way to the creation of Haute Couture in reaction to an industrialisation that has become too significant.
Therefore, the exhibition ends with a few silhouettes evoking the birth of Haute Couture (a story to be continued at an exhibition held at l’Hotel de Ville: that will be the subject of a further post!) and its invention by Charles-Frederic Worth (I experienced an amusing moment when I heard two French women expressing out loud how shocking was the idea that an English man could have created such a French symbol!).
Modernity is on its way! Elegance is now individualised and and luxury signed.
During and after my visit, I had in mind the reflections two friends of mine shared about this exhibition. They are both art and fashion lovers, but not specialists or academics. When speaking about this show, they both expressed the same feeling: they found it boring.
I was stupefied. Why did they find it boring? Too didactic, too scientific they would say. As visitors, they yearned for more drama, more spectacle!
There lies the eternal fashion exhibition debate. Most visitors expect fashion exhibitions to be entertaining and curators constantly have to reflect on how they can be didactic without escaping the visitor’s desire for fantasy.
As a scientific person myself, I did not agree with my friends and I am also sure that many visitors did find pleasure in this display simply because of the exquisiteness of the garments that speak for themselves. I could hear many “Oohs and Aahs” during my visit and I consider this a very positive point!
The exhibition is now over but its catalogue is a remarkable piece of lecture: Sharon Sadako Takeda, Sharon and Durland Spilker, Kaye. Fashioning fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700-1915. New York: Prestel: 2010.
The teaser videos proposed by Les Arts Décoratifs are very interesting.
The LACMA’s blog also presents entertaining posts about the making of the exhibition
You can also check out a great post Heather Vaughan had written on this blog about Sophia Gan who created Fashioning Fashion’s wigs