In my previous post, I wrote about the importance of the Musée Galliera’s projects occurring all around Paris. I therefore visited an exhibition curated by Sylvie Lécallier in charge of the institution’s Photography Department in collaboration with Les Archives de Paris and that takes place at le Crédit Municipal, in the Marais.
1931: Face-Dos-Profil features a selection of photographs, design sketches, and a few garments culled from the more than 10,000 registrations submitted to the Conseil des Prud’hommes de la Seine in Paris for copyright protection in the year 1931.
Firstly, I’d like to say a few words about the Crédit Municipal. It is a credit institution, the city’s historical pawnshop to which numerous literary pieces make reference to. We often relate to the establishment as « Ma Tante » since the prince de Joinville (1818-1900) chose no to reveal to his mother he had left his watch at the Credit Municipal to honour his gambling debts, and pretended he had forgotten it « chez ma Tante » (at his aunt’s). The institution is therefore a historical and familiar face of the city’s landscape. I often associate this place to Emile Zola’s, Victor Hugo’s or Honoré de Balzac’s pitiful and miserable stories. In a time of economical crisis, I can imagine that the Credit Municipal is unfortunately still very popular.
That is why I went there (for the very first time), thrilled to visit an exhibition that promised to be very interesting but full of the apprehension to step into a place charged with desperate feelings. The pleasant exhibition space faces the entrance to the loan’s offices and I did feel a little frivolous, marching cheerfully towards a fashion exhibition under the looks of people queueing for money loans. However, we’re not in a Zola novel so let’s not make all this sound so tragic! The sun was shining (a rare scene these days in Paris) and the building is beautiful, one of those splendid neoclassical town-houses, typical of the Marais district.
While Paris is celebrating the history of Haute Couture with a major exhibition presented at the Hotel de Ville, the Crédit Municipal’s show focuses on the year 1931, for a condensed history of 1930s fashion through the prism of official and legal documents.
Why 1931? In 1931, a large-scale counterfeit clothing operation which had illegally obtained couture sketches was uncovered in Paris. In the meanwhile, that same year, a record number of couture houses (almost 50 in all), including Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin, Hermès, Lucien Lelong or the Callot Soeurs, patented more than 10 000 objects from their collections.
Despite the law of 1806 regarding drawings and brand names, and those of 1793 and 1902 (completed by a 1909 law) concerning literary and artistic property, French legislation still had its loopholes and was not actually intended to cover fashion and garment design. It was not until Madeleine Vionnet took out an anti-imitation lawsuit in 1921 that the administration gave ‘models for dresses, suits and coats the protection of the law of 19/24 July 1793 in the same way as all artistic creations’. This event interestingly also contributed to the development of the couturier’s role, from craftsman to acknowledged artist.
From then on, numerous other couturiers of the 20s and 30s would systematically protect their haute couture models via the principle of photographic and/or drawing registration at the Industrial Tribunal and the National Office of Industrial Property (ONPI). These Face-Dos-Profil (Front, Side, Back) photos documented the first sample of each design, each season and pictures were intended for use in court plagiarism trials, and not for public consumption.
Today, these images can be appreciated as fashion photographs with a more authentic feel than many other visuals from the same period. The mannequin is not asked to pose gracefully and look at her best nor are there aesthetic considerations in the photographies’ mise-en-scène.(A stimulating contrast with the Mannequins exhibition I have evoked on this blog). They focus on garments and accessories and thus generate an amazing sense of modernity, evoking avant-garde concepts.
What I highly appreciated is that the display does not adopt a scholar (that could have been boring) point of view with an emphasis on the story of these legal registrations. On the contrary, the exhibition is organised thematically and highlights the key trends of 1931 and the main pieces that could be found in an elegant 1930’s woman’s wardrobe through the lens of these archival documents that are displayed alongside a selection of complementary pieces from the Musée Galliera: a few garments and magazine pages from 1931 that contextualise the period.
The objects are arranged following eight themes: Illusory Simplicity, Graphic Bustles, The Beach Pyjama, Optic Prints, Accessories, Romantic Fashion, The White Ermine and the Sheath Dress.
After the 1920s had erased the feminine body, the 1930s recapture its essence: hems are longer, lines regain fluidity, waists are slim and legs slender. The 1929 American crash reaches France in 1931. For economical reasons, adornments on the garments are rare and the emphasis is put on cuts and construction: cut-outs, flounces, draperies, décolletages and geometric and contrasting designs set the aesthetics of a glamorous and feminine fashion.
There are only five garments and a few accessories presented in a glass case and even though the 1930s might be my favourite period in fashion history, I did not miss the lack of objects as this exhibition present such rare and interesting documentation.
It is certainly not the most spectacular fashion exhibition I have ever seen but I enjoyed to be entertained through the lens of a precise and singular subject. And if the show can serve a purpose, it is to remind us that imitations are never to be accepted. For, even though the display investigates the past, the topic is cruelly contemporary: counterfeits, imitations, legal threats in the fashion industry are legion. Who has never stumbled upon fake luxury bags in the streets of New York, Paris, at Ventimiglia’s market or in Moroccan souks? Fakes are obviously unacceptable but what to say about imitation and inspiration? Today, copying is a standard in ready-to-wear. High street brands all propose garments inspired by catwalks: is that illegal? A homage? A threat? This is a very ambiguous question. Consumers are happy to put their hands on designs resembling pieces they would never be able to afford but what about the designer’s creativity? An everlasting debate confronts those who think that copying is a reward for designers who are stimulated and flattered to see their designs go on the streets while others declare that copying is simply counterfeiting. With the arrival of ready-to-wear and the expansion of the fashion industry, these questions have become very significant, much more complicated to handle than in 1931.
The exhibition is on until the 6th July and the entrance is free. More information: here.
You can also read this recent Huffigton Post’s article.
Dirix, Emmanuelle and Fiell, Charlotte. 1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook. London: Goodman/Fiell Publishing, 2013.
Golbin, Pamela. Madeleine Vionnet: Puriste de la Mode. Paris: UCAD, 2009.